The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

I don't understand how bagels work!

gmask1's picture

I don't understand how bagels work!

Having recently been making bagels for PR's recipe testing, I've baked two batches of eight. The first batch was topped with a cinnamon sugar for a supper; the second batch is topped with sesame seeds to be used for my lunches at work.

With the first batch, I can't really quantify how chewy they were, but they were *really* tough; one of the other people trying them wondered aloud how many days prior that they'd been baked (they were barely a day old). To bite through the crust was a feat in itself, but they tasted great! This second batch is the opposite - firm to be sure, but dead easy to bite into, and not overwhelmingly chewy inside at all. This second batch is divine!

So I've been doing some reading on TFL, and discovered that no two bagel recipes are exactly the same. The poaching times, the cooking times and temperatures all vary greatly. I don't recall doing anything different on the second baking, and I'm not helped by my limited knowledge of how all the flours, water, yeast etc interact to produce softer/heavier or chewy/light characteristics.

I've had the pleasure of trying bagels in the US, and I think that with this second batch I've stumbled onto a product that I absolutely want to reproduce. That said, and all specific recipes aside, I'm wondering if somebody here can help me better understand bagels? I don't properly understand what poaching does, or how to avoid the crazy-chewyness that I produced in the first batch.

Then there's more naiive questions that I could google, but I'd prefer feedback from people more experienced in this kind of baking. What does bicarbonate soda actually do during poaching? Letting the bagels boil (poach) for shorter or longer - what does that achieve?

Any insight would be wonderful; I can't believe the number of questions that all this baking is making me ponder - I love this!

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

There is a tremendous variation in what is called a bagel.  It depends on who makes it and what their goals are.


A New York style bagel should be very firm, with a crisp crust a chewey crumb and a very great depth of flavor.  If you drop one, you should make sure you move your feet out of harm's way.  Lamentably, this sort of bagel has become harder and harder to find even in New York.


In California and in many other parts of the USA there are more varieties of bagels, most of them being lighter in texture, even fluffy.  These aren't, to my mind, bagels but dense doughnuts.


In Canada, Montreal has it's own variety of bagel that is highly prized by locals,  I haven't been there, so I can't comment on them.


I have a page dedicated to sourdough bagels at as well as a cookbook on bagels that goes into more detail.


They key things for bagel success - a dense dough, a high protein flour, an overnight rise to let the bagels develop their flavor fully, a boil, and being baked until they are a deep brown.


It isn't clear what happened with your first batch.  Also, too chewy isn't a good description.  Hand the same piece of bread to a dozen people.... some will talk about it being too crusty, others will like the crust.  Some will say it's too sour, others will say it's not sour enough.  Some will talk about the crumb being too chewey, others will say it's too soft.  It's a matter of taste, not science.  Still, it is very important to not let the dough dry out as that will do ugly things to the dough.  A tough crust and it will prevent a good rise.


The boil should be in water that has malt extract rather than bicarbonate.  Bicarbonate is more appropriate for making pretzels when you are too chicken to use lye.  Using malt helps give the bagel's crust a deep sheen.


I usually boil about a minute per side.  If less, the crust won't be right.  If more, the dough will weaken.  In severe cases, I've seen it fall apart.


Anyway, check out my recipe and drop me a note if you have questions.  Email them to me - my web page has a contact form - due to a recent change in employment I'm not online as much as I used to be.



fancypantalons's picture

OOC, I assume you also sent these questions to Peter?  Because this is the exact kind of questions and feedback I suspect he wants from his testers... after all, if you're having trouble, odds are after the book is published, someone else will. :)

Incidentally, I've executed that recipe three times now, and each time I found the outcome excellent.  That said, the baking process needs some tweaking, IME (I found the bottoms brown *way* too fast).  I've also incorporated some of the tweaks others have suggested (such as bulk retarding the dough and shaping it cold the next day).

As for your varied outcomes, it'd be interesting to know how you judged the hydration of each batch.  Bagel dough has to be surprisingly stiff... it's that stiffness that leads to the characteristics chewiness of a bagel.  As such, the variation you see may simply be a product of inconsistencies in dough preparation.  I'm also curious if there were variations in the baking process itself... did you preheat the same each time?  Bake on the same rack?  At the same temperature?  Etc, etc.

