“Authentic” Bagels: Boil, Bake, and Bluster
There are three things that distinguish bagels from other breads:
The first, perhaps obviously, is the shape. There are at least four different theories about the origin of the word “bagel,” and all of them refer to the shape (etymology notes below the recipe for fellow word geeks). However, you can’t just make a standard bread dough into rings, throw it in a hot oven, and expect it to develop the glossy crust and dense, chewy interior that most people associate with bagels.
The second difference is an issue of method: bagels are traditionally boiled before they’re baked, which causes the surface starch to gelatinize, producing their characteristic smooth, shiny crust. The same is true of pretzels, which originated in the same region and, according to Maria Balinska, who wrote a 2008 book about the history of the bagel, are probably related. She specifically calls them “cousins,” whatever that means in terms of food history. She also notes that the Polish obwarzanek—another boiled, ring-shaped bread often sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds—is an “older and Christian relative,” so perhaps that’s the spinster aunt who devoted herself to Jesus. Google translates the Polish entry on “Obwarzanek” to “Bagel,” and this travel guide refers to them as “pretzel rings.” I’m sure different people have different ways of distinguishing between the three, but the boil-then-bake method they share probably makes them more alike than different. So, for example, some people might think pretzels have to be shaped like folded arms whereas other people accept rods or rings as “pretzels,” but either way they’re formed from ropes of dough that maximize the surface area exposed to the boiling water, just like their relatives.
The third difference is an ingredient—bagels are the only bread I know of whose recipes frequently call for malt extract. Pretzel recipes occasionally include it, but not nearly as often as bagel recipes, many of which claim that the malt extract is the key to making “authentic” bagels or achieving a truly “bagel-y” flavor.
The idealized referent of bagel authenticity is usually the “New York bagel,” rather than their Polish-Jewish ancestors. However, when I lived in New York City, I ate plenty of bagels—even at delis on the Lower East Side—that were indistinguishable from the ones available at chains like Brugger’s and Einstein’s nationwide. Perhaps that’s just further evidence of the declining standard described here (accompanying a recipe that demands malt powder):
I can’t count how often expatriate New Yorkers would stop me on the street with tears in their eyes, telling me that mine were the best bagels they’d had since they left "The City," and that they were better than most in "The City" these days. The reasons are simple. I didn’t cut corners and used good ingredients. I don’t know why so many bakeries cut corners on making bagels these days, it’s really NOT that hard!
But I think it’s more likely that the idea of the superior New York bagel is primarily the product of nostalgic fantasies and social decline narratives—it’s something that never was and tells you more about contemporary anxieties and desires than anything real in the past. The tears in those expatriates’ eyes say more about contemporary feelings of depthlessness and transience, the desire for connections to the past and a sense of community, and the myriad dissatisfactions that make people want to think everything was better in the “good old days” than what makes a bagel delicious or “authentic” to anything.
Malt Extract: the Ancient Sweetener in your Bud Light
Given how the same bakers describe malted barley extract on their ingredients page, its presence is probably one of the so-infuriatingly-cut corners they’re talking about:
We wouldn’t dream of making bagels or kaiser rolls without barley malt extract, and neither should you! Barley malt extract improves the taste and texture of the breads it is used in. It goes by a number of names. barley malt extract and malt extract among them. If a malt extract doesn’t specify what grain it is made from, chances are pretty good it was made from barley. Barley is a grain used mostly in brewing beer and making Scotch Whisky. IBarley makt [sic] extract adds a nice taste to breads where it is used. For our recipes, you can either liquid or dry, diastatic or non-diastatic malt extract and not worry about changing the recipe, any combination of these will work just fine. The important things to avoid are hopped malt extract which is really only useful for making beer and the malted milk powder sold in many grocery stores as a milk flavor enhancer which has too little malt in it and too much sugar.
