We will start with a definition of terms. The Oxford English Dictionary keeps things brief, stating that a bagel is simply “A hard ring-shaped salty roll of bread.” This is almost useless as a working definition. (What about sweet bagels? What kind of bread? How hard are we talking here?) Webster’s New World Dictionary goes into a little more detail, positing the opinion that a bagel is “a chewy bread roll made of yeast dough, twisted into a small doughnutlike shape, cooked in simmering water, then baked.” That’s more like it. These are the four characteristics, then, that we can use to tell a bagel from its bready brethren.
Webster’s definition is technically excellent, but it lacks poetry. Luckily, other expressions abound. Derisively, the bagel is sometimes referred to as a concrete doughnut, a doughnut with rigor mortis, or, when real contempt is called for, a roll with a hole. The bagel’s fans wax much more lyrical.
Writing for Commentary in 1951, Irving Pfefferblit (whose work on less rounded subjects is mostly lost) called the bagel “a golden vision of the bygone days when life was better.” Gertrude Berg—best known at mid-century as the writer, producer, and star of The Goldbergs—equates the bagel to family. The late, great Irving Fields Trio named not one, but two of its Jewish-Latin hybrid mambo albums for the bagel—and in fact, Bagels and Bongos makes for perfect baking music. The poet David Igantow imagined himself a bagel rolling down the street in more humorous metamorphosis. Chasing a bagel dropped out of carelessness:
…I found myself doubled over
and rolling down the street
head over heels, one complete somersault
after another like a bagel
and strangely happy with myself.
Countless humorists have leaned on the bagel as a crutch in their comedy, giving “bagels and yox” to generations of borscht-belt audiences.
Beyond its role as anchor to brunches, foundation of sandwiches, the bagel is held in high esteem. Never mind the Philistines and their doughnutty foolishness, what is it about the bagel that has been so inspiring, let alone so filling?
There’s a common story told in which the bagel is invented by an industrious Austrian baker in honor of Jan Sobieski, king of Poland, to celebrate his 1683 defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna. The baker, so the story goes, took inspiration from Sobieski’s stirrup (beugel in Austrian) and thus the bread was born.
This is undoubtedly apocryphal.
In The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, certainly the most complete bagel book ever written, Maria Balinska relates that bagels had certainly been prevalent centuries before the Battle of Vienna—and if folklore is to be believed, as early as the 800s.
The etymology of the Sobieski story, too, is incorrect. Bagel comes from the Yiddish, beigel, which experts agree most likely comes ultimately from the High German bouc or “ring” (the “il” was added later). Beigel, or beygel, is also related to the yiddish beigen, “to bend,” which leads to a very important point: While there have been other ring-shaped breads, from the tarallo of Italy to the girde of the Turkic Uighurs, the bagel was, for almost all of history, a distinctly Jewish food.
New Yorkers claim terroir, suggesting that it is their water that seals the deal, but then, New Yorkers are always going on and on about their water.
We’ll have to skip forward a bit here, but for history you can’t beat Balinska. To summarize her work in broad strokes, the bagel (no matter its origin) found a true home in the Polish shtetl. By the middle of the last millennium it had taken on special significance in Eastern European Jewish folklore, and, as a ring, had become a symbol of continuity; bagels began marking ceremonial occasions like circumcisions and funerals, where you can still often find them today. In the depression of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Poles took to hawking bagels on the street, which was neither legal nor lucrative without a license. Street trading became so pervasive and so symbolic of the desperate poverty experienced by Jews in independent Poland that one might be tempted to pass over matzo and point to the bagel as the bread of affliction.
At the same time (and for the same reasons), Jewish immigrants were coming to North America by the boatful, landing at Ellis Island and spreading into New York’s Lower East Side, where they began pushing carts and working in the garment district. They left much behind, but they brought the tastes of the old country—dark rye loaves, braided challah, and, of course, bagels.
