I know it might be hard to believe, but there was a time when the only place a person could buy a decent bagel was in a big city kosher bakery. I had never even heard of a bagel until I was seventeen and the grocery store on Cape Cod where I was a cashier began carrying the frozen Lenders version at the request of summer people from places like Boston and New York City.
I was still a bagel neophyte when, a few years later, my college boyfriend took me home to meet his Brooklyn-born parents. They decided I was definitely not the girl for their son when I turned up my nose at lox and cream cheese and requested mayonnaise for the bagel from which I was scraping away the poppy seeds.
Now I eat bagels – with cream cheese – at least once a week. I buy them by the dozen from The Works Cafe in Concord, cut them in half, throw them in the freezer, then pop them in the toaster as needed, and they’re wonderful. But one day recently we ran out of our frozen stock and, because I wasn’t planning to make a trip to Concord any time soon, I decided to try making my own.
Making good bagels at home, it turns out, is a little more complicated than making a good loaf of bread at home. First of all, the dough, which is stiffer than regular bread dough, has to be kneaded for a long time to properly activate the gluten in it. And because the dough begins with a “sponge” (a loose mixture of flour, water and yeast), and because bagels have to spend the night in the refrigerator to ferment and develop the best flavor, you’ll need to start a day ahead of time. Furthermore, the bagels have to be boiled before being baked to set the gluten in the crust, which makes the finished product shiny and crunchy on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside.
Still, if you love to cook as much as I do, bagels are a fun project. Too, making your own bagels allows for tailoring them to personal preferences. I made mine with half whole wheat flour for the extra nutrition, and experimented with toppings like my homegrown ground red pepper. I can honestly say the results were absolutely delicious, as good as the best bagels I’ve ever had.
To achieve the same results in your kitchen, do read through the recipe carefully before beginning the project. Make sure to use white bread flour, which is high in gluten, for the sponge. Because whole wheat flour can vary a lot in coarseness and how it absorbs water, don’t add it all at once when making the dough, adding more a little at a time to achieve the proper stiffness. I used King Arthur brand for both the bread and the whole wheat flour (don’t use “white wheat flour”).
And finally, cook the bagels in the center of the oven, turn on the convection fan if you have one, and monitor the temperature carefully. If available, use a baking stone or a layer of bricks under the sheet tray to moderate the heat and cook the bagels evenly. They need to bake in a hot oven, but not so hot they burn (especially if you don’t have a baking stone or bricks) so use your best judgment and adjust the temperature up or down as needed.
Whole Wheat Bagels
For the sponge:
- 4 cups white bread flour (about 18 ounces – don’t pack the flour)
- 1 teaspoon dried yeast
- 2-1/2 cups lukewarm water
For the final dough:
- 1/2 teaspoon dried yeast
- 3½ cups (approximately 1 pound) whole wheat flour (you may substitute white bread flour, but will need a little more to make the dough stiff enough)
- 1 scant tablespoon kosher salt (if using regular salt, use 2 teaspoons)
- 1 tablespoon honey (you may substitute maple syrup, brown sugar, or malt syrup)
- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- toppings of your choice – sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher or sea salt, minced onions or garlic, ground hot red pepper flakes, etc.
- 1 egg white (optional)
The day before baking:
Make the sponge:
To make the sponge, mix together the white bread flour and the teaspoon of dried yeast in a large bowl. Add the lukewarm water and stir well, until all the flour is incorporated with the water. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel (not touching the dough) and set aside for two or three hours in a warm spot (70-80 degrees if possible), until bubbling.
Make the dough:
To make the dough, stir the additional 1/2 teaspoon of dried yeast into the sponge, then stir in the salt and honey or other sweetener. Add three cups of the whole wheat flour to the mixture and stir well to make a stiff dough. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and knead for at least ten minutes (it may be more like 15 or 20) until the dough is much smoother and contracts into a rounded ball. You may also knead the dough in a stand mixer using the dough hook attachment.
