Bagels!

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First, a diatribe

Well in honor of the NY Giants’ victory over those dirty cheaters, I was asked to make bagels! I have to admit that I didn’t think I’d ever attempt to make bagels for a few reasons:

1) My Uncle Tom and Aunt Donna own a bagel shop in Oak Ridge, TN called Hot Bagel Co and their bagels are fantastic. They make them in the classic NY style (to be discussed below) and in my naivete, I assumed that all their fancy equipment was too integral to the process, and therefore I didn’t have the right hardware for the job (like a bagel-shaping machine, and a huge kettle for boiling, and bagel boards). More about that later.

2) If I had to pick one reason I got into baking bread, it’s to make the ultimate sandwich. I love ‘em. And while bagels are delicious, they have that stupid hole in the middle!!! My precious sandwich ingredients fall right through! And what’s the big deal with bagels anyways? It’s just bread dough in a different shape than normal. All the toppings and fillings and flavorings could be just as easily applied to regular shaped bread. Well it turns out I’m a little wrong there. More about that later.

So anyways I had these two obstacles in my path to bageldom. And here’s what brought me around to the idea:

1) People have been making bagels for a long time, and more importantly, they’ve done it without the special equipment (rolling them by hand, etc). So that’s a stupid excuse.

2) The holes disrupting my sandwiches are a bigger dilemma, but I figure I’ll just make bagels with small holes. So that’s that.

Finally, I’m never one to back down from a challenge, so when someone asks if I can make bagels, I’m gonna do it!

Before I get into the process, lemme explain one more thing about what “NY bagels” means. The traditional way of making bagels is to boil them briefly before baking. This has many benefits from increasing hydration to puffing them up, and gelatinizing the starch for a softer texture. As bagels became “the bread of the middle class,” companies wanted to monopolize on that demand, and so mass-production was applied to the process. Nowadays a lot of bagel shops (the chains) will steam their bagels on huge racks, several racks at a time. Sure, it’s a way to mimic the classic style, which is much more labor intensive, but they just aren’t the same.

Now onto the bagels!

This recipe makes 14 bagels, approximately 200 calories each. First, the dough:

  • 429g bread flour (3.5C)
  • 429g whole wheat flour (3.5C)
  • 515g water (2.25C)
  • 17g kosher salt (1.33T)
  • 3g instant yeast (.75t)

I have to admit, my dough only had about 250g of whole wheat flour because I didn’t realize how low I was, but no big deal. The above recipe was what I wanted, though.

1) Mix all ingredients until mixture comes together, then mix on first speed for 3 minutes. If you’ll notice, the ratio of water/flour is 60% (by weight). The average bread is normally 70%, which means that this will be very stiff dough. It should not feel sticky to the touch because the flour will be tightly holding onto the water it can grab. Mix on second speed for 3 more minutes. I actually had to do this part by hand because after just 3 minutes of first speed mixing, the dough was so stiff that my mixer kept stalling and grinding gears. When kneading is complete the dough should be very strong with full gluten development.

2) My instructions told me to place in a warm location to rise for 1 hour, but after that amount of time there was very little noticeable rising (though the dough had softened and become a little more elastic). Still, I followed the directions and opted not to wait for the typical “double in volume.” Here’s what the dough looked like after 1 hour:

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3) Get all your supplies ready. You will need the dough, a damp kitchen towel, a food scale, a dough divider, and a sheet pan. Here’s my set up (minus a spatula that I used to cut the dough)

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4) Divide the dough into 14 equal portions of 3.5oz each (it will be exact – I planned that). Make sure to keep your dough covered with the damp towel so it doesn’t develop a crust. This goes for the dough lump as well as the individual balls.

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Here they are under the cloth. Notice I put very little effort into shaping them during weighing. Ideally each ball would be made of a complete piece of dough, but you and I know that it’s hard to exactly measure 3.5oz with your eyes (and just another reason to own a scale!)

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5) Now the exciting, and surprisingly easy part – shaping! Making sure all your dough portions are covered with the towel, remove one of them. Since the dough will be all twisted with random seams in it, or constructed from several small pieces as you portioned them, tuck the junky looking parts underneath so you have a nice smooth surface facing up. Lightly press it down so you have a fairly square piece:

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Begin to roll the piece with one hand into a tube.

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You don’t need to be too vigorous here, and ideally the ends will NOT be tapered (like on the right side of my picture… no biggie though).

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When it gets long enough, use two hands to roll it. The goal here is about 8 inches long. Start each roll with your hands in the middle of the tube and as you gently roll, move them to the outside to lengthen. Uniform thickness important for even cooking.

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Once you have a nice tube, lift the dough up and wrap it around your fingers with the two loose ends on the underside of your fingers (just look at the picture). Traditionally, bagels would be made with a little more dough each, rolled out longer, and wrapped around your entire hand, but as I mentioned, I’m trying to keep the hole very small (and the calories a little lower).

