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We Try It: Homemade Bagels

I know, I know, the New Yorkers reading this are laughing at me and thinking, “Why in the world would I want to make bagels at home when I can get fresh bagels at half a dozen places within a couple block radius of my house?” To you I say, “Stop flaunting your bagel privilege! Some of us had to move to the ‘burbs where apparently they didn’t get the memo about how bagels need to be boiled before baked!” Desperation can lead to deliciousness, and I’ll never go bagel-less again after learning to make them at home. It sounds intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy!

After lamenting some truly awful local bagels on Facebook, my dad sent me a copy of Bagels at Home, an instructional DVD by Mark Witt of Bread Technique. His recipes are available online, but if you’ve never made bread before it’s definitely helpful to watch someone else make them so you can see what the dough looks like at each stage and how to knead it. (The video is also available on Amazon Instant Video for rental or purchase, and they sell the DVD as well.)

The recipe itself isn’t difficult, but it requires some pre-planning. Unless you start really early in the morning and bake the bagels in the evening without proofing them overnight in the fridge, they’re gonna take 2-3 days. There’s also the matter of supplies. To follow his recipe to the letter, you’re going to need:

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  • A food scale that measures in grams (but he gives standard measurements too, so don’t worry)
  • A hearth stone or pizza stone (optional but awesome!)
  • Dough scraper and/or bowl scraper (handy!)
  • A baking/pizza peel (do not buy this just for bagel making)
  • A mixer with paddle and bread hook attachments
  • Several baking pans or cookie sheets
  • Parchment paper and plastic wrap
  • All the other basic baking bits and bobs (measuring cups/spoons, bowls, cooling racks, etc)

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One of the ingredients, malt powder, can also be hard to find if you don’t have a local gourmet store (and are too impatient to order it online). We never did find any but finally tracked down some malt syrup. If you can’t find either, it’s ok to substitute honey, sugar, molasses, or pretty much anything sweet. And be sure to get bread flour instead of all-purpose! There’s a difference.

Ready? Here we go! A PDF of the full recipe is available here; this is the very basic version. Read the real thing if you actually want to make these!!

Step 1: The starter (poolish)

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  • 350 grams (2½ cups) bread flour
  • a pinch (maybe 1/8 tsp) instant yeast
  • 400 ml (14 oz.) water

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Stir the yeast into the flour, then add water and stir until it’s evenly distributed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for 8-12 hours, then either move directly on to the next step or you can put the bowl in the refrigerator for up to three days if you don’t want to make the bagels immediately. The yeast will turn it into a nice bubbly pile of goo.

Bowl of bubbly bagel starter
Trust me, it’s supposed to look like that.

Step 2: The dough

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  • The starter (poolish)
  • 350 grams (2½ cups) bread flour
  • 14 grams (2 tsp) salt
  • 12 grams (1 tbsp) malt powder (Or any substitute listed above, I used a heaping tablespoon of malt syrup. It’s ridiculously sticky, so use a tiny bit of cooking spray on the measuring spoon.)
  • 7 grams (1 tsp) instant yeast

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If the starter is in the refrigerator, pull it out and let it come up to room temperature. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, then reserve about two tablespoons’ worth for later. Put the starter in a mixing bowl (if you use malt syrup or something else sticky for your sweetener, add it now), then the flour mixture. Blend with the paddle attachment for about a minute; be sure to use the lowest setting so the flour doesn’t fly all over the place. Scrape the dough off the paddle, then switch to the bread hook and mix on the kneading setting (probably the second-slowest speed) for 3-4 minutes. If the dough is already clearing the sides and bottom of the bowl, great! Pull it off the hook (it shouldn’t be sticky) and let it rest for 10 minutes or so before moving on to the hand-kneading. If it’s still sticking to the bowl, pull it off the hook and let it rest for 10 minutes, then start the mixer running again and sprinkle the reserve flour into the bottom of the bowl a little bit at a time until it clears, then let the dough rest again.

Step 3: Kneading and shaping

Turn the dough ball out onto a clean countertop or cutting board (put a towel under it so it doesn’t slide) and coat your hands with a little flour. Knead for a few minutes by pushing the dough forward, then giving it a quarter turn and folding it back on itself (this step is where watching the video really came in handy!). If the dough is still sticky, add some flour to the cutting board, or if it’s too dry, dampen the board with a moist cloth. When the dough feels right, cover it in plastic wrap and let it sit for at least 20 minutes.

After the dough rests, portion it into 12 roughly even pieces. It’s easiest to cut the dough ball into quarters with a pastry scraper, then roll each quarter into a long snake and cut that in thirds. With your hands, roll each little piece into a long rope, then wrap it around your hand with the ends under your palm and roll it back and forth to seal the joint. Again, the video makes this step make a lot more sense! Don’t worry if they’re a little lopsided or if they aren’t all the same size.

When all the bagels are shaped, put them on a piece of parchment paper that’s been sprayed with cooking spray, leaving room for them to rise, then spray the tops lightly and cover with plastic wrap for at least 40 minutes to an hour. You can also put them in the refrigerator overnight to let them “proof;” I’ve tried it both ways and couldn’t really tell the difference. If you do this, pull them out at least 20 minutes before starting the next step. The bagels are ready to go when they immediately float in a bowl of water.

Step 4: Boiling and Baking

If you’re using a hearth or pizza stone, put it in the oven and preheat to 500°F for an hour (you should have it heat up while the formed bagels rest). If not, just preheat to 425°F. Put 2-3″ of water in the widest pan you have, add a teaspoon of baking soda per quart (guesstimate if you need to, it’s not an exact science), cover the pan, and bring to a boil. Put the bagels in the pot right-side up, making sure not to crowd them since they’ll expand while cooking, then cover for one minute. Flip them over and boil for another minute, then remove and place them right-side up again on a sheet of parchment paper that’s been sprayed with cooking spray and lightly coated in cornmeal, corn starch, or flour. (The original recipe calls for cornmeal but I hate bagels with cornmeal so I used corn starch. To each their own.) If you have a small pan and have to do this in several batches, add more hot water as needed.

(If you want to add a topping to your bagels, dump some sesame seeds, poppy seeds, finely chopped onion or garlic, or whatever else you want into a small plate or shallow bowl and press the bagel into it as soon as it comes out of the water. Merely sprinkling on some sesame seeds is apparently not enough to make them stick very well. I’ve also seen an egg wash recommended to help the toppings stick, but haven’t tried it.)

Turn the oven down to 425°F if you’re using a hearth/pizza stone, then use a baking sheet or pizza peel to slide the parchment directly onto the stone. If you’re just using a baking sheet, pop it in the oven. Bake for 5 minutes, then rotate the bagels on the stone or turn the tray around so they cook evenly. After another 5-8 minutes the tops should be golden brown and the bagels are done! Remove the whole sheet of parchment to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then dig in!

A plate with three homemade bagels
YUMMY!

(Images are author’s own.)

By [E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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