Malt extract is basically just sugar made from grain, usually starting with barley. According to Harold McGee, it’s “among the most ancient and versatile of sweetening agents, and was the predecessor of modern-day high-tech corn syrups.” Just like corn syrup and agave nectar, malt extract is produced by breaking starches into their constituent sugars. Rather than adding enzymes or acids, malting works by simply germinating or sprouting the grain. As a grain germinates, it produces enzymes that digest the grain’s starch to fuel its growth. Those enzymes can be dried and mixed with cooked grains (usually rice, wheat, and barley), which they can also digest, producing a sweet slurry containing lots of glucose, maltose (glucose+glucose), maltotriose (glucose+glucose+glucose), and some longer glucose chains.
It’s not as sweet as sugar, but before sugar colonialism, it was one of the primary sweeteners available in Europe and Asia (the other two were honey and molasses made from sorghum). According to McGee, it was the primary sweetener in China until around 1000 CE, and is still used in China and Korea for confections and the sweet, caramelized gloss on dishes like Peking Duck. Malt extract is also still frequently used in beer brewing—a friend who does home brewing told me recently that American brewers are especially likely to use it to adjust the alcohol content of their beers midway through the brewing process. Apparently the laws regarding how closely the alcohol percentage matches what’s on the label are fairly strict and as the sugars in malt extract are highly available to yeast, it’s a good way to increase the yeast activity quickly and reliably.
Possibly-Heretical Baking Substitutions
McGee claims that malt extract is “frequently used in baking to provide maltose and glucose for yeast growth and moisture retention,” and that might be true for commercial bakers, but it’s not available at most grocery stores, where home bakers get their supplies (it can be found anywhere that carries home brewing supplies and many “natural foods” retailers, including some Whole Foods). However, before sugar was readily available and cheap, it seems likely that malt extract was used the way other sugars often are today—to speed up yeast activity, enhancing rise and oven spring—in many kinds of bread, not just bagels.
Some bagel recipes call for other sugars in place of the malt extract in bagel dough—the first recipe I tried called for maple syrup, perhaps because of it’s phonological similarity to “malt syrup,” the liquid form of malt extract or because they’re both liquids, though malt syrup is much thicker—closer to unfiltered honey. Recipes that call for “malt powder” but also recommend a sugar substitution generally call for brown sugar. And I found at least one that suggests malt powder, malt syrup, honey, and maple syrup are all interchangeable. Of course, they all have slightly different flavors, but most recipes only call for 15–20 g for ~8 bagels so any affect the sweetener’s flavor has on the final product is bound to be minimal.
It’s been a while since I made the maple syrup batch, but I honestly didn’t notice any major flavor difference in the batch pictured above, which used malt extract. Perhaps part of the problem was that I used a “wheat” malt, which may not have as malty a flavor as barley malt. But, again according to McGee, even when it starts with malted barley, “malt syrup has a relatively mild malt aroma because the malted barley is a small fraction of the grain mixture.” In short, despite what some recipes say, you shouldn’t let your lack of malt extract stop you from making homemade bagels.
Nonetheless, it’s still a mystery why bagel recipes would be more insistent about using malt extract than any of the other breads descended from European varieties developed before sugar colonialism. Why are people so willing to substitute sugar in everything from soft, buttery brioche to pretzels, bagels’ closest cousins, but fanatics about the importance of using this particular Old World sugar to certify the authenticity of the bagel?
A Fetish for the Old World
My theory is that it has to do with the bagel’s iconicity and association with Jewishness. One story about the origin of the bagel that seems plausible (though Balinska lumps it with the story about stirrups—explained in the etymology note at the end—as speculative at best and possibly fictitious) is that it’s another version of the ubiquitous roll-with-a-hole developed by Jewish bakers in Krakow after a decree limiting baking or trade in flour to the bakers’ guild was lifted. Even in Poland, which from its founding was more tolerant to Jews than most countries in Europe, Christian trade and craft guilds in many cities excluded Jewish merchants and artisans, who sometimes formed their own guilds. The travel guide’s description of Obwarzanek claims that King Jan Sobieski lifted the ban in 1496, but he didn’t rule until the 17th C. Other claims that Jan Sobieski lifted the ban in the late 17th C. are problematic because the Yiddish word “beygel” was already in widespread currency in Krakow by 1610. There was a different King Jan in 1496—Jan I Olbracht or John I Albert—whose reign was also notable primarily for wars against the Turks. Perhaps he lifted the ban, and Jan Sobieski’s greater fame and friendliness to Poland’s Jews sort of absorbed the earlier Jan’s bagel-inspiring or enabling acts?
