In the United States alone, Statista estimates that more than 200 million people ate bagels last year. These days, you can find them in many chain eateries and virtually every grocery store. If you love bagels, you have New York City to thank; if you want to eat a real bagel—not just bagel-shaped bread—you’d better visit the five boroughs.
Bagels came to New York City along with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Christopher Pugliese, owner of Tompkins Square Bagels (and of a predictably bagel-centric worldview), sees the bagel’s arrival as being about something far more momentous than bread alone:
“The people who came over in the wave of immigrants that brought bagels to the City built the subways, bridges and skyscrapers. They bored through the ground and put up bridges that connected Brooklyn to Manhattan. The bagel fueled all of that.”
That’s one powerful breakfast item—but, we must stress, only when it’s made the right way. And, truth be told, the bagel-making process in New York City has not changed much since the 1800s. That’s why, though you can find “bagels” the world over, New York City is the only place that really gets them right. (We like Montreal’s bagels, but ours are better.) Below, Pugliese offers his take on the traditional way to make the carb that built a city.
First, roll the dough by hand. Most NYC bagel shops make their dough from water, flour, yeast, salt and barley malt, which serves as a sweetener. The sweetener may vary from place to place; some makers use honey or sugar.
“Each bagel is unique,” says Pugliese. “Hand-rolling affects the texture, the feel, the chewiness, the nooks and crannies.”
To properly cook a bagel, one must boil and then bake it. Pugliese’s staff moves bagels from their proofing box (where the dough sits and rises for around 24 hours after rolling) into an 80-gallon kettle of boiling water.
“We’ve got a big stirrer,” Pugliese says. “It’s like stirring a big bowl of Cheerios.”
There are those, including Pugliese, who will tell you that New York City’s tap water is a crucial element in what makes its bagels delicious.
“The water is definitely different here,” Pugliese says, “and it affects all bread baking.” He credits the difference to mineral content picked up from aqueducts and tunnels, and directs our readers to a Secrets of New York episode to support the theory.
The idea that New York water is crucial to the bagel-making process is pervasive enough that there’s a whole company based around the proposition, and Larry King is an investor.
Having said that, there is ample opposition to the notion that New York City’s water plays an important role in bagel quality. In our previous bagel coverage, no less of an authority than Ess-a-Bagel co-owner Florence Wilpon said, “It’s not the water.” She explained that, when looking into the possibility of opening a branch in England, she had London water shipped in for bagel-making purposes. She used it, and says her NYC customers couldn’t tell the difference. So that’s one vote for New Yorkers’ bagel-making skills over the power of H20. Cook’s Illustrated ran its own test and came to the same conclusion.
When the bagels come out of the water, “they’re piping hot,” says Pugliese. “We put them on our burlap-and-wood board and spray them down with water so we can handle them.” They then seed the bagels before putting them into the oven for the crucial baking step.
Workers place the bagels, still on those burlap-covered wooden planks, into a 550-degree oven.
Next comes the crucial task of flipping the bagels. “There are two ways to do it,” says Pugliese. “One is to put a glove on your hand. The other is the old-fashioned way I was taught, which is lick your fingers, grab that board and flip it. You’re going to flip it, pull it out really quick, move on to the next one. There are usually seven or eight boards. Then they’re going to cook for another seven to nine minutes. You get burned once in a while. But most of the guys these days wear gloves.”
A good bagel should have a shiny, crisp outside and a chewy texture. If it feels like you’re biting into a hamburger bun, chances are you’re eating a “steam bagel”— an impostor made not by boiling and baking but instead with the use of a steam-injection oven. Your jaw should be getting some exercise while your taste buds enjoy the party.
Sizewise, look, we prefer classic-style smaller bagels, and you can still find those at places like Bagel Hole. But modern times being what they are, most bagel shops sell larger bagels that lend themselves to sandwich making. You can’t stop progress.
Once you get your hands on the genuine article, don’t toast it if it’s fresh: “Toasting a hot bagel, to me, is just wrong,” says Pugliese. “We’re putting so much work into making that bagel perfect. Once it goes into the toaster at 500 degrees, it will actually burn the outside. You’ll get a really hard crust, because you’re basically cooking it twice.” Pugliese is not an inflexible man, though, and concedes, “I get why people would want to toast a bagel a few hours out.”
Then add some fillings and eat. Among the popular choices: a schmear of cream cheese and some lox, whitefish salad or—in a modern departure from the bagel’s roots—eggs and bacon. You can even eat your bagel totally plain if you want. Your reporter does sometimes. Now that you’re a bagel expert, no one is better equipped than you to make the call.