The working conditions in the Jewish garment district were famously poor, but baking bagels was not much better. Bakeries were almost exclusively in low-ceilinged basements, ovens blasting unregulated heat into the small, unventilated rooms. Bakers worked long shifts, sometimes around the clock, and with fresh faces always landing ready to work, there was little pressure on bakery owners to improve conditions. In a New York Press article preceding Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle by a full decade, Edward Marshall wrote: “The wooden floor was rotten and bent under the weight of a person in every part … the shop was thoroughly infested with a great variety of insect life … real genuine cockroaches, about an inch long were seen springing at a lively rate in the direction of the half moulded dough.”
This would not stand. In the old world, bakeries had been one of the seats of leftist organization, and in the United States this proved true as well.
Never mind that the unions were necessary to fight working conditions so poor as to be hardly conceivable. Let’s celebrate for a moment the heyday of the labor movement, in the first decade of the 20th century, when bakers and union advocates successfully struck for shorter hours and better working conditions.
Among the unions that rose victorious was the Local 338 Bagel Bakers union, a part of the much broader Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union of America. More a guild than a traditional union, the Local 338 dominated the New York bagel market through the mid 1960s. Everything changed with the development of reliable bagel-making machines, and the union faded into irrelevance. But just think about what it must have been like before that happened. Imagine the picket lines outside of the non-union Bagel Boys shop in Brooklyn. Imagine the hullabaloo caused when bagels from an out-of-state bakery started showing up in shops and markets. Just imagine.
Bagels are thus imbued with the history of a people, with battles fought against Ottoman incursion, against hunger, and against the straw boss. They are an almost perfect lens through which to view the diasporic movements of the Jews across Europe, across the Atlantic, and across North America. And yet, when we have our bagels and lox at Sunday brunch, we don’t eat them for all those reasons. We eat them because they are delicious.
Like all great culinary delights, bagels have regional varieties, and they each have their champions. Would Jon Stewart, flag-bearer of New York, consider eating Chicago deep-dish pizza? Hardly. Just the same with bagels. Never mind London bagels; the real fight plays out along the 380 miles or so separating New York from Montreal. The Rangers and the Habs might battle it out on the ice from time to time, but the real New York-Montreal rivalry is over bagels.
New Yorkers claim terroir, suggesting that it is their water that seals the deal, but then, New Yorkers are always going on and on about their water. Montrealers scoff, offering instead the key ingredient is their wood-fired ovens. It might be a trivial thing (you say lox, I say nova?), but there are a few key differences.
As a rule, New York bagels are salty and boiled in an alkaline water (made so through the addition of baking soda or lye). Montreal bagels are a little sweeter, boiled in a honey water, and smaller, too. Ed Levine, founder of the Serious Eats blog and the champion of New York bagels, suggests that the perfect bagel is 4 oz. Saul Restrepo, a baker at the famous St. Viateur bagel house in Montreal, counters that 3 oz. is just right. Some New York bagels are made with eggs, as are the noted Montreal bagels, so this comes out as a draw—though it should be noted that traditionally bagels and egg bagels have been distinct entities.
I called the best person I could think of to weigh in on the argument. Essayist Adam Gopnik spent much of his youth in Montreal and much of his adult life in the shining metropolis of New York, and he told me that there was no question as to the winner of a New York-Montreal bagel battle. “I have few fixed convictions in life, but one of them is that Montreal bagels are not just better than New York bagels or any other bagels, they’re so much better that I’m on kind of permanent house arrest about eating any other kind of bagel—I just can’t eat a New York bagel. If you toast it and there’s enough cream cheese and nova on it, it’s tolerable, but it just isn’t a bagel.”
Consider the gauntlet thrown.
Gopnik’s favorite bagels come from the Fairmont bakery, one of Montreal’s two great bagel houses. But the bagels at St. Viateur, the other one, are even more famous, and my wife likes them better.
At St. Viateur, baker Restrepo was happy to give me their secret: an old recipe (“We haven’t changed it since 1957”), a wood-fired brick oven, and a short bake—not more than 20 minutes.
