I had wanted to make bagels for such a long time as the technique of boiling and baking bread seemed so intriguing to me!
We are continuing our “Breads around the World” special with a bread that has a long and rather unknown history. I can’t say that I was raised on bagels. Coming from a Jewish family, most people, especially in the US, would think that bagel is part of my heritage, as they associate bagels, pastrami, latkes and brisket with Jewish cuisine. Sorry to break it to you, but I was born and raised in France from Sephardic parents, and I therefore do not relate to any of the “Jewish” food that has become so popular in the United States over the past century.
Indeed, bagel arrived to the United States together with hundreds of Jewish bakers who took part in the massive wave of immigration between 1881 and 1914.
In the early 1900s, the Bagel Bakers Local 338 trade union was founded in New York. Its members dominated bagel production in America until the late 1960s, when the first bagel machine was invented.
One family of bakers, Harry Lender and his son Murray Lender pioneered the automation and distribution of frozen bagels. They also invented pre-sliced bagels and ended up as the country’s first bagel millionaires. Today, millions of bagels are consumed every day across the United States and sales are approaching $1B annually.
But where does this ring-shaped bread really come from?
There is a folk tale that says that the bagel was created in the shape of a stirrup to commemorate the victory of Poland’s King John III Sobieski over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. However, this story which has been told numerous times over the past centuries does not hold true as there is evidence that bagels existed before the battle took place.
Indeed, the first reference to bajgiel (in Polish) appeared in the “Community Regulations”, Jewish community ordinances, of the city of Kraków in 1610. It stated that the bread was given as a gift to women who just gave birth. In fact, round objects have often been associated with good luck and prosperity in most cultures as evidenced for example by round challah that is baked for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).
But you have to go back even further in time to understand where bagel came from. The Polish had actually been making a bread called obwarzanek (from Polish obwarzyc, to parboil) since at least the fourteenth century.
The first mention of obwarzanek dates from 1394 and is found in the accounts of the Polish royal household. This bread was made specifically for Queen Jadwiga, now elevated to a saint level in Poland.
But what if we went a little further in time? In the early twelfth century, Poland made deliberate efforts to attract skilled people from the West, mostly from Germany. And it is exactly in Germany that ring-shaped communion breads started to be popular outside of monasteries to become the pretzel as we know today. Pretzels were actually originally ring-shaped before taking the three-holed oblong form that represents a monk’s arms in prayer.
There was also Jewish immigration at the same time and they too had a ring-shaped bread in their repertoire. Some people even say that the word bagel would come from Yiddish beigen (to bend).
There are several accounts that confirm that bagel was created by Jews, as Jews were not allowed to bake or buy bread, because of its connection to Jesus. So, they decided to boil it and lightly toast it instead.
In her amazing book “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread”, Maria Balinska gives a number of possible accounts to help trace back the origin of bagels. She gives examples of similar ring-shaped boiled and baked goods, including tarallo from Puglia in Italy, or brazatelle (ring-shaped cookies) and ciambelle (more akin to a doughnut) which were very popular during the Renaissance in Tuscany.
She also references the Uyghurs, a Turkish ethnic group from Xinjiang, China, who bake a form of bagel known as girde or girdeh nan. This bagel cousin has an indentation rather than a hole in its center and its dough is steamed rather than boiled before baking.
There are a number of baked goods that resemble bagel all around the world. The bublik in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are essentially larger bagels with a wider hole. The baranki and sushki, also from Eastern Europe, are smaller and drier. Similar versions called riestainiai or baronkos are enjoyed in Lithuania.
In Finland, vesirinkeli (water ring) are small rings of yeast-leavened wheat bread, which also resemble bagels.
In Romania, covrigi are similar to pretzels. They are salted breads, topped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or large salt grains.
In the Balkans as well as in Turkey, they make a circular bread, typically encrusted with sesame seeds called simit or gevrek.
But let’s go back to modern times!
