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New York(ish) Bagels by a Cleveland Jew in California

I love bagels. A lot. They’re my favourite thing. So here’s how I make them.

The title sums it up, I guess.

Here’s your story. I live in OC California. While I can find decent NYC bagels in LA, I cannot in the OC, and since we’re having a pandemic, I can’t go to LA and get one. Bagels are a delicious, non-sweet treat and I beg my Uncle John to make them whenever I’m at their place in upstate NY. Can’t go there right now either, eh? What’s a lady to do?

She bakes.

Before You Begin

In order to make these bagels chewy without being tough, it’s important to boil them before baking, and to use the right ingredients in the water. Much of why everyone loves an NYC bagel is actually from the Hudson River water from upstate near Poughkeepsie. While the recipe encourages the use of lye (to boil the bagels with), it can be difficult to find in some places. 

If you do not have lye, you can use straight baking soda however it will produce sub-par results. It’s possible to create lye, but that is dangerous to the inexperienced. A safer ‘middle of the road’ alternative is to take baking soda, spread it out on a baking pan and cook it into the oven at 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. That changes the chemical properties in the baking soda to make it behave more similarly to lye.

You’ll also need a scale, a stand mixer, and a pot to boil in. Slipmats are recommended.

Ingredients

SpongeDough
* 500 grams flour
* 500 grams warm water
* 3 grams active dry yeast
* 15 grams kosher salt
* 15 grams honey
* 15 grams malt powder
* 446 grams flour

Additionally

  • Food Safe Lye (7 grams for every 2 liters of water)
  • Toppings of choice (poppy seeds, sesame seeds, etc etc)

Directions

There are two parts to this recipe. The first is to make a ‘sponge’ and let it rise, preferably overnight. The second is to mix the sponge and flour to create the bagels. 

Sponge

Combine all ingredients in the sponge section in the bowl of your standing mixer. Combine gently with a spoon until there are no lumps left. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature. If you live in a climate controlled residence, or if it’s noticeably cool, you can use your oven or a proofing drawer if you have one.

To rise in the oven, either turn on the ‘proof’ setting or, if you don’t have that, turn the oven light on and place the bowl in the back of the oven, near the light.

Let it rise for at least 4 hours. It is recommended you give the sponge a solid 12 hours, but no more than 18, in order to bring the yeast into it’s full, beery potential.

A mixing bowl filled with bubbly, yeasty, dough. It smells great too.
This is after a 24 hour rise in the oven with the heat off, but the light on.

Dough

When the Sponge is ready, it will look like a gooey, gloopy, bubbly mess. It will not ‘rise’ like bread dough, but it will smell of yeasty wonderfulness.

Add the Dough ingredients in order (flour is last), and put the bowl into your stand mixer. Attach a dough hook and mix on ‘low’ (or ‘stir’) for 8-10 minutes. DO NOT walk away. This dough can be very stiff and has been known to bounce mixers off the counter.

Once the dough is mixed, remove it from the mixer and cover with a cloth for 5-10 minutes. In winter, if you have a cold kitchen, put it back in the oven (light on, heat off) with a pan of piping hot water.

Divide the dough into 12+ pieces, 113-114 grams apiece. Round each piece and set aside to rest for another 5 minutes. You may need to coat in flour to make this work. That’s okay. Once they’ve rested a little, shape them into a disc, roughly 9cm across. Make a hole with your thumb, gently stretch out into a bagel shape, and put back on your resting mat to rise.

6 shaped bagels.
This is from an early batch. They look better now.

After 10 minutes, carefully flip each bagel and let rise for another 5 minutes. The bagel should be noticeably puffy at this rate, but it may take longer in a cold kitchen. Again, the trick with the oven light and a pan of water is why mine now look like this:

Super perfect puffy, bagels
See? Much nicer!

Once they look good, take them out of your oven (if you were proofing in there) and fill your pot with water. Keep track of how much water as you will need to add the lye in at this point. Always add lye before you boil. If you don’t, adding the lye to boiling water will cause it to bubble up and probably burn someone. It’s not fun. Once you’ve added the lye, start the boil. Also pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees. See? That’s why you took the dough out.

It takes my oven about 15 minutes to hit 450, and the water boils by then if I put it on the special boil burner. Once the water boils, reduce it to a simmer (you do not want or need a rolling boil). Gently lower the bagels into the water, and make sure they are not touching. They will quickly float. If they sink, your rise is bad and they’ll taste horrible. Time them boiling on one side for no more than 1 minute (30 to 45 seconds is perfect), then flip them and let them cook for another minute. Remove the bagel from the water user a skimmer or a large spoon and put them on your baking sheet.

Six bagels boiling. Don't do six. It was not great.
This is a BAD example. Do 3-4 at a time, and remember DO NOT let them touch.

As soon as the bagels are out of the water, you can apply toppings. If you want to do an egg-wash, do it before you apply toppings.