He even shared the list of ingredients (though not, sadly, the ratios) which, in addition to the four standards (flour, salt, water, and yeast) include a bit of malt, some oil, and fresh eggs. St. Viateur sweetens the boiling kettle with honey, and Restrepo prefers his bagels in the old style—hot, dressed in sesame seeds, and with a bit of butter.
I called around New York hoping to obtain similar intelligence, but I found naught. Getting a baker on the phone is surprisingly difficult. The boss is never around to vet the conversation, it seems, and there’s the language barrier, too. I heard an impassioned Italian at the other end of the line in one shop and Thai, I think, at another. When I did manage to get Phil from Park Slope’s The Bagel Hole (which got the “Best Bagel in New York” nod from Serious Eats), he did not tell me any secrets. He did not even tell me his last name.
What he did tell me was that they baked their bagels in the old style—the same way they would have been made 50 or 60 years ago.
History, then, is still important. Perhaps we don’t eat our bagels with a schmear of footnotes, but the ones we celebrate are the ones that evoke something of our past.
It is hard for me to imagine a time when bagels were not ubiquitous outside of urban centers, but that time was not so distant. A 1951 New York Times story on a labor dispute actually offers “baygle” as a phonetic guide. It is thus not so surprising that many Canadians were introduced to bagels by Don Bell’s 1972 collection of short stories Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory.
The eponymous story is short and sweet, full of fast talking, hope, and hockey fans. The bakers, Joe and Jerry, work in tandem, Joe sweating as he kneads and shapes, Jerry grimacing as he handles the boiling and baking. Among all the bustle they are “churning out the bagels at a rate of maybe a thousand an hour, their hands moving like lightning.”
Irving Pfefferblit backs this number up in his 1951 story of bagel baking in New York, timing one Mr. Zlotnik (a member of the Local 338 Union) as forming slightly more than 30 bagels a minute.
Making bagels is deeply satisfying work—you finish a shift sore in all the right places, lightly dusted in flour, and secure in the knowledge that you are responsible for the success of many brunches.
This is madness. I worked as a Saturday bagel baker for eight months, assisting the full-time bagel baker at our local bakery in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Together, working without a break, we baked 1,500 bagels every Saturday morning. This took us a lot longer than an hour and a half—closer to six, more often than not. But they were good bagels, a modified Montreal style, small and sweet and perfect just out of the oven. Most breads need to cool to fully develop their flavor; bagels come with no such limitations.
Making bagels is deeply satisfying work—you finish a shift sore in all the right places, lightly dusted in flour, and secure in the knowledge that you are responsible for the success of many brunches being had all around town.
And, as long as there’s coffee and conversation, it’s very pleasant even before the glow of a finished shift descends. The work is physical, and at times demanding (nothing spurs speed like a line of waiting people snaking out the bakery door) but there are real pleasures to be had. Little, finite moments play out like haiku: watching the gluten contract in a fresh formed bagel as it slips off your hand, or knowing that that one, just there, is going to come out of the oven looking beautiful.
There are the little not-quite-burns you get as you drop six or eight bagels into the kettle and the water splashes up, or the satisfying thwack that comes when you slap them against the tray to stretch them out the moment before.
Bagel baking is very percussive, and working in the back you’re always dividing or opening or closing or rolling. You open the oven and the bagels go in, you open it again and out they come, cascading into a baker’s basket, showering your forearms with white hot sesame seeds, pricks of pain that fade away before they ever register.
And it smells great. Before I baked bagels I worked as a fry cook, and I used to come home smelling of grease and onion rings. Walking home smelling of fresh bagels is heaven by comparison.
Even though I only baked on Saturdays (there has to be some clause in the Sabbath contract stipulating that work in honor of one’s heritage is permitted) and even though my rolling speed was well below 1,000 an hour, I feel a certain kinship to the bagel bakers of the past century—and reading Balinska and Pfefferblit I can’t help but wish that I had been able to go and lend a hand in their bakeries.