Regardless of precisely when or why Jewish bakers in Krakow started making their own version of the obwarzanek, it’s probably the strictness of Jewish dietary laws that made it so popular and caused it to spread to different Jewish communities, whereas the obwarzanek has remained basically a Krakow specialty. It’s leavened, so it’s not kosher for Passover, but it doesn’t contain any dairy so it is parve. Additionally, the thick, solid crust keeps the interior soft and moist better than a split or craggy crust would. So while bagels, like most breads, are tastier when enhanced with fatty spreads or toppings, they’re not bad plain. I suspect that’s also why the Jewish bagel is traditionally shaped into a smooth round whereas obwarzanek look like they’re usually twisted and supposedly do stale quickly:
On leaving the oven the baked goods have a sell-by date of about three hours. As such, finding a hot one is essential. Enjoyed by people of all ages, obwarzanki also feed Kraków’s entire pigeon population when in the evenings the city’s 170-180 obwarzanki carts essentially become bird-food vendors.
Of course, soft pretzels also have a smooth crust that protects the soft interior and makes them tasty with or without added fats, but the pretzel was never associated with Jewishness. The popularity of bagels in America and canonization of the “New York bagel” has everything to do with Jewishness. According to We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans by University of Minnesota historian Donna Gabaccia:
It is true that in the 1890s in the United States only Jews from Eastern Europe ate bagels. In thousands of nondescript bakeries—including the one founded in New Haven around 1926 by Harry Lender from Lublin, Poland—Jewish bakers sold bagels to Jewish consumers. The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish and chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll….
They became firmly identified as “Jewish” only as Jewish bakers began selling them to their multi-ethnic urban neighbors. When bagels emerged from ghetto stores as a Jewish novelty, bagels with cream cheese [which, as she elsewhere notes, was initially developed by English Quakers in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century] quickly became a staple of the multi-ethnic mix that in this century became known as “New York deli,” and was marketed and mass-produced throughout the country under this new regional identity.
As she also notes, in Israel bagels are considered “American” not Jewish. However, their widespread association with Jewishness in the U.S.—both as a marketing tool and as the basis of legit cultural practice and memory—puts greater demands on bagels and bagel bakers to legitimate their authenticity and historicity. Whether it was a continuation of the pre-18th C. practice of using malt extract in many breads to speed up yeast action or a a re-introduction of the ingredient from some centuries-old bagel recipes, using malt extract has become one way for people to differentiate their bagels and lay claim to greater “authenticity.”
Making Your Own
Authentic or not, this recipe is delicious and fairly easy. Like most yeast breads, it takes time, but not a lot of active time. You can use any combination of flours you want, but if you want a really chewy crust and crumb, you will need a high proportion of protein. Some recipes suggest “high-gluten” bread flour, which has an even higher percentage of protein than bread flour. King Arthur claims their “Sir Lancelot” flour is the highest-protein flour currently available for retail sale at 14.2% protein. I just used regular bread flour (10-12% protein), whole wheat bread flour (up to 14% protein, although the additional fiber seems to limit gluten action which is also why I didn’t make them with 100% whole wheat flour), and added approximately 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of flour (including the flour in the starter). Even if you just used all-purpose flour, they would probably still be good, just less chewy.
You can add more of any kind of sugar or whatever else you might want in them—dried fruits, nuts, chocolate chips, chopped spinach, grated cheeses, etc. And you can top them however you like—I used kosher salt for some, sesame seeds for some, and a combination of bits of fried garlic, fried shallot, black sesame seeds, and kosher salt, kind of like one version of an “everything” bagel. I think they’re best fresh out of the oven, slathered with butter, but true to form, they’re also good plain (and easy to stow in a bag for a convenient snack) and on days 2 and 3, they’re great toasted.
