Life is too short to eat substandard bagels. If you can’t find decent bagels where you live, why not bake some yourself? Homemade bagels take time, certainly, but not as much as you might think. And baking bagels is easier than you might imagine too. Herein, my collected bagel baking wisdom. Consult the gallery at the bottom for photos. If you’ve never baked bagels or bread before, I highly recommend reading this primer before starting my bagel recipe. (Really important points are in bold.)
- My bagel recipe combines the best parts of two other recipes to create something new. For me, the gold standard is the recipe from Peter Reinhart’s book Artisan Breads Every Day. This recipe requires the dough to rise overnight in the fridge, which was sometimes a challenge for me. I like to bake lots of bagels at once and found I didn’t always have the space in my fridge for all the dough. I also seemed to lose the ability to plan ahead after I returned to a real job, so when I had time to bake bagels I wanted to get it done, not wait another day for dough to rise. This is not a criticism of Reinhart’s method, which works beautifully and always produces a top-notch bagel. I just needed a same-day option instead.
- The same-day option I found was this recipe from Sophisticated Gourmet. It works well and produces a perfectly fine bagel, but I had gotten quite used to the flavour in Reinhart’s recipe and wanted to see if I could achieve that. I switched a few ingredients, and, presto, a bagel that tasted as good as Reinhart’s but was ready within a couple of hours.
Between my two source recipes there were different opinions on the specifics, but in general, to make bagels you need flour, salt, yeast, a sweetener, and water. Here are the particular items I use:
- Flour. Bread flour only please. It contains a higher amount of protein which produces a dough with more gluten. Gluten gives bread its chewiness and texture. I use Robin Hood’s Best for Bread, but any brand of bread flour will do, including the bread flour they sell at bulk stores. Note this is not bread machine flour, but bread flour.
- Salt. I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. The Sophisticated Gourmet recipe simply says “salt,” but Diamond Crystal contains less sodium per volume than table salt and, in my opinion, adds better flavour. The amount in the recipe sounds like a lot, but these bagels do not taste excessively salty.
- Yeast. Traditional/active dry yeast is what you will need here, as opposed to quick rise or instant yeast. Again, any brand will do.
- Sweetener. The Sophisticated Gourmet calls for granulated sugar but I found the flavour lacking. Instead, I used honey, which is Reinhart’s choice of sweetener. (Actually, he suggests barley malt first, but it is harder to find so I just go with his second option, honey.)
- Water. You need very warm water, usually around 95F. I used to measure the temperature but I don’t anymore. I just use very hot tap water.
- Poaching or boiling is essential to the texture of bagels. According to thekitchn.com, boiling sets the crust, which reduces the amount bagels rise in the oven, giving them their trademark dense and chewy texture.
- While some recipes recommend poaching in plain water and brushing with egg to enhance browning, I prefer the traditional method of adding honey, salt, and baking soda to the water. The honey and salt add deeper flavour, while the baking soda adds alkalinity that helps brown the bagels. (The same process is used for pretzels. Lye used to be the preferred ingredient for browning but it is tricky to use and can be dangerous, so baking soda has become an acceptable substitute.)
- To poach bagels you need a very large pot that can give you at least 4 inches of water depth.
- When you use baking soda, it will bubble up when you pour it into the boiling water, but only for a few seconds.
- When baking any kind of bread, I prefer to measure my ingredients by mass rather than volume. It allows for more precision and a better end result. If you want to do the same, you’ll need a kitchen scale.
- I weigh all my ingredients before starting, using small ramekins or plastic food storage containers to hold each ingredient. Keep a spatula on hand for dealing with the honey.
- I have used a stand mixer for bagel dough, but I find that the basic kitchen mixer is too small to handle it well. I was endlessly frustrated by the repetitious cycle of bagel dough spiralling up out of the mixer, me turning off the mixer and squishing it back down, only to have it rise up again. So I ditched the mixer and decided to do everything by hand.