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Lay this down and gently roll to press the two ends together and form a full bagel. This is the part that was surprisingly easy – I thought for sure it wouldn’t roll correctly, or would get twisted around. As I keep saying, you don’t need to put too much force into it. I found that it worked well when I used my left hand to stabilize the top portion of the dough. You’re not so much trying to roll the whole bagel up and down your fingers – it’s more about joining the ends of the dough tube together from several different angles. It took a couple bagels before I got it right.

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Don’t worry if the final product looks a little lopsided. The most important thing is getting the two ends to join up. If you still have some seams after rolling, you can pinch ‘em shut.

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6) As you finish each one, place them on a sheet pan, leaving at least an inch between them, and cover well with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge for a minimum of 6 hours, and up to overnight. Here they are going in:

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7) When you take the dough out of the refrigerator, you’ll notice that they will have slightly puffed and spread, but not too much (good news for me in my quest to eliminate the hole). Now comes the multi-step baking. Setup will require your pan of bagels, a large pot of boiling water, a spider or other type of strainer, a bowl of ice water, and the pan(s) you will use for baking (and an oven preheating to 500*).

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Now comes the boiling. I’ve seen several different recommendations about how to do this next part. First let me explain the reason why the bagels are boiled before they are baked. Since they’ve been in the fridge, we obviously need to warm them up before baking or else the outside would bake much quicker than the inside of the bagel. Also, while I said that bread and bagels are pretty similar in taste, bagels are definitely marked by a different kind of crust. It’s almost impossible to define, but don’t you think they taste smoother? The reason why is because the extremely hot water gelatinizes the outer crust, spreading the starch evenly across the surface of the bagel.

This is the point of variation amongst people. Hamelman’s book says you need to put malt syrup in the boiling water to give the bagels a soft brown color and nice sheen. Alton Brown recommended treating them like pretzels and adding lye for the same effect. My uncle does nothing, so I decided to defer to him, plus I wasn’t too worried about the brownness since these were made partially with wheat flour.

So it’s time to boil. I probably put 1.5 gallons in my pot, and only added three bagels at a time. If I added too many they would crowd each other, but worse, they would reduce the water temperature too quickly and might water log. While the bagels are boiling, you may want to move them around some, flip them over, etc – just make sure they aren’t sticking to each other or the pot. Boil for 1-2 minutes.

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Boiling is complete when they have puffed a little, and they float even more than when you first put them in. Remove them with your strainer and put them in the ice water for 3 minutes. It will seem like torture to sit there and wait for the bagels to cool, but this will give the water in the pot time to come back to a full boil. Don’t rush it here, we’re not in a hurry.

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You may want to flip the bagels and hold them under to ensure they cool down. You’ll know they’re cool enough when you can pick one up through the hole with your finger, and after waiting 5 seconds, you cannot feel any warmth creep to the surface. Place them on the pans you will use to bake them, and don’t worry about a little extra water dripping around.

8.) This next part is something professional bakers do that I can’t perfectly replicate in my home. The traditional method would next have you put the bagels on a wooden plank that has been soaked in water. You would load this piece of wood directly into the oven and bake for a few minutes. Then you would flip the bagels off the board, so that the other side is facing up. The point of this is to crisp both sides of the bagel and get even heating. So we’re gonna have to improvise.

First, I decided to go with a topping on my bagels, and since we’re all about health here, I opted for flax seeds instead of sesame! (I know, how cute is that?)

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I had hoped the slimy starch on the surface of the bagel would be enough to hold the seeds on, and it probably would except for one thing that I’ll do differently next time. See, I took the pan you see above (there were two of them actually) and put them right in the oven. After some baking, I pulled the pans out and flipped the bagels over with my tongs and finished them off. Because the flax baked right on top, they didn’t really have a chance to hold on, so they kinda fall off. So here’s what I recommend:

9) If you’re planning on putting a topping on your bagels, examine them to determine which side of the bagel is more aesthetically pleasing. The side that touched the pan while the bagels were in the fridge will usually be a little off-colored. Apply toppings to the pretty side. Then, flip the bagels over so the toppings are down and the ugly side up. Place in the oven (which should have been preheated at least 15 minutes ago) and bake for 5 minutes (if you’re not using toppings, still start with the pretty side down).

10) Quickly pull the bagels out of the oven and flip them over with tongs. Place back in the oven and bake for another 15 minutes or until bagels show nice color and crispiness. Here they are fresh out (and check out those tiny holes! that’s gonna make an awesome sandwich):

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Now you may be tempted not to go through with the flipping, especially if you’re not using any toppings. You might say, “I never have to flip loaves of bread when I bake them, how is the crisp-factor any different here?” But the reason flipping is so essential has to do with the boiling. Obviously the bagels are covered with water, and if you bake them with one side up the whole time, the bottom will be much softer. Maybe not soggy, but the whole bagel will lack structural integrity.

11) I like to cool all my breads on cooling rack, if only to get them off the hot pans they came from.

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Check out this sweet crust!

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And here’s what the crumb looks like:

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Thanks a lot to Kim for prompting me to give these a try – they were really fun to make, and I think the ratio of volume/calories rivals ciabatta. These may become a regular staple! Let me know if you have any questions about the procedure, I hope all of you try it out!