This is the recipe I've been working on tweaking lately. There's a lot of variation in terms of what people look for in their bagels, so I'll tell you what I'm looking for. I want the kind of bagel you can get at a really great shop in New Jersey: hefty, a little puffy, bready and chewy without being too much of either; soft, yet sturdy enough to bite through without squishing the bagel down into nothing and getting cream cheese everywhere. I want the dough to be flavorful, but not overpoweringly so, balancing malt, sweetness, and saltiness, with a hint of fermentation from the overnight rest. I am not chasing Absolute Jewish Authenticity or anything like that, although I am Jewish; I am trying to recreate the bliss I felt squatting in the grass outside Teaneck Road Hot Bagels, inhaling my second bagel in 10 minutes. Hopefully this gives you some idea of whether or not our bagel preferences align.
Without further ado, here are some pictures of how my bagels look. These differ from my original recipe in that they are softer, less "bready", without being squishy or airy. The exterior crackles slightly while still being more of a "skin" than a crust. They also stale better, due to the inclusion of sugar and oil. If you want to shave a few hours off the overnight rest, you can replace 1% of the sugar with diastatic malt.
I do use some specialized ingredients and equipment, including high-gluten bread flour, diastatic malt powder, and barley malt syrup. For completeness' sake, I use this yeast, Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, and Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water. I also have a really intense mixer, a pizza stone, a kitchen scale, and bagel boards.
- high-gluten flour (mine is pre-malted, so I don't add extra malt): 100%
- water: 50%
- instant yeast: 0.5%
- salt: 2.5%
- neutral oil (e.g., grapeseed, sunflower): 3%
- granulated sugar, ideally the darkest brown sugar you can find: 5%
Stir the dry ingredients together, then add the wet and knead in your mixer for approximately 10 minutes. The challenge of this dough is that it never really looks good during the mixing stage. Here's what it looks like after about 5 minutes of mixing; here is what it looks like after 10. You'll know it's getting there when it starts to ribbon around the dough hook like saltwater taffy, stretches easily in your hands, and feels hydrated. (You can't really do the windowpane test with a dough this low hydration; it will rip.) At this point, rest the dough, covered, for 20 minutes to an hour, until it's fully smoothed out and looks like this.
Following the rest, the dough will transform and become remarkably easy to roll out. Shape the bagels like this, slicing off approximately 140g strips of dough, rolling them into snakes on an unfloured counter, then wrapping them around your hand and rolling firmly against the counter to seal. Place shaped bagels on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and lightly misted with oil; I get 12 bagels per sheet.
Rest bagels, covered, at room temperature, until they float when dropped into a bowl of water. How long this takes is highly dependent on your kitchen's temperature conditions, but I find it usually takes about an hour, and they should look kind of like this. Transfer to the fridge to rest overnight.
The next day, 16 to 24 hours later, get your oven as hot as possible, soak your bagel boards, boil water, and remove the bagels from the fridge. Add a big spoonful of malt syrup (or molasses, or honey, or whatever) to the liquid, keeping it at a gentle, rolling boil. Boil bagels 10-15 seconds per side. Once they come out of the bath, arrange them face-down on the bagel boards.
Place boards directly on the pizza stone and allow to bake for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, flip the boards so the bagels have direct contact with the stone and are now facing upwards. Bake another 5-10 minutes until desired doneness is reached; remove from oven, and rest bagels on cooling racks for at least 15 minutes.
Now, some notes on why I do what I do. There are a number of things that differentiate this recipe from most widely-available bagel recipes. Namely, the dough is very low hydration, the boiling time is much lower than the 1-2 minutes I usually see recommended, and I've included sugar and oil. I'll discuss these in order.
Low hydration results in a dense, even crumb and an extremely smooth exterior. If you look at a lot of online bagel recipes, you'll see that they're a bit wrinkly; this is why. The denseness of the bread is also important to the bagel "holding up": bagels are big, and they have a skin you need to bite through somewhat forcefully, so the interior should be sturdy. If you've ever had a "too-chewy" bagel, this is probably due to high hydration and good gluten development using a high-gluten flour; a bagel in this category has a tendency to become sort of gum-like. Conversely, a bagel with low hydration and poorly-developed gluten will result in a bready product that does not evoke a bagel. Balance!
Moving on. If you ask most people what makes a bagel a bagel, they'll probably mention the boiling. Actually, when I tell people I make bagels, they usually respond, "Wow, do you boil them?" I find this kind of strange, because the boiling part is like the easiest part... but whatever. Bagels are boiled. This is certainly true. It is no surprise, then, that people seem to think that boiling bagels longer makes them better, but those people are wrong. A boiling time of 10-15 seconds per side will still result in a distinctive "skin"; it will be a bagel. Longer will get you a thicker skin, but causes other issues. Namely, when you introduce heat to your bagels, you are activating some of the yeast. You really want this to happen in an extremely hot environment like the oven as opposed to a moderately hot environment like a simmering pot of water, so as to obtain the best "oven spring"; the longer you boil your bagels, the less oven spring. Also, starch gelatinization is what is responsible for the "skin", but sets the bagel's exterior, inhibiting its rise: the thicker the skin, the less rise you're likely to achieve. All this to say, basically, that a longer boiling time results in an overall smaller, flatter bagel.