Balinska writes, “They were tough men who played their regular games of poker with bravado … even their meals were macho: steaks thrown into the bagel oven; thick, sweet, stewed coffee and home-brewed whiskey. The old timers were legends to be treated with deference.”
It was with bravado too, writes Pfefferblit, that the bagel bakers of the Local 338 watched the early development of bagel-shaping machines. In 1951 he wrote, “The bagel makers do not seem very worried … it used to be feared that the art of bagel making would be lost in the United States because of the reluctance of young bakers to take the trouble to learn it, but since the war many young veterans have followed their fathers into the trade.”
But 10 years later, Lender’s Bagels, which had already expanded rapidly by freezing their fresh bagels for shipping, was testing the holy grail of industrial bagels—a machine that did all the work. Hardy dough gummed up the works, so the recipe was changed—bagels became lighter, steamed, and squishy. They were a hit. Sliced, frozen bagels became the best thing since, well, sliced bread—fully ready for a toaster-loving America.
No more were bagels the products of hot, dirty, Jewish bakeries. No more were they something you had to go to a city to find. The Local 338 protested, and picketed, and ultimately fell. The new bagels were everywhere, and people were eating them up.
As late as 1993, bagels were the hot young thing of the food industry. In a New York Times article on the fast-food potential of the bagel, Molly O’Neill writes: “Buoyed by its healthful, low-fat, high-carbohydrate nature, as well as its accessibility and relatively low cost, the bagel is poised for its own Horatio Alger story.” The gist is this: Move over muffins, take a seat croissants—the bagel is coming. Another Times article, this time from 1999, shows that O’Neill was on the money; Americans on the eve of the millennium spent three-quarters of a billion dollars on bagels annually, and only half a billion on doughnuts.
How did this happen? O’Neill has the answer. According to George Rosenbaum, a food-industry analyst for the Leo J. Shapiro Co. in Chicago, “A bagel is a doughnut with the sin removed. If you can become… a doughnut proxy in the fast-food market, you are no longer a [sic] ethnic food. You are as American as pizza.”
That’s a great turn of phrase, and yet, if we go back to where we started, not to Poland but to the dictionary, it is very clear that machine-made bagels, which are steamed instead of boiled, are not bagels at all. They are rolls with holes.
Murray Lender’s memorializers were quick to give him credit for the dominance of bagels in America (and here we just sort of assume that Canada counts, too), and they were totally justified in doing so. The expansion of the bagel into markets north, south, and west was without a doubt linked to his brilliance in marketing and manufacturing.
Millions of people have eaten Lender’s bagels. I’ve eaten Lender’s bagels. They were close to perfect for the summer I was living in a field. They didn’t go hard, they barely molded, they were a staple. But they were not bagels. Canadian labeling legislation is slightly stricter than American, and this is the reason that when I went to buy cream cheese in the grocery store I found instead a box that said “processed cheese product.” Perhaps steamed bagels should be labeled in a similar way.
But no matter.
Even as factory bagels were really picking up steam in the ’70s and ’80s, a counter-movement was rising. Baking, which had leaned toward industrial white bread for decades, started to swing, slowly, back toward handmade production. The Tassajara Bread Book was making the rounds, and then Joe Ortiz wrote The Village Baker. Tastes were changing, yes, but the means of production had been moved back into homes and kitchens. Artisanal baking was reborn.
Today, support is growing for good, handmade, bagels. In bakeries around the continent, bakers work in the shadow of those who’ve gone before—rolling out snakes of dough, joining the ends in one fluid motion, giving the bagels a quick bath in roiling water, and loading them onto a peel and into the oven. You can find traditional bagel shops in any city of a certain population, and often in smaller towns, too. According to a recent post on Bon Appetit, artisanal bagels are a full-on trend, from Nashville to Seattle to Portland, Maine, and beyond. These are bagels worth examining, and worth eating, too.