Finally, I'd suggest just giving it a third go and seeing how it works out.  It may be that that first batch was simply an outlier, and now that you have some practice with the recipe, you'll get a more consistent outcome.

ehanner's picture

I don't think the testers are supposed to be having conversations outside of that process. The point of the process is to see what happens when a person tries to read the directions and succeeds or fails based on their interpretation of the instructions. It's a confidential process. He shouldn't seek answers here for recipe issues as a tester. You have to let the process unfold naturally.



gmask1's picture

Doing the recipe testing has piqued my curiosity, as I hope baking still does for you. If there comes a time when I'm not intrigued or interested in what's going on behind the scenes, then I'm going back to store bought bread.

I'm trying to learn a little about the product that I'm baking - in this case, bagels; this seemed to be a good place to do so, given my previous experiences discussing my rye bread adventures. For me, learning some of the background helps me understand why things happen the way that they do.

I apologize if I'm stepping in some kind of no-go-zone. I'm sure that I can learn the same things from books; in fact, your reply has convinced me to forego the forum and go out and buy something that I can read while I'm baking instead.

ehanner's picture

Sorry if I commented about you instead of to you.  This testing that many people are doing is an unusual situation and it puts an edge on what is always a free and open exchange of ideas and advice. PR is trying to improve the text for a new book and is trying to find out if the directions transfer the needed information to the reader. Trust me he doesn't need to find out if the recipes work. The whole point of his exercise is to evaluate some new ideas and recipes. For him it's a confidential project. Authoring a new book in this category is a very competitive business. Peter wasn't clear at all in his wishes for confidentiality. That's not your fault.

Please don't take offense at any of this. There isn't any better place in the world to be to learn to become a good baker. I hope you will continue to be a regular poster here and look forward to seeing your work.


wutan's picture

My whole baking adventure started with Bagels, this was last year and it continues. I spent almost two months playing with recipes and finally found the secret. How did I find the secret ???? well let me tell you. Late one day I went to my favorite Bagel shop and went through the trash, serious my wife kept watch while I looked at his garbage. This is what I found, flour is the key, my guy was using a flour called “Bouncer” from Bay State Milling. You cannot buy Bouncer at retail in Arizona but you can at the local restaurant supply. Problem was they wouldn’t let me in without a business license. Once again the wife came through she brought her company license and tax number down and set me up a commercial account. Soon as I had the account setup in this huge commercial restaurant supply warehouse……. I bought one 50LB bag of flour, they thought I was nuts.

Here some advice, first go with PR’s recipe.

The poolish should sit for no more than 1-2 hours, not a second more or the Bagel might be blown.
Use Diastatic Malt Powder, this stuff converts your starches and does wonderful things to the Bouncer flour.
Keep kneading down to less than 6-8 minutes (by hand), I don’t know why it just worked.
Form into a ball (6 ozs) and rest for no more than 10 minutes.
Learn how to hand roll your bagels.
If they float after you roll they should go right straight into the fridge with 5-6 bagels on a corn meal sprinkled baking sheet.
If they don’t float right away check them every 5 minutes. This is absolutely critical or they will be blown
I place the baking sheet into a garbage bag and seal with a zip tie….
They rest overnight in the fridge and have a wonderful smell when the bag is untied.
Do not boil for more that 1 minute per side. I add nothing to the boil.
I boil 5-6 bagels at a time, they all come out at the same time then right into the oven. No more than a minute between boiling and baking.
There is only one topping for bagels and that’s the everything topping (kosher salt, minced garlic, poppy and sesame seeds)
Bake at 450 for ten minutes then rotate your pans and switch shelves, bake an additional 8-9 minutes
These are the best bagels you will ever eat.
When they are a day old, for breakfast, fry an egg with maybe some sausage or bacon. Toast your bagel and spread a little mayo on each side….Yummy……


ehanner's picture

Thanks for sharing your tips on Bagel heaven Wutan. I did the same thing at a deli that serves unbelievable corned beef here. I went to look in the back to see where the barrels were coming from.

Sometime you want to blow your mind, rehydrate a 1/2 cup of dry onions in boiling water. Pour hot water over the onions and let it cool. Then make up the dough with the onion water and toss a couple T's of onion in the mix. Sprinkle a few on top too.

Lock the door and get the cheese out. Oh yea!!!


sewcial's picture

I'm a bit late on this thread, but hopefully, you will still see this post, Mike.I am starting on my bagel adventure and would like to try your recipe. When reading the intro to it,  you say it is the recipe used at your high altitude bakery in Denver. Are any changes needed to bake at lower elevations? If so, what should I change?