February 4, 2006

Gooooooooaaaal!

Filed under: Bagels — Professor Salt @ 10:09 pm

Plain bagelI’ve tried not to bore you with too many updates about my bagel project. Be glad for self restraint because I’ve been intensely tweaking the formula every day for the past two weeks and have learned much with those experiments. I’m glad to say I found a way to hit all the targets for my personal definition of a good bagel. Most of it lies in dough technique, and the rest happens with oven technique.

I started out by using formulas from Peter Reinhart’s Crust & Crumb, Rose Levy Berenbaum’s The Bread Bible, and Beth Hensperger’s nearly identically titled book, The Bread Bible: 300 Favorite Recipes. Each yielded very different styles of bagel, which I’ll talk about when I review the books. Reinhart came closest to my target, and I modified his formula to get exactly what I wanted. What does that mean?

The dark color of the crust comes from high oven heat, which yields a toasty, caramelized flavor, and a chewy, bulletproof crust as thick as a credit card.

See those blisters? The glassine skin on thousands of those tiny bubbles shatter under the tooth, adding a crisp component to the chewy crust. Those blisters develop from two kinds of preferment (a loose poolish and pate fermentee, for you bread bakers out there), and a slow overnight rise in the fridge.

Tearing one of these things in half takes some effort, like ripping a small phone book in half with your bare hands. I kid you, but only a little. This is a desired feature for old school bagels (in my opinion). Bagels were brought to this country by hardboiled Eastern European immigrants who escaped a harsher life than we can imagine. Think they made bagels like poofy rolls with holes in the old country?

The interior is dense, thanks to high gluten flour kneaded by hand to yield a dough so stiff that anything short of a commercial spiral mixer would probably choke on it and burn out. Though the dough starts out dry, the short bake time at high heat keeps the interior moist.

Now that I’ve found one path to acheive my goal, it’s time to expand my understanding of this technically demanding bread. I’m a journeyman baker, and have just begun learning this craft. I wonder how many master bakers would be willing to share their knowledge with us through interviews on this blog? Stay tuned readers, it’s part of the year long bagel project!

13 Responses to “Gooooooooaaaal!”

  1. Mealcentric Says:

    I agree with your entire description of how a proper bagel should taste, feel and look. So now the ultimate question, when are you going to offer to sell a bakers dozen to me?

  2. Funwithfood Says:

    I tasted the bagels the minute after they were made, it would be hard to imagine a better bagel!

  3. Kristy Says:

    Wow! Sounds fabulous! Can’t wait to read the book reviews! Mmm…I’m with Mealcentric! ;) Would love some homemade cream cheese too! Lol!

  4. Jason Says:

    This is an old Southern Illinois University specialty. Kids, late at night and often drunk, would pay $5 to the Bagelman. He would set up his Barbecue and roast bagels on the street with a variety of toppings. I liked cream cheese, cinnamon, apples and sunflower seeds. Sometimes raisins, too. Delicious!

  5. Carlos Says:

    For years my Brooklyn Jewish wife has complained that what we got at the store was not a bagel, it was a roll with a hole in it. So, in the past year I’ve been working on bagels too. I’ve tried Reinhardt (Bread Baker’s Apprentice) and Berenbaum, too, but I’m amused to say that my favorite dough is from “Baking with Julia (Child),” not normally who you’d think of for an authentic bagel. My favorite batch subbed some malt syrup for some of the sugar, but with enough gluten in the flour and enough kneading, I got the hard-to-tear texture. Also, my baking techniques are a mix of the three recipes. In the end, however, though I’ve made bagels a dozen times or so, I can’t figure why anyone does it unless they enjoy the process. It’s too much work for a measly dozen.

  6. Professor Salt Says:

    Hi Carlos,

    I agree that making bagels at
    home (at least the way I do mine) takes time and a commitment bordering on a classifiable disorder. But just as any dedicated bread
    baker will tell you, it’s easier and more satisfying to create
    something I’m happy with, rather than rely on inadequate commercial
    versions and live the rest of my life in a constant state of
    embittered bagel disgruntlement. I’m sure you understand.

    My method is somewhat like a sourdough technique, where I hold back
    some of the old dough to use in the next batch. With a little
    practice, it’s not that much of a chore to keep the dough culture
    alive and healthy. It forces me to bake twice or three times a week,
    which is a rewarding duty, and ensures a steady supply of bagels that
    I’m happy to share with friends and family.

  7. Divey Says:

    Greetings Professor and fellow lurkers,

    Your yummy descriptions echo my perception that great commercial bagel baking is dying out. Why is it so hard to find a bagel with a decent crust and a dense interior without big voids? The remaining bagel chains make decent bagel-shaped, breadlike objects but they aren’t great bagels!

    Another observation of Internet origin got me thinking. The poster (with alleged NYC bagel consuming experience) insisted that a genuine NYC bagel does Not have a signficant sour taste. To a lifelong California boy and sourdough lover this seems strange, but it is true for classic NYC bagels? Lurkers, weigh in!

  8. DoctorPepper Says:

    The bagels look fantastic!
    You mentioned:
    “two kinds of preferment (a loose poolish and pate fermentee, for you bread bakers out there), and a slow overnight rise in the fridge.”

    I am intrigued by this. Two starters? Could you elaborate? All in all that sounds like a very long time from making the starter(s) to the finished product.

  9. Professor Salt Says:

    Divey,

    NYC bagels don’t have a noticeably sour taste, that’s true. I can’t think of any old school NY bagel shops that use a wild yeast culture, so they’re not true sourdoughs. The way I make mine, I use a commercial yeast in minute quantities. A long slow fermentation rounds out the flavors of the finished product. If I let the fermentation go a little longer than usual, then it takes on a lactic tang, but it’s not as sour as a true sourdough bread.

    Doctor,

    I experimented with faster fermentation, and used either / or of the two preferments. Couldn’t acheive the blistered crust or the flavors without using both. Yes, it’s a long process when you’re just starting the cultures. The preferments are living things that need a little love to keep alive, but if you bake three times a week, it’s not hard to sustain the cultures.

  10. Asia B Says:

    Just found your site looking for foodie sites, love how you nit pick food to it’s every last iteration, I’m coming back for sure. Regarding bagels made here in Cali, I’m surprised it hasn’t been mentioned but we ex New Yorkers always end up saying it’s the water that makes an East Coast bagel so good. The due diligence & commitment you give the recipe is admirable but just wanted to throw that in the mix, perhaps I or someone else will bring you back a gallon of the best tap water in the world from good old Manhattan. That might do the trick cause with out the brick like density the bagels I have had here really are like rolls with holes.

  11. Answers About New York Food History, Part 2 - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com Says:

    [...] I moved away from my native New York and learned to make old school bagels (small, crusty, you know the type) of my 1970s youth. It can be done. It’s not “the water.” See here for proof: professorsalt.com/2006/02/04/gooooooooaaaal/. [...]

  12. You gonna eat that? Random musings on food and life in Orange County, California » DiFara Pizza Coming to L.A.? Says:

    [...] NY pizza or bagels can’t be produced outsite of New York is bullshit, and I proved it during my own bagel baking experiments. See also the fact that Joe’s Pizza in Santa Monica is just like the Joe’s Pizza in [...]

  13. Barbara Pesce Says:

    NY bagels in CA… gotta love it. They’re always attributing the difference to the water… obviously not, because although I have not tasted those yummy looking bagels, I am sure they taste just as good, and probably better, than the ones we grew up with :) Come back to NY and bring me some please.

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