And they’re not worth eating because they’re made with sweat and tradition, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. They’re worth eating because they’re just really amazingly tasty.
At the same time, and with the same politics of the artisanal bread and the craft beer movements, there’s no reason you need a baker to bake your bagels for you. If I learned anything baking the 50,000 bagels I’ve got under my belt, it’s that there’s so much that doesn’t matter. Your dough can be too wet or too dry, it can be too yeasty or not quite risen enough, your bagels can be twisted up, or way left of round. None of it matters because a bread that’s boiled and baked, why, it just stands to reason that it’ll be twice as good as anything else. No, the best way to celebrate the bagel is to make it yourself, and then eat it while it’s hot.
A Recipe for Homemade Bagels
7¼ cups (900 grams) all purpose white flour
¾ cup (100 grams) whole wheat flour
2¾ cups (600 grams) water, divided
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons (25 grams) light cooking oil
1 heaping tablespoon (20 grams) salt
1 packet (7 grams) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon (9 grams) molasses
2 tablespoons (25 grams) brown sugar
Seeds for dressing
A large stock pot
- Mix all of the flour, salt, oil and 2¼ cups (490 grams) room temperature water in a large bowl (it will look dry and crumbly) and set aside.
- Combine yeast, molasses, and ½ cup (110 grams) water (warm) in a small bowl and set aside until the yeast wakes up and starts bubbling (5-10 minutes).
- Add yeast mixture to the dough and mix until everything starts coming together. It will start out a dry mess, but with kneading you should get a tacky ball. Adding minimal flour to keep the dough from sticking to the table, knead vigorously for 5-7 minutes, thinking meanwhile about the bakers of yore who had to mix big doughs so tough that it was common for them to use their feet. Take your finished ball of dough, put it in an oiled bowl, cover it, and leave it somewhere cool (the fridge, an unheated porch) overnight, or for eight hours if you’re doing things backward.
- Take your dough out, and let it come back to room temperature. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light you can leave it in there for an hour or so. Alternately, you can place it in any cool oven with a bowl of boiling water. When the dough is warm, turn it out onto a floured board.
- Preheat your oven to 475°F (245°C) and put a wide pot of water to boil on the stove. At home I use around 2 gallons (8 liters) of water in a 9.5-quart (9-liter) pot.
- Divide your dough into 12 to 18 balls, depending on how big you want your bagels. For each, 3 ounces (85 grams) gets you around 18, and 4.5 ounces (130 grams) will make you a dozen, give or take. Remember that the size of the bagel will affect the crust to crumb ratio—if you like big bagels, make them big, but try a few smaller ones too.
- You have two choices here. You could flatten each piece, roll it out a little, poke a hole in the center, and stretch it out. Or you could shape your bagels the right way: Roll out a snake, leaving the ends a little fatter than the middle, wrap the snake around your dominant hand, with the ends just overlapping under your palm, and roll it together. Good, now try to do that 30 times a minute. (I can’t.)
- When your pot has reached a rolling boil, add the brown sugar and toss your bagels in. If the gluten has tightened up your rings (which it should have) stretch them out a little before you drop them. The right way to do this is to hold a ring by its weakest point and slap it lightly against the table in a small, wrist-driven “wi-cht” kind of motion. Boiled bagels should come out of the pot when they A) have floated to the surface; and B) feel a little slimy, kind of like a very hot fish. In my pot I boil bagels four at a time for about 30-45 seconds.
- You can dress them immediately or wait for them to cool a little, but don’t let them dry completely. The easiest way is to fill a bowl with as many seeds as you think you’ll need, and flip your bagels in, over, and out. Use sesame and poppy, if you want to honor tradition, or anything else if you are a Philistine.
- Put your dressed or plain bagels on dry trays (you shouldn’t need to dust the tray with anything, as long as you let your bagels cool for a minute or two after they come out of the boiling kettle) and bake them until they start to turn golden, which should be just under 25 minutes.
- Eat them while they’re hot.