Finally, sugar and oil. These are probably the most controversial inclusions, and I get it, it's not exactly traditional... but it is better. Very low-hydration doughs can end up stiff or dense, in a bad way; a little oil softens things up, resulting in a bagel that is perfectly soft, sturdy, and chewy. Sugar, meanwhile, tastes good. Don't worry, these bagels aren't sweet—but sugar does balance the malt, salt, and fermentation in the dough. Both ingredients slow the staling process, which was probably my biggest dissatisfaction with my original recipe: in the past, after as little as a few hours, my bagels were much worse. These keep beautifully. They're pretty good on the second day, even, which is unusual.
- "Why don't you use a poolish anymore?" Because it's annoying. Okay, no, but also kind of. Poolishes are fussy—how long they take depends heavily on the temperature of your kitchen, so you have to keep an eye on it, significantly extending the amount of active time in the bagelmaking process. I've asked a bunch of my favorite bagel shops if they use a poolish, and none of them do; I do know someone who sells locally who does, but his operation is still relatively small. The other reason, and the one that is more likely to convince you, is that I don't think it's necessary. Most bread goes from start to finish in between 2 and 12 hours, so a starter or preferment allows you to get more fermented flavor into the dough in this relatively brief window. Bagels can hang out forever in the fridge: leave them in there for 3 days if you want to; they'll be fine. Proofing them at a lower temperature for a longer period will net you similar results to using a preferment, and it's easier, so just do that.
- "I want some number of bagels. How much flour should I start out with?" First, take the target weight of one bagel and multiply it by the number of bagels you want: for reference, my bagels are approximately 140g each, which is on the bigger side, but not New Jersey big. Call this y. You can add 50-100g of slack to this number if you like; I do. Now, let the weight of your flour be represented by the variable x. Multiply the percentage of every ingredient by x, sum them all up, and set that equal to your y. In this case, we would get the equation x + 0.5x + 0.005x + 0.025x + 0.03x + 0.05x = y, or 1.61x = y. Solve for x. Now you know baker's percent.
- "Can I use a different flour?" Yes, and I strongly encourage people to make substitutions using what they have before shelling out for high-powered mixers, bagel boards, and specialty flour. That said, the flour I use is the best flour. It's designed for bagels and pizza, and many, many shops in the Northeast use it, including all my favorites. Flour is complicated and there are many variables, but this one is an enriched, hard spring wheat flour with a high protein content and diastatic malt added. The protein content allows for the development of more gluten, which gives bagels their chew; diastatic malt assists in the processing of maltose during fermentation, leading to more rapid, reliable proofing and better crust browning. You can make your own high-gluten flour by adding vital wheat gluten to any flour you've got, targeting a protein content of 14.2%. You can also add 0.25% diastatic malt. If you don't feel like doing any of this ridiculous bullshit, use bread flour, or, failing that, AP flour.
- "Can I use olive oil?" I wouldn't, because I want the oil to be completely undetectable in terms of taste: it's purely there to soften the dough. If you like the flavor or you haven't got anything else, go for it?
- "Do I need barley malt syrup?" Not really, although I find most bougie grocery stores have it these days. Just use sugar or honey in the boiling liquid instead.
- "Do I need bagel boards?" Bagel boards introduce steam to the oven environment; flipping the bagels midway through baking prevents them from burning on the bottom and results in a more buoyant shape. You can ameliorate the burning issue using a silpat, or you can try starting the bagels on a baking sheet and flipping them onto the stone after 5 minutes. You can also place a cup of water or something in the oven to create steam, as is frequently done in breadmaking. If you do any of these things, let me know how it goes!
- "Can I make bagel boards?" I guess you could get the stuff at Home Depot or whatever, but people don't like when I suggest that because the materials aren't intended for culinary use and may not be food safe. I dunno, I think it's worth spending $30 on bagel boards that definitely aren't deleterious to your health, but do what you want.
- "What cream cheese do you use?" I use Philadelphia, which in my opinion represents the platonic ideal of cream cheese. I buy it in big blocks at US Foods. One reason cream cheese tastes different in bagel shops is that it's whipped, but nowhere near as much as the whipped cream cheese you can buy in the store, which is mostly air. I whip it a little using a hand mixer, until the consistency is slightly more spreadable; this is also when I incorporate scallions, dill, etc.
Anyway, yeah, bagels. I'll put more stuff here if I think of it. Have fun!