Once all the bagels are boiled, pop them in the oven for 12-15 minutes. They will be golden brown when ready. I have two racks, so I cook them 7 minutes and then swap positions.

Finished bagels! And they look even better now.
One of those is actually a bialy.

Take them out and put them on wire racks to cool. These are AMAZING when fresh/hot. After 2 days, you’ll want to use a toaster. Of course, they rarely last more than 5 days in our house.

Notes

You’ve probably heard people (including myself) say that there’s ‘something’ about NYC water that makes bagels there taste better. This is true. But it’s not NYC water, it’s Upstate Water. Go up the Hudson River to the Poughkeepsie/West Park area. That’s where the water comes from and yes, the minerals really do make a difference. While someone in Florida spent thousands to make his own water system, most of us don’t have that money.

Now. NPR and other places will tell you “Oh it’s not the water it’s the method,” but the fact is that better water makes for better bagels. Hard water makes the glutens tougher, and too-soft water makes them gloopy. New York has a ridiculously good balance of soft-enough water (or ‘Goldilocks Water’) that makes it easier to just make great bagels.

Great, but I live in California and we have water so hard, I have to chisel off calcium deposits from my faucet. The alternatives for me are:

  1. Convince my aunt and uncle in West Park to ship me water
  2. Use filtered water when mixing and boil in lye water

You can see why I advocate for lye. It gets the pH to the right place and it’s cheaper.

While I don’t flip my bagels when baking, you certainly can. I recommend you do it at the 8-10 minute mark (use tongs folks). I don’t because I’m lazy and I don’t mind if they have a noticeable flat bottom.

Substitutions

While it’s best to use bread flour, you can use AP in a pinch. Yes, I know. It’s sacrilege. The difference between the two is bread flour has up to 14% protein content and AP has 11%. This results in bagels with AP flour being a bit lighter, so your bagels may flatten out a little. Except … Most bread flour today has closer to 13% protein, vs AP’s 11.5% which means they’re a lot closer than you think! My feeling is that if you make this with AP flour and it tastes ‘wrong’ or sad, then the issue isn’t the flour but something else. It’s probably the water. (Besides, I have about 38 lbs of AP flour to work through)

Malt powder (for some reason) was hard to find for me. I used marmite, since we have it, and it works rather well. The malt powder will add a little more sugar and barley, and makes for a slightly puffier bagel. Marmite ones are a bit denser, but have an amazing flavor. Barley Malt Syrup also works well, and now we have some and I can confirm it makes them taste awesome. Molasses is fine in a pinch, but not black strap.

In place of honey, use maple syrup, rice syrup, golden syrup, treacle, or agave. Please for the love of god I implore you to never use corn syrup! Just don’t! Honey is the best, for robustness of flavor and consistency in the dough. It makes them sweet without being sickly. However. If you want to make vegan friendly bagels (I did mention I live in SoCal), then you should try agave.

What about lye? Most large cities have a solvent or chemical company that will sell sodium hydroxide in 35- or 50-pound bags. That is actually what we have. Yes, it’s a little terrifying, and we had to sign a waiver (fun story, my wife bought the lye and then went out for other things we needed … duct tape, rope, a tarp … I’m still amazed the cops didn’t show up). If you can’t find any, there’s a trick where you bake baking soda at 250 F for an hour. It does work and you can store the extra in a glass jar (an old pasta sauce jar works fine). Just rinse the bagels off when you’ve boiled. Sorry. Lye is better. Also make sure you don’t get drain cleaner. You need FOOD SAFE LYE here. If it doesn’t say it is, then it’s not.

DO NOT USE BAKED BAKING SODA FOR COOKING. Seriously. If you do this, you cannot cook with it, you can only use it to boil things. Otherwise you will get sick. We don’t cook food with lye either, after all.

Can you use sourdough starter instead of yeast? You can, but you’ll want to adjust the flour you use down based on how much flour you add to your starter. The basic math is for every 1.5 cups of starter, reduce both water and flour by 1 cup. We weigh things here, and a cup is 120 grams, so if you use 180 grams of starter, reduce the water and flour both by 120 grams in the sponge (so that would be 380 grams of flour and 380 grams of water). I have not done this since I killed my starter. Sorry.

What about … instant yeast? You may know this as ‘bread machine yeast.’ You can. And in fact, my uncle does! He also lets the shaped bagels rest overnight in their second fridge. I don’t have a second fridge, but I’ve adapted. The tricks for instant yeast are:

  1. split the yeast up (put 2/3rds in the sponge and 1/3 in the dough)
  2. only rest the sponge 4 hours
  3. rest the shaped bagels overnight in a fridge

This is the same magic to pizza dough, by the way. Letting it cool-rise overnight makes it amazing.

Got wrinkled bagels? Your water was boiling when you dropped them in. Seriously. Reduce to a simmer.

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