Kitchen Experiments: Bagels

Bagels have been on my list for the longest; probably since I started baking bread. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to them. I guess it was probably because everything about bagels seemed so daunting. I also thought a stand mixer was required for these kinds of things. While they may make the process easier, they are by no means a requirement. Back when I put these on my list, they stayed there because of how much work goes into them. I am never afraid of more work, especially when it’s in the kitchen because it’s always a labor of love to me. But the fact that these bagels take two whole days to make was the main reason I put them off for so long. I quickly found out that there wasn’t much of a challenge and that maybe two days isn’t necessary. Either way, I finally got to cross them off my list (twice!)

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First things first, you need a sponge. This is the starter for the bagels, which is a combo of 1 teaspoon instant yeast, 4 cups of bread flour, and 2 1/2 cups of room temperature water. Stir the ingredients together until homogenous and kinda looks like pancake batter. Cover and let rise at room temp for two hours. The first time I made these (yes, I made them twice), I started the sponge and went out to see a movie. I am totally serious, too. The movie was fantastic, as was my sponge when I got home. Technically, you’re supposed to let it rise for two hours but mine did fine with more than that. Honestly, I thought I was gonna come home and find my house overtaken by the sponge! It really was fine, and I got to work soon after.

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Now, it’s dough time. Nothing out of the ordinary here; more yeast (1/2 teaspoon), bread flour (3 3/4 cups), salt (2 2/4 teaspoons) and sugar (1 tablespoon). Fairly simple. Heads up though; make sure your flour is bread flour. I think that because mine was some “better for bread” flour, that may have had something to do with the finishing texture. Nothing terrible, just may not have been what I was looking for.

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After forming a somewhat cohesive dough ball, it’s time for the most labor intensive part of the entire recipe: the kneading. This is where a stand mixer would really come in handy because this blob needs to be kneaded for quite some time. 10 whole minutes by hand (if you’re brave). Knead the blob until it’s firm but still smooth, pliable and not sticky. If a tad dry, add small amounts of water to rehydrate the dough. Too sticky? Add a bit more flour and knead until desired texture. Rule of thumb: when making doughs, you know you’re pretty much done kneading when it’s no longer sticky. The trick is to keep kneading it to that point without adding a ton of flour. Challenging, but the more you do it, the more you’ll know by feel when you need more flour versus more kneading.

After kneading, break out your scale and your bench scraper because it’s portioning time! According to Deb and the recipe, standard bagels are 4.5oz., so that’s what I did. I got a dozen but please reference the recipe for different sizes/weights. Cover the dough balls with a damp towel and let them rest for 20 minutes. Take advantage of this break, as kneading that dough was no easy feat! Also, line some baking pans with parchment for later.

To form the dough balls into bagels, I picked up one of the rested dough balls and began making an indent in the middle, and kind of wiggling my thumb into the ball to begin making the hole. After the dough was pierced through the indent, I widened it while turning the dough to make sure it stayed pretty uniform. After forming them all, I placed them on a lined baking sheet, covered them with plastic wrap and let them rest again for another 20 minutes. I cleaned up during the wait; baking’s messy!

This is where things get interesting. After the 20 minutes is up, fill a bowl with some cool/room temp water. Not cold and not hot; cool. Carefully take one of the rested bagels and plop it in the water. It should float within seconds. Got a sinker? Carefully dry off the tester, return it to the pan, cover and let rest an additional 10-20 minutes and re-test until it floats. That’s how you know it’s ready for the next step: an overnight rise in the fridge (aka retarding). The first time I made these, I did the overnight rise and my bagels came out good. The second time, I skipped the overnight rise and let them rise for about four hours. I did not note much of a difference. Is the overnight rest necessary? Probably. Does it mean you won’t have delicious bagels if you shorten the time? No. If you have the time (and fridge space), go for the overnight. If not, four hours works just fine. Carefully dry the tester bagel and return to the pan. Pop them in the fridge to rest overnight (or four hours).

Now that the bagels have spent time in the fridge, it’s time to bake. Turn your oven on up to 11 (ahem, 500F), and prep a large, wide pot with some water. Bring the pot to a boil with a tablespoon of baking soda. Before baking, bagels bathe in this boiling hot solution. Why? To form that signature bagel crust. You know the one; where the bagel is all crisp on the outside but chewy and soft on the inside. I heard this is the reason why bagels only get toasted on one side (the inside part, if you were wondering). Giant pretzels go through the same process, but that’s another post. Once boiling, place as many bagels as will fit in the pot (mine fit 3) and let them sit in there for two minutes before turning them over and letting them sit in a minute longer. Remove those moist pre-bagels and place them back on the lined baking sheet that’s been sprinkled with cornmeal. This helps them not stick to the paper once wet.

Once you’ve bathed all your pre-bagels, pop them in that scorching oven for five minutes. After that, rotate the pans (180 degrees and switch the top and bottom pans) and bake at 450F for five minutes or more. After the five minutes, check them because mine took much longer than that. I think I baked mine for 10-15 more minutes before they got all golden brown; keep an eye on them. After they get all nice and brown, cool them on the sheet on racks until cool enough to handle.

That’s basically it! Not so bad, if I do say so myself. And I’m talking about the process and the bagels! They came out delicious. Although they weren’t what I was used to (AHEM, prepackaged stuff), they were pretty darn good. I’m telling you, I made them twice in two weeks! The crispy crust was definitely there (thanks baking soda bath!) and they were fluffy, and chewy in the middle like they’re supposed to be. Like a typical New Yorker, I had mine with a schmear of good old fashioned cream cheese (no lox though; maybe in the future).  I have to say though, this was quite the challenge. But not challenging enough that I won’t want to tackle them again, perhaps with a different flavor and recipe. Whatever I decide to do, you’ll know.

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Bagels – recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen

(Holy crap, I am NOT typing all that out again. Please visit the lovely Deb at Smitten Kitchen to re-read the recipe in recipe format. Also, check out her tips and variations of these bagels!)

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