According to the Merriam Wesbter, a bagel is a “firm doughnut-shaped roll traditionally made by boiling and then baking”. But there has to be more to it than that!
First, bagels call for wheat flour that is high in gluten, ideally even more than traditional bread flour sold in the US, which contains anywhere between 11% and 14% of gluten.
Then, you need to add a relatively small amount of water to this high gluten content flour. This is why bagels become stale pretty quickly, after generally just a few hours.
The traditional bagel recipe calls for some kind of sweetener in the dough itself. Barley malt syrup is what is typically used but you can also choose honey, high fructose corn syrup or sugar for less traditional bagels.
The retardation is a process that is optional but should contribute to the slightly sour taste of the bagel as well as its chewiness. The process consists in proofing the shaped bagels in a cool place for at least 12 hours before boiling and baking them. It slows down the fermentation process and encourages the formation of lactic acid bacteria, found in yeast but undeveloped in warm dough. I tried the retardation process as well as a typical shorter proofing in a warm place, and I personally didn’t notice a difference in the end result, at least with the ingredients that you can readily find in stores. I am certain the process is more important if you have the right ingredients and professional equipment.
Then, the boiling step! This is what gives the bagel its full flavor and thick shiny crust. The solution that is used may be plain water, but it generally contains an additive such as lye (like for pretzel), baking soda, barley malt syrup, or honey. I personally used barley malt syrup and the result is rather incredible! To me, that is what makes a bagel a bagel! The boiling also helps the bagel retain its shape when baking. It should be boiled the right amount of time though, not less than 1 minute and not more than 2 minutes. And on both sides, please!
Most people enjoy bagels at breakfast or brunch, but you’re welcome to eat them whenever you like!
And what kind of bagel to choose is another essential question in life. Are you more of a plain, poppy seed, sesame seed, sunflower seed, onion or do you prefer the less traditional jalapeño and cheddar, blueberry or chocolate chip bagels? I personally prefer the “everything bagel” as people call them, even though chances are bakers dip those bagels in whatever is left of the seeds used to make the other kinds!
Bagels are most often eaten with cream cheese, but more and more people use them as a sandwich bread. And then, there is the traditional “bagel brunch”, which became popular around 1900 in New York. It consists of a bagel topped with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato and red onion. This is probably the most famous bagel sandwich known today, and this is how I enjoyed my bagel when I baked them on this beautiful Sunday morning, to prepare for my “Breads around the World Class”.
This was the second cooking class that I held in Santa Monica. That day, we prepared baguettes, naans, corn tortillas and bagels. We had a lot of fun, had a lot of gluten, and probably gained a lot of pounds. But who’s counting anyway?
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 tablespoons barley malt syrup
- Oil for greasing the bowl
- Poppy seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Dehydrated onion flakes
- Combine the flour and yeast in the large bowl of a stand mixer. Add 1-1/2 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon of the barley malt syrup. Stir until combined.
- Add the salt. Knead the dough until it feels smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking.
- Grease a large bowl with oil, add the dough, and turn it over to coat it lightly with the oil. Cover the bowl with a cloth, put it in a warm place, and let the dough rise until doubled in size, at least 1 hour.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch down the dough, then divide the dough in 8 equal size pieces (a little less than 4 oz). Shape each piece into a 4-inch ring, and put it on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Cover the baking sheet with a clean cloth, put it in a warm place, and let the dough rise for another 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Put about 6 cups of water in a large pot over high heat. When it boils, add 2 tablespoons of barley malt syrup and lower the heat so it simmers steadily. Add 3 to 4 bagels to the boiling water at a time and cook, turning once, until they are firm and golden, 1 to 2 minutes total. Remove the bagels from the pot with a slotted spoon and return them to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining uncooked bagels.
- Sprinkle bagels with your favorite toppings, including sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or dehydrated onion.
- Bake the bagels until they are evenly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or toasted.