Bagels are so familiar these days — perhaps too familiar, given the contortions of new flavors, from chocolate chip to spinach.
But bagels, at heart, are about the basics: yeast, water, flour, salt and a bit of sweetener. What takes a bagel from good to great involves using the best basics.
Yeast, water and salt are straightforward enough, although for convenience’s sake, you can’t beat instant yeast. It doesn’t need to first be dissolved in warm water, but merely is whisked into the flour.
For bagels, bread flour is the path to the distinctive chewiness because it has more protein, or strength, than all-purpose flour.
The choice of sweetener is the final key to a great bagel. Barley malt syrup, readily available in local food co-ops and some grocery stores, has a “malty” taste that gives bagels their essential flavor. Lacking this, you can use honey, or even a light molasses. But once you try this syrup, you may find yourself slipping a spoonful into all sorts of recipes for a flavor that not only is sweet, but has some depth.
For the best-tasting bagels, as well as preparation ease, mix the dough in the evening, then let it slowly rise overnight in the refrigerator. This enables every smidgen of yeast to develop to its full flavor potential. In the morning, let the dough warm up on the counter for about an hour, then shape the bagels. While they rest, begin heating a large pot of water.
Briefly poaching the dough in simmering water is what makes a bagel a bagel, and not just a ring of bread. Stirring in some baking soda gives the crust a slight tang. After poaching a minute on each side, lift out the bagels with a slotted spoon, brush with egg white, add toppings if you wish, then bake in a hot oven for about 20 minutes.
Let them cool for at least 30 minutes, then slice, slather and savor.
Now, a modest proposal: While perusing various bagel recipes, one popped up that called for finely ground black pepper. It was from Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of the various “bibles” for cakes, bread and pies, and so no slouch in the baking department. She, in turn, has said she was inspired by Julia Child, who used 1 to 2 teaspoons in her bagel recipe.
Still, we had to try it, although cowardice led to using barely a half teaspoon. But here’s the thing: It’s wonderful. You don’t taste “pepper.” You just taste “more flavor.” Granted, black pepper isn’t everyone’s favorite seasoning, but trust us on this one: Just a bit added to this recipe makes a knockout bagel.
So it’s optional — but encouraged.
Sort of like making bagels in the first place.
2 c. lukewarm water
1 tbsp. barley malt syrup (see Note)
1 tbsp. honey
3 tsp. kosher salt
6 c. bread flour
2 tsp. instant yeast
Scant ½ tsp. finely ground pepper, optional
1 tbsp. baking soda
1 egg white, beaten
Toppings as desired
Note: Barley malt syrup is found in food co-ops and some grocery stores. Instant yeast also is called bread machine yeast. If you choose to add the optional pepper, make sure it’s finely ground.
In a bowl, stir together 2 cups water, barley malt syrup, honey and salt. In a large bowl, stir together flour, yeast and, if desired, the pepper.
If using a stand mixer, use the dough hook on low speed as you add the water mixture to the flour. Mix until well-blended, about
3 minutes. If mixing by hand, use a sturdy spoon, or your hands, and mix for about 3 minutes. This is a fairly stiff dough.
Turn the dough out onto a counter and knead for several minutes until the dough is smooth and only slightly tacky. Round into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for about an hour.
(For fresh bagels in the morning, place the dough in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, let the dough warm up on the counter for about an hour before shaping.)
Turn the risen dough out into a lightly floured counter. Cut into 12 even pieces, then shape each piece into a ball by pulling the raw edges toward the center, pinching them closed, then firmly rolling the dough on a clean, unfloured surface using the cup of your hand.
To shape the bagels, poke a hole through the center of each ball, then use your fingers to gently pull and rotate the dough until you have a hole about 2 inches across. Make the hole larger than you think you should, because the dough will spring back and swell while poaching and baking.
Cover the shaped bagels with a cloth and let rise until a bit puffy, about 15 minutes.
While the bagels are resting, heat 4 quarts (16 cups) water in a large pot. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and place racks in the bottom and upper third. Cover 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and mist with cooking spray. Or, oil baking sheets and sprinkle with cornmeal.
When the water boils, reduce to a simmer and stir in baking soda.
Gently lower 3 bagels, top side down, into the simmering water, leaving enough room for them to float around. (They will sink first, then rise.) Poach for a minute, then flip over and let poach for another minute. Remove bagels with a slotted spoon and place on a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with 3 more bagels.
Brush beaten egg white over each bagel, taking care not to let it drip onto the paper. If desired, coat with toppings such as sesame or poppy seeds, grated cheese, sautéed garlic or onion, etc.
Place pan on lower rack and bake for 10 minutes. While the first pan is baking, repeat the poaching process with the remaining bagels.
When the first pan has baked for 10 minutes, move it to the upper rack and place the second pan on the lower rack.
Continue baking for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the first bagels are golden brown. Move the second pan to the top rack for its remaining 8 to 10 minutes.
Cool for at least 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing.