Bagels: More than a Roll with a Hole

The bagel is an interesting critter in the world of bread. It’s shiny crunchy crust gives away to chewy and spongy innards. No other bread product can really match the enigmatic yet satisfying texture of this bready delight.

The history of bagels is murky at best. Some say it was invented to commemorate the Polish King Jan III Sobieski victory over the Turks in 1683(1), others argue that it’s origin is much older bread created to compete with the obwarzanek (a circular bread that was traditionally only eaten during Lent)(2) and the very mention of the bagel and obwarzanek in the same sentence sparks debates as to where the bagel ends and becomes an obwarzanek(3). What is clear is the bagel has ceremonial origins as being gifts presented to midwives after a successful delivery and to celebrate circumcisions and they even made an appearance in rituals following death(2).

It wouldn’t be until the early 20th century that the bagel would make it to the new world when Polish immigrants brought the recipe with them. Early in their history the recipe was jealously guarded by the International Bagel Bakers Union formed in 1907(4) and confined to the city of New York. Harry Lender opened his own bakery in New Haven Connecticut in 1927 helping the growth of the bagel outside of New York city. Only with the invention of bagel making machines in 1963 and Murray Lender‘s vision of mass producing and shipping of bagels did the bagel become a fully American phenomenon(4). As of 2012 total American bagel sales toped at $592,725,400,(5) which is about $1,623,905.21 spent each day on these rounds of joy.

However bagel making doesn’t need to be expensive and of the bread’s I’ve made it’s relatively labor light all you need is some simple ingredients and a little bit of patience.

You will need:

1 large russet potato (around ¾ pound will do)

2 ½ cups water

2 tablespoons (or 2 packages) active dry yeast

1 ½ table spoon surgar

1 ½ tablespoon salt

7 – 7 ½ cups bread flour or AP flour (unbleached please)

¼ cup corn oil

4 eggs

1 – 2 quarts water

2 tablespoons salt or sugar


Peel and cube your potato and drop into pan with 2 ½ cups water and heat to boil (you may need more water depending on the size of your pan, just make sure the water covers the potatoes by ¼ inch). Once water reaches a boil bring down to a simmer and let cook until potato cubes are tender.

In the mean time combine team dry ingredients in large work bowl (this is where a kitchen Aid is really useful): sugar, salt, and 2 cups of the flour and mix to combine.

Check the potatoes for done-ness, knife passing through the biggest cube easily? If not, continue to boil, otherwise strain cubes and save 2 cups of the potato water and let cool to 120*F.

**Side Note** If you’re like me, you might be wondering what you need potato water for and how these little cubes of potential deliciousness play a role in our bagel baking. When you boil a potato starch is released into the water (between 13-23% of the potato’s weight can be released in boiling(6)). Starch plays an important role in bread baking by providing food for yeast and in the baking process gluten releases its liquid and reforms in a rigid structure which makes the bread take shape. This liquid released is adsorbed by the starch in a process called gelatinization. However this process isn’t finished so you a final product that still holds moisture but isn’t a soupy mess(7).

As for what the cubes left over, what I personally did was toss together a simple spice mix of seasoned salt, fresh ground black pepper and a masala seasoning blend in a small bowl and toss with potato cubes, then on a sprayed baking sheet bake on 375*F for about 15 minutes. **End Side Note**

Begin your electric mixer on low and add the potato water and oil slowly. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes. After the two minutes turn down the speed to low (least you make a mess for your self) and add 1 cup of the flour and the eggs (add one egg at a time, wait till fully mixed in before adding the next).

**Egg Substitutions** For anyone who is sensitive to eggs or has some aversion, there are plenty of substitutions. I personally ran out of eggs (I only had 3 on hand) and used half a banana (I always have at least 2 pounds of bananas broken in half in my freezer) and ½ teaspoon baking powder. Other alternatives to eggs and other ingredients can be found in this article on **End Substitutions**

Once all eggs are well mixed in beat on medium for another 2 minutes. After the 2 minutes drop the speed down to low and add ½ cup of flour at a time until the mixture begins coming away from the sides of the bowl.

Wriggle off the dough ball from the attachment (the recipe I’m using called for a paddle attachment, but in the future I may experiment with a dough hook as it may be easier to pull off the dough) and plop onto a flour dusted work surface and knead dough for about 3 minutes or until the dough makes a springy ball.

Once dough is kneaded drop into bowl (or I used a large pot) and cover with towel and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size. Fill a pot with 1-2 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt or sugar (I personally did one of each). This is a great time to begin cleaning up for those who like cleaning as they go.

1 hour passes

Turn the heat on medium high on you pot of water and bring to a boil and pre-heat your oven to 425*F.

Meanwhile cut dough into 4 quarters and get your kitchen scale (you do have one, right?) and weigh out approximately 100 gram dough balls (I believe my final yield was 28 bagels). Once balls are weighted roll into a snake. Take each end of the snake in each hand and twist/flip the snake so one hand is facing up and one is facing down, then tie the ends together. If the ends don’t completely stick, just keep working them into each other until they do. Given patience and effort most will conform.

Now your water should be boiling or close it. Once at a full boil, using a slotted spoon or if you have one a spider, lower the bagels into the boiling water and boil on each side for 3 minutes. After the 3 minutes drop you bagels on a greased baking sheet and place in oven for 28 minutes or until the crust takes on a beautiful golden brown.

Once Maillard has had his effect remove from oven and let cool on rack until they’re just cool enough to tear into.

I got this recipe from the wonderful book Baking Bread: Old and New Traditions by Beth Hensperger which has various other bagel variations and many many other bread recipes.