By Frank Blechman
If you live in Northern Virginia, but have lived in other sophisticated metropolitan areas, you may be plagued by the burning question, “Why are most of the bagels here so mediocre (at best)?” We pride ourselves on our high level of education and our technical ability to solve complex problems. Bagels are among the easiest bread products to make. That is why poor (unsophisticated, uneducated) people were able to master the art and bring that experience with them to the new world four generations ago. So why can’t we do it here and now? Why are so many of the bagels available in stores in the DC area doughnut shaped dinner rolls? Why are they sweet and fluffy instead of savory and chewy?
Some people like to claim that the secret to a good New York water bagel is New York water. Others say exotic high-gluten bread flour is the key.
I have nothing against New York City tap water. Actually, it is clean and reasonably fresh. But I know that is not the secret. Further, while good bread flour likewise is not, it also isn’t essential.
The secret ingredient is PATIENCE.
If you want to make bagels at home right here in then DC area, you can do it. Here’s the recipe:
4 cups of bread flour (if desired, add a tablespoon of wheat gluten to make the bagel chewier) or 2-1/2 to 3 cups of bread flour and the rest whole wheat or rye or something else.
1 tablespoon of salt
10-12-fluid ounces of warm water (hot tap water, 120 degrees, works fine)
1 package of dry yeast (or one tablespoon)
1 tablespoon of barley malt syrup (or sugar, for a sweeter taste) to give the yeast something to eat.
1 tablespoon of olive oil (optional, changes the color, taste & texture a bit, try it, it’s a matter of taste; a classic water bagel would never do this).
(If you add other ingredients, such as crushed onions/garlic to the dough, reduce the water accordingly; dry herbs such as rosemary or dill shouldn’t change the water balance)
the dry ingredients with the wet ones (I use a dough hook with a mixer, but you can do this by hand) until the mixture comes together into a ball. This should be drier than regular loaf-bread dough. If it doesn’t come together in a few minutes, add a little more water. If it is “sticky-wet” add a little more flour.
(cut/tear) the ball of dough into 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball (on a floured surface, or board, or in your hands) and then cover them with a cloth and let the dough rest 5-10 minutes
Take each ball & shape it into a bagel form
– roll into a snake and wrap the ends around, or
– form a disk & punch the hole in the middle with your thumb
Put the shaped bagels on a baking sheet dusted with corn meal (to avoid sticking). Cover the bagels on the sheet with plastic wrap or a towel and then put the tray in a cool place (the refrigerator works) to rest for 12-18 hours. This ‘slow’ rising brings out more subtle flavors than a conventional quick rise (like a pizza crust dough).
When ready to move ahead, take the tray out of the cool place to let the dough warm up while you boil a pot of water. Add one or two tablespoons of sugar or barley malt syrup to the water. This activates the yeast in the surface millimeter and caramelizes when it bakes to create the right texture (bagelish, not dinner-rollish) and color. For a harder shell, put a tablespoon of baking soda in the water instead. Put one or two bagels (or more if the pot is big enough; the pot should not stop boiling) into the boiling water. They should float. Push the bagel underwater, turn it over, push it down again. Boil only 30 seconds or so on each side (boiling for one or two minutes makes a thicker crust – try it. Boiling longer makes a dumping). Lift them out of the water (I use a slotted spoon), and drain/cool on a rack. Try not to handle the dough too much . . . the hot bath is enough of a shock.
the oven to 450-475 degrees (my oven is not that precise).
If desired, top (I do both sides, some people just “top”) the bagels with seeds, kosher salt, crushed or chopped onions, garlic, etc. Refresh the corn meal and then return the bagels to the baking sheet.
at 450 degrees for 15 minutes or so. Longer makes them crustier, shorter makes them lighter. If the oven heats unevenly, turn the tray halfway through baking. Remove the tray from the oven, take the bagels from the tray & let them cool on a rack.
Eat or freeze.
So the answer to this burning question is that good bagels must slow-rise, and they must be boiled before they are baked. The secret ingredient is PATIENCE. If you rush, you will get something that looks like a bagel but will never satisfy like one.
Editors’ Note: Readers, if you try this at home, please let us know how they came out!