If the dough seems at all sticky or loose, add some of the remaining flour, a little at a time, until the desired consistency is reached. Or, if the dough seems so stiff that you can’t incorporate the three cups of flour, wet your hands and knead the moisture into the dough, repeating as necessary. Your aim is to make a dough that is stiffer than the average bread dough so that the bagels hold their shape when boiled.
When you think the dough is ready, break off a small piece, then thin and stretch it gently with your fingers. The dough has been kneaded adequately if you can stretch it thin enough so that if you hold it up to a light source, light will shine through it.
Shape the dough:
Line two sheet trays with parchment paper, and then dust the parchment with whole wheat flour, or lightly oil it. Cut the dough into twelve equal pieces (about 4 ounces each). Shape each piece by placing your cupped hand over it, pressing lightly on the dough and rotating your hand in a small circle parallel to the counter top. This should cause some surface tension on the dough, and create a neat, round bun shape. If that doesn’t work, try to roll the dough into a neat ball in any way that works for you.
As each ball is shaped, place it on the parchment-lined sheet tray. Don’t let the rounds touch; you should wind up with six on each tray. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for 1/2 – 1 hour, until the rounds have become a bit puffier and softer.
Carefully lift a round from the sheet tray so you don’t deflate it, hold it in one hand and then use the thumb on your opposite hand to carefully poke a hole in the center of the ball of dough. Gently stretch the bagel so that it is even all the way around and the hole in the center is at least an inch in diameter. Place the bagel back on the sheet tray and repeat the process until all the bagels have been shaped.
Cover the bagels with plastic and allow to rise in a warm spot for about 1/2 hour, or until they pass “the float test.” Fill a bowl with room temperature water, gently lift one of the bagels from the tray, trying not to delate it, then place it in the bowl of water. If it floats, the bagels are ready to be removed to the refrigerator to ferment overnight. If it doesn’t, let the bagels rise a little more, then try again.
The next morning:
Boiling, garnishing and baking the bagels:
When ready to bake, remove the bagels from the refrigerator. Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to a simmer. While the water is heating, adjust your oven rack so it is in the center of the oven, and, if available, place a baking stone or bricks on the rack. If using a baking stone, turn the oven to 450 degrees (500 degrees if your oven runs cool, or 425 if your oven runs hot). If you are not using a baking stone, heat the oven to 425 degrees (turning up or down as described above if you know your oven runs hot or cold).
Prepare a bowl or bowls with your desired toppings – sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher salt, chopped onions, etc. If desired, whisk an egg white in a small bowl until it froths to use as a “sticker” for the toppings.
When the water is simmering, add the tablespoon of baking soda to the pot and stir. Gently peel the bagels one by one from the parchment paper and place them in the simmering water, where they will float. You will only be able to cook three or four at a time, depending on the size of your pot. After 30 seconds to one minute, when the bagels have puffed on the bottom, use a skimmer or slotted spoon to turn the bagels over. Cook them on the other side for an additional 30 seconds to one minute, until they have puffed and set.
Remove the bagels with the skimmer or slotted spoon, draining them well as you work, and place them back on the parchment-lined sheet trays. Repeat until all the bagels have been boiled.
As soon as the bagels have been drained, sprinkle them well with the toppings. If you like, paint them with a little of the frothed egg white to help the toppings stick.
Bake the bagels on the sheet trays in the center of the oven for about 25 minutes (more or less – use your best judgment), using a convection fan if you have one. If necessary, bake one sheet at a time – the boiled bagels will be fine if they have to sit for a while before cooking. Turn the trays halfway through the cooking time so they bake evenly.
If necessary, for the last ten minutes of baking turn the bagels over, so the bottom is up and browns. You may also remove the bagels from the baking sheet and place the bagels directly on the baking stone to brown the bottom.
They are done when puffed up, nicely browned on the top and golden on the bottom. They will be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, but there should be no sign of raw dough.
Allow them to cool for 5 or 10 minutes before serving. In my opinion, fresh bagels don’t need toasting, but that is a matter of taste. If you will not be eating all the bagels the same day, split them in half (for ease of toasting later) and freeze. Frozen bagel halves can be popped directly into the toaster without thawing.