Food Lover Friday: How to Make Flavorful Homemade Bagels

Many people love bagels. But few have ever learned how to make bagels at home. This is truly a pity, because there is nothing like a freshly boiled-then-baked bagel. Oh, it’s possible that you’ve had a glimpse of this taste perfection if you’ve ever been the first customer at a bagel shop in the morning. But to experience that inimitable flavor alongside the massive sense of accomplishment that comes with making bagels at home? Simply nothing like it.

Fresh Bagels Topped with Poppy Seeds

This recipe will not only reveal how to make homemade bagels, but will yield a wonderful result.

The finished bagels are wonderful in their simplicity: chewy but not tough, flavorful owing to a bread starter which adds a well-rounded flavor, and assertively but not overpoweringly dense. Plus, when they’re your own bagels, you can top them with whatever you’d like. Before we get baking, though, there are some bagel basics that ought to be covered.

What is a bagel? 

No, a bagel is not just a healthy doughnut. A bagel is a type of bread. It is a yeasted ring of dough which is boiled and then baked. This unusual process allows for a texture which is soft on the inside, but with a solid, chewy crust. Sometimes the crust is crispy, sometimes it is more soft.

Some types of bagels, especially in commercial settings, are steamed instead of boiled to streamline the process. The texture is comparable, though not quite the same as a boiled bagel. But if they forgo the boiling process entirely? It might be a tasty ring of bread, but that’s all. It’s not a bagel.

Top View of Fresh Bagels Topped with Poppy and Sesame Seeds

Why do bagels have holes?

There are a few reasons. First and foremost, it allows for even baking–no doughy midsection. Second, it has traditionally made for easy transportation and selling. Years ago in Poland, where bagels hail from, or even in New York City, where they were adopted and adapted into a popular breakfast food, it would not have been unusual to have seen bagel vendors displaying the round breads stacked on a pole, or strung together through their holes with twine or string.

Since usually bagels are hand rolled or the holes are poked through rather than cut out, “bagel holes” have never gained the popularity of doughnut holes, which are inherent to the doughnut making process since those are cut out with a cutter that leaves a hole shape in its wake.

Tablespoon Filled with Grains

Recipe considerations

The recipe that follows, adapted from recipes by King Arthur Flour and Artisan Bread Making by Peter Reinhart, is fairly simple, but decidedly time consuming. Most of this time is inactive–letting a dough starter develop overnight, letting the dough rest and rise for various periods of time. All said and done, it’s a two-day process. If you want bagels in the morning, plan on starting the night before and getting up early–there are 2 hours total of resting time for the dough.

Or, you can prepare the dough and have it formed into balls; refrigerate overnight and start in the morning with the step where you perforate the dough with holes.

When it comes to making the boiling bath of water, you can use either honey, brown sugar, or purists will have you use non-diastatic malt powder. This is a derivative of roasted barley. When added to the boiling water, it gives bagels their distinctive shiny crust.

As for equipment, the recipe is fairly minimal: you’ll need an assortment of bowls, plastic wrap for coving the dough at various stages, a baking sheet and parchment paper, a spatula for transferring, a slotted spoon or tongs, and a pan with sides high enough so that you can comfortably fit an inch and a half of water without it boiling over.

Side View of Baked Bagels Topped with Sesame and Poppy Seeds

Homemade bagels

Makes 12 bagels

For the dough starter

  • 1/2 cup bread flour
  • 1/4 cup cool water
  • 1/8 teaspoon yeast

For the dough

  • 4 cups bread flour
  • 1 1/4 cups cool water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

For the boiling mixture

  • Enough water to fill a 10-inch skillet or pan with at least 1 1/2 inches of water
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar, honey, or non-diastatic malt powder

Day 1:

Prepare the dough starter. Stir together the flour and yeast in a medium bowl. Stir in the water until combined. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature overnight, or up to 24 hours. It may become puffy or slightly change color. Don’t worry.

Day 2:

Step 1:

Remove the starter to a larger bowl, and combine with all of the dough ingredients. Knead the dough until it is stiff and no longer sticky. You can do this by hand, right in the bowl, or transfer it to a smooth work surface (something non-stick will work best, such as a very clean marble countertop). You can also knead with an electric mixer. If you are doing it by hand, it may take up to 10 minutes. The dough may start out sticky, but it will lose its stickiness as you knead, becoming somewhat stiff but still pliable.

Step 2:

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise at cool room temperature for 1 hour. If you are running an errand and can’t make it back for 2 hours, you’ll be ok, so don’t panic.

Kneading Dough with Fist

Step 3:

At the end of this rising period, gently deflate the dough by giving it a very gentle shove with your fist. Pat it down gently. Re-cover the dough, and let it rise for another 30 minutes.

Hand Holding a Ball of Dough

Step 4:

Transfer the dough to a smooth work surface, and divide it into 12 pieces. How to do that? First, split the dough in two. Then, split each of those in two. Now, cut each of the four pieces into thirds. There you go: 12 pieces.

Step 5:

Roll each piece into a round ball. Try to smooth out any “seams” in the dough–while they won’t affect the taste, they will affect the texture of your bagels. Leave the dough balls on the work space, carefully allowing a little room around each one as they will rise one more time and you don’t want them to stick. Cover the dough balls with plastic wrap again, and let them rest for 30 minutes.

Step 6:

While the dough balls rest, prepare your boiling solution. Fill your skillet or pan with about 1 1/2 inches of water (if it’s too high, you might want to use a different pan, because remember that the weight of the bagels will displace the water, too). Add the brown sugar, honey, or non-diastatic malt powder. Don’t heat it quite yet, but have it ready to go.

Step 7:

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Fingers Molding Hole in Center of Bagel Dough

Step 8:

Now, it’s time to make some holes. Using your finger, poke a hole in the center of one of the balls, and move the dough in a circular fashion around your fingers to stretch the hole until it retains the shape (if you don’t stretch it enough the dough will close into a teeny tiny hole again). The entire bagel should be about 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Place the prepared bagel dough on your parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Step 9:

Now, it’s time to create the boiling bath. Over medium heat, bring the contents of your pan to a gentle simmer. Once you’ve come to this point, use a spatula to transfer the bagels a couple at a time into the simmering mixture. Only place as many bagels as fit comfortably into the pan without touching.

Frying Rings of Dough in Pan

Step 10:

Cook the bagels for 2 minutes on the first side, and then flip using a spoon or tongs. Cook for 1 minute on the second side. They will start to take on a slightly gummy texture. Don’t worry–you’re not done yet.

Fresh-Baked Bagel

Step 11:

Using a slotted spoon or even tongs, remove the bagels from the water. Gently tap to drain excess water. Then transfer back to their spots on the parchment lined sheet. Repeat with the remaining bagels.

Step 12:

Bake the bagels for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they have reached your desired shade of browning. If you like to toast your bagels, consider baking them on the lower end of the time spectrum.

Step 13 (optional):

If you’d like to top your bagels with seeds, remove them from the oven (but leave the heat on) after 15 minutes. Brush or spray with water (or for a non-traditional but tasty finish, olive oil) and sprinkle with seeds or toppings. Return the bagels to the oven for 5-10 more minutes, until they have reached your desired shade of brown.

Bagels Cooling, in Process of Being Topped with Seeds

Remove the bagels from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. Keep in mind that even when the bagels begin to cool to the touch on the outside, they are still quite hot on the inside, so handle with care.

What’s your favorite way to eat a bagel?

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