- You may not need all the water in the recipe. The amount needed depends on the humidity in your kitchen environment and it can vary from one season to the next. Humid summers may mean less water in your dough than in dry winters. You want a shaggy dough, even if that means some dry bits. Consult the pictures below for an idea of how the dough should look.
- Once I feel that things are as mixed as they are going to get, I turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, ready for kneading.
- When it comes to mixing the dough, I use a large wooden spoon to incorporate the wet and dry ingredients. Have a spatula on hand for this step too as the dough is very sticky at this point.
- Kneading is an important and long step in the process of creating bagel dough. (It is largely replaced by the overnight rise in Reinhart’s method, so you may want to seek out his book if you hate the idea of kneading dough.) Kneading allows you to gradually incorporate more flour while also organizing the gluten within the dough. The end result will be a smooth, elastic dough. To knead dough, you simply fold it in half, push it away with the heel of your hand, turn it, and repeat. This short video from King Arthur Flour provides a great demonstration:
- Keep Fido clear of falling dough. If you are new to bread baking, you should know that it can be a messy affair. (Or maybe it’s just me that’s messy.) You may find that many bits of dough fall on the floor. If you have a dog, be warned that he/she will likely be very attracted to the dough, but bread dough is something dogs should definitely not eat. A couple of small crumbs, relative to your dog’s size, likely won’t do much harm, but don’t let your pooch eat too much. The yeasty raw dough can expand in a dog’s stomach, causing distension and digestive problems. Fermenting yeast also releases alcohol, which gets into the dog’s bloodstream. In short, it’s bad for dogs and can cause very serious problems. The American Kennel Club has more information.
- Oil your parchment. I use parchment all the time in baking, but with bagels I take the extra step of oiling it. This is something both of my source recipes recommend and I heartily concur. Bagel dough can be sticky, especially after boiling, and a little olive oil will go a long way in ensuring smooth removal of your baked bagels to a cooling rack. I keep a cruet of olive oil and a small piece of paper towel on hand throughout the bagel making process. I sprinkle a few drops of oil onto the parchment then spread it evenly with the paper towel.
- You will probably want to weigh each portion of bagel dough to ensure even sizing. This sounds super uptight, but it is really best to work with evenly sized pieces of dough. And looks can be deceiving. There’s been many times I thought I had divided dough evenly, only to weigh each piece and find huge discrepancies. If the pieces aren’t similar size, some will bake faster than others, with the larger ones being underbaked. My method: weight the entire dough ball then divide it by 7, which is the number of bagels my recipe typically yields. As a guideline, each bagel ball is typically about 110-112 grams. (Reinhart says a “typical” bagel is about 113 grams but you can make them smaller.Just divide the total weight of the dough by 8 instead of 7.)
It is not easy to master the art of shaping bagels. I have been making bagels for a few years now and I still struggle. There are two basic methods:
- Roll dough into a ball and punch a hole in the middle with your thumb.
- Roll a ball of dough into a long strand and shape it into a circle around your hand, then roll the edges to seal them together.
I use the second method, but it’s tricky. I can never seem to get an even thickness nor get the ends to seal perfectly. Why don’t I try the other method? I really don’t know. I read that the second method is more “authentic,” so I decided I would keep at it until I perfected it. I’m not there yet, but I’m not too worried about it. Imperfections are part of the charm of homemade bagels and they still taste great regardless of how they look.
I used to top my bagels with poppyseeds or sesame seeds, but found I had trouble making them stick. You can add seeds, “everything” seasoning, dried onion, or whatever suits your fancy. Just do it after boiling and before putting your bagels in the oven so the toppings have a chance to bake on.
Homemade bagels freeze beautifully. I bake them in large batches so I can make the most efficient use of all that poaching water and avoid having to bake every week. Let bagels cool completely, then slice them. Put them in freezer bags and pop them in the freezer. To thaw, we microwave them for about 30 seconds, but you can also let them sit at room temperature for a while.