Bagels must be my all-time favourite rolls. With their soft and chewy texture, crisp crust and distinct malty flavour they’re a world away from other fresh buns – or so I think. The good news to all bagel lovers out there is that these specific bagel characteristics are not that hard to conjure up in your own kitchen. It only takes a few ingredients and the knowledge of some basic steps to end up with the best bagels you’ve ever tasted.
What makes bagels different from other fresh rolls is the fact that the shaped dough is poached in water before being put in a very hot oven. The poaching step makes the crust set, after which it can quickly crisp up in the oven.
The dough – a simple flour, water and yeast-mixture – can take being plunged into boiling water because of its high flour content, which makes it rather stiff. Traditionally a specific high-protein flower is used, but strong, unbleached bread flour works fine as well. The yeast is activated by adding a spoonful of barley malt syrup. For the activation, any sugary component, such as honey, agave syrup, rice syrup or a plain spoonful of sugar might do, but the malt syrup adds this delicious characteristic bagely flavour to the rolls, which makes a trip to your supermarket or health food shop for it more than worth your while. As you can see in the ingredients list below, an extra spoonful of it is used in the poaching liquid as well, being responsible for creating that shiny, golden bagel crust.
When you scroll down to the recipe, the first glance at those different steps may seem daunting. The individual steps are all quite easy and little time-consuming, though. The only and very effortless time-issue here is the period you leave the dough to rise and the ingredients to do their magic. Comparing bagel recipes on the internet, this turns out to be the most distinguishing element between them. Some authors cheer about the fact that their recipe will give you the perfect bagels within the hour, others, like Peter Reinhart and Felicity Cloake, state that the key to a good bagel is a long, slow overnight period of fermentation.
To check, I baked three different bagel batches: a quick version, with the buns being poached immediately after their 1 hour rising time, a slow one, giving the dough an overnight fermentation period in the fridge before poaching, and a wholegrain one, to find out if this healthier version would turn out as light and yummy as its white counterpart. And guess what, it did!
As for the difference between the quick and the slow version, there definitely is one. When blind-testing the results, my girls explicitly favoured the deeper flavour of the overnight buns. Personally, when I serve brunch for a larger crowd, I find it easier if the dough is standing ready for me in the fridge in the morning already, instead of having to start in time for fresh dough to rise, so for me this test verdict is a convenient one. If instead you like to start your baking fresh on brunch day itself, it’s still worthwhile to do so, though. The resulting flavour of the quick bagels might be less profound, but the rolls coming out of your oven will still remind you why bagels are the best buns in the world.
Fresh bagels – makes 6-8
- 1 tsp. (3 g ) instant yeast
- 1½ tsp. (10.5 g) salt
- 1 tbsp. (21 g) barley malt syrup, honey, agave syrup or rice syrup
- 250 ml lukewarm water
- 450 g strong unbleached bread flour or wholegrain flour of choice (wheat/spelt/rye)
- 2 l water
- 1 tbsp. barley malt syrup
- 1 tsp. salt
- single amounts or mixtures of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, caraway seeds, nigella seeds, linseeds, barley flakes, sunflower seeds, sea salt flakes, onion flakes, …. I used a mixture of black and white sesame and nigella seeds on the white bagels and a sesame/linseed mixture on the wholegrain ones.
For the slow version, start preparing the dough the afternoon or evening before brunch day. For the quick version, the dough can be prepared in the morning.
Preparing the dough
Stir the yeast, salt and syrup into the lukewarm water. Put the flour into a mixing bowl, then add the syrup mixture. Using the dough hook of your mixer, mix in the liquid on low speed for about 3 minutes; alternatively, mix by hand using a wooden spoon. The dough should now be firm, fully hydrated, but not sticky. If too dry, add a little more water; if sticky, work in some more flour.
Knead the dough briefly until smooth, then transfer it to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with oiled cling film and leave to rise in a warm place for 1-1½ hour until doubled in size.
If you’re baking your bagels on the same day, the dough will now be ready for shaping. If you plan to finish them the next day, transfer the dough to the fridge once risen and leave to proof overnight.
Shaping and poaching the bagels
In a large pan, bring the water to a boil. Dissolve the malt syrup and the salt, then maintain at a gentle simmer.
Line a baking sheet with baking parchment and brush this with a thin layer of oil to prevent the bagels from sticking (in general, there’s no need to oil baking parchment, but with bagels it does make a difference!).
Prepare a bowl with seeds for the topping, if using.
Depending on how large you like your bagels, divide the dough into 6-8 equal portions. With floured hands, shape the lumps into balls, taking care not to overwork the dough. Using your fingers and thumbs, pinch a hole in the centre of each ball, then stretch it out until it makes up a third of the diameter of the bagel. The bagels will still rise a bit, so make generous openings, or they’ll close up in the end.
Tip the bagels into the poaching water, a few at a time so each one will have room to float to the surface – or, if you’re a precise and inefficient cook like me, just one at a time. Make sure the water keeps boiling and poach each bagel for 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, turn the bagels over in the poaching liquid and simmer for 30 seconds more, then take out of the pan. Leave on a wire rack for a minute to let excess water drip off, then tip the top side in the seed mixture, if using, and transfer to the baking sheet.
Baking the bagels
Heat the oven to 250°C/500°F/Gas 10.
Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and turn down the oven temperature to 230°C/450°F/Gas 8. Opening the oven and shoving in something cold will lower the temperature by itself; preheating the oven at slightly too high like this will make sure the bagels are baked at the required 230°C from the first minute on.
Bake the bagels for 15 minutes until golden.
Take out of the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack for about half an hour before tucking in.
The bagels are best eaten within a few hours after baking; when eaten at a later time, they’re best toasted. They freeze well; just wrap them individually in cling film.