Recipe: Sourdough-Risen Bagels (to substitute instant yeast see this entry)
- 2 cups refreshed starter (450g)
- 3 1/4 cups flour with 12-14%-protein (550g) I used:
- 4 T. vital wheat gluten (50g)
- 1 1/2 cups whole wheat bread flour (250g)
- 1 1/2 cups bread flour (250g)
- 4 t malt extract (20g)—optional
- 2 t kosher salt (15g)
- 3/4 cup water (170g)
- 3 T oil (35g)
- 1 T maple syrup (20g)
- toppings—sesame or poppy seeds, salt, fried garlic or shallots, finely grated hard cheeses, etc.
- 1 tsp. baking soda (for poaching water, not for dough)
1. Whisk together flours, gluten, and malt extract if using. Add starter, water, salt, oil, and maple syrup.
2. Mix until they begin to form a dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 15 minutes. If you have a mixer or processer with a dough hook, you can use it for this step. Gluten development is pretty important if you want chewy bagels, so it’s worth checking for the baker’s windowpane.
3. Cover and let rise 3-4 hours, or until doubled. You can let it rise longer and nothing bad will happen, although the sour flavor will become more pronounced over time, and positively sourdough-like after 12-15 hours. You can significantly retard the rise by refrigerating the dough.
4. Divide the dough into 8-12 equal pieces. If you want to be especially particular, use a scale. Eight will be ~155g each, ten will be ~125g each (the size I made), twelve will be ~105g each. Shape them either by poking a hole in the middle of a round and stretching it out or rolling the dough into a rope 9-12 inches long, and pinching the ends together. In my experience, the latter makes for a slightly more consistent thickness.
5. Let rise another 3 hours (30-45 min. if using instant yeast) or cover and refrigerate overnight or up to a week, and remove 1 hour before you’re ready to bake to let them come back to room temperature (so if you want fresh bagels in the morning, you need to make the dough by the afternoon before).
6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F, boil a large pot of water with 1 tsp. baking soda dissolved in it, and put a couple tablespoons of any toppings you want into bowls.
7. When the water is boiling, carefully place 2-3 bagels at a time (more if the pot is large enoguh that more can float in the pot without touching) and poach them for 1 minute on each side. Remove them to a colander and then, while they’re still wet, place them in one of the bowls of toppings.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until browned. Rotate pans half-way through if your oven is uneven.
Fun With Etymology
Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish (1968) says the origin is “beugel,” the German word for “a round loaf of bread,” although it’s a little perplexing why that would have been used to describe a bread that, unlike the ubiquitous round loaf, is ring-shaped. And also, Wiktionary is all “beugel? I don’t know no beugel.”
Several sources, including a 1993 New York Times article and a 2006 book titled Bakery Products: Science and Technology, refer to a popular myth that bagels were invented by Jewish bakers in Vienna as a tribute either King John (Jan) III Sobieski or a King Jan (John) Cobleskill of Poland after he saved the city from Turkish invaders in 1683. The King’s favorite hobby was horse riding, so they shaped the rolls like stirrups, the German word for which is “bugel” (the Austrian word is “beugel” which may be the origin of the first faux-etymology). However, a letter to the editor demanded that “that piece of fakelore be laid to rest,” noting that Yiddish word “beygl” appears in the communal rules promulgated by the leaders of the Cracow Jewish community in 1610: “The rules stipulate that bagels are among the gifts which may be given to women in childbirth and to midwives.” Furthermore, the word appears in the rules without any definition or explanation, suggesting that it was already well-established by the early 17th C.
Two that seem more likely: According to FoodReference.com, the Oxford Companion to Food (1999) says the word comes from “bugel,” not the German word for stirrup, but the Middle High German word for “ring or bracelet.” And in Jewish Cooking in America (1994), Joan Nathan claims that the word derives from “biegen,” the verb meaning “to bend.” Both “bugel” and “beigen” are derived from the Old High German “biogan,” meaning to bow, bend, or curve and the related root “boug-,” which in turn is descended from the Proto-Germanic “beugan” (which, incidentally, also gives us the Old English root “beag” or “beah” which also refers to a ring—“usually meant for the arm or neck; but in one case at least used of a finger ring” OED). So that Germanic root for all things bendy and ring-like is likely the origin of the Yiddish word that was in wide use in Poland by 1610.