We’ve been featuring many quick, weeknight-type recipes here, the kinds of dishes that you can reliably get on the table from night to night. (They a prominent role in my new book, Dinner for Everyone). These are critical from almost every perspective, and I’ll never stop including them, but sometimes you just need a really great cooking project, the kind of thing you can get lost in for a few hours over the weekend and feel proud of when you’re done. (These are also featured in Dinner for Everyone, just FYI.) There are a million dishes that qualify (cassoulet, tamales, DIY guanciale, baked Alaska … you get the idea), and maybe we’ll start tackling them one by one. But today I want to do a staple; something that is widely beloved and that I’ve been eating my entire life: bagels.
I grew up in New York City, which has for a hundred years been the bagel capital of the world. When I was a kid it actually lived up to its name, real bagels were everywhere (whereas even bad ones didn’t yet exist in most other places). They were small and chewy with beautiful shiny crusts. Long after you stopped finding good bagels in Manhattan you could import them from Staten Island, New Jersey, or Montreal. In the last couple of years some “real bagel” shops have opened, but they remain uncommon, and in general our collective bagel standards have fallen.
It’s not insane, then, to consider making your own bagels at home once in a while. And, aside from the immense satisfaction of doing so, there are other advantages: 1) Other than the two-step cooking process (boiling then baking), bagels are as simple to make as any other bread. Really. 2) You can customize. Poppy-sesame, onion-caraway, cinnamon-raisin-garlic if you’re strange: the combinations are endless and totally tailor-able to your tastes. 3) 95% percent of the bagels you get at the store are not fresh by home-cooked standards. Sure, the toaster restores some of their hot, crispy glory, but there is NOTHING like a bagel fresh from the oven, and when you make them yourself you can eat them that way. 4) People will freak out when they come to your place for brunch and realize the hot bagels you just plunked down on the table were made by you. (Extra points if you serve them with your-made gravlax.)
Everything you need (including a variation for Montreal-Style Bagels) is covered in the recipe below, but first one bit of myth-busting: The water thing. There is a theory that to make truly great bagels you need New York city tap water. You don’t. I’ve made this recipe in New York, California, and places in between, and the bagels have been indistinguishably great. Wherever you live, if you’re up for a project, this one is worth it.
These are real bagels—bagels with chewy insides and respectable crusts—not the puffy kind sold so often nowadays. Cooking a bagel is a two-step process: First you boil, then you bake. Other than that, they are as simple as any other bread. (Malt syrup, the traditional sweetener, can be bought in some specialized cooking shops or wherever beer supplies are sold.) The classic method for shaping bagels is to roll the dough into a rope and wrap it around your hand. I find this produces extra work at best and wildly misshapen bagels at worst. Far easier is to cut the dough into circles and poke the hole with your finger.
We produce reported pieces, profiles, interviews, and rants about what’s broken in the food world (there’s a lot) and how to change things for the better. People sometimes tell me to just keep politics out of it. Respectfully: No. Food is political. We can’t and won’t ignore that.