Revisiting a classic...The Bagel

In the late 1800s, Eastern European immigrants brought bagels to America.

How does a food become a classic? There are a few common features to consider: the food has a unique history that often approaches myth status; there is an ultimate “gold standard” to which all variations are compared; and there is a common familiarity that transcends geographic and generational differences. Let’s consider the bagel. 

History or myth?

It’s widely accepted that bagels came to the United States from the Jewish immigrants of Eastern Europe, but there appears to be debate on the true European origins of the bagel. One side claims the first bagel was introduced in 1683 when a Viennese baker wanted to pay tribute to Polish King Jan Sobieski for saving the people of Austria from Turkish invaders. Since the king was known to have a passion for riding, the baker made rolls in the shape of a stirrup, known in German as breugel. 

The other side notes that the first printed reference of bagels came even earlier, in 1610, in the Community Regulations of Krakow, Poland. These regulations stated that "bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth." The ring shape may have been seen as a symbol of life.

The New York bagel

Walk down virtually any street in New York and you will spot people in cafes, along the sidewalks, or running into a subway station enjoying the noble roll with a hole - hard and crusty on the outside, soft and warm on the inside; the New York bagel.

New York City is the domestic birthplace of the bagel.  In the late 1800s, Eastern European immigrants brought their skills as bagel bakers to the city, and by 1915 a bagel bakers’ union was formed to maintain the art and science of the craft. Carrying on the customs of these early bakers, the New York bagel is still produced using high-quality ingredients combined with traditional methods.

The dough-making process is similar to other bread-making. The formula is lean using flour, compressed yeast, salt and malt syrup. Many shops use from 100 to 300 lb of high-gluten flour in one batch. They run fairly stiff dough using only 48% to 50%  hydration. Many claim the water — that New York water – is the key to making the gold-standard bagel. No baker is able to explain it, but they are adamant that their water is essential to making the best bagel in the world. 

Today, many bagel shops are mechanized, but there are still a few places that have held to the tradition of hand-forming. Once formed, bagels are proofed until they have doubled in size. They are then dropped into a huge vat of boiling water for a few minutes. This quick boiling gives them their shiny crust. And finally, they are placed on canvas-covered wooden trays and baked in conventional reel ovens until done.

Bagels galore

Once the product of small, specialty bakeries on the East Coast, the bagel is now seen in bakeries, restaurants, and grocery stores all over the country. Beyond just breakfast bread, the bagel is now used as sandwich bread and can be found in snack foods as a dried chip. 

Bagel formulation has adapted to regional tastes and the needs of an expanded distribution network. The traditionally lean formula can now include sugar, fat, dough strengtheners and conditioners, as well as shelf-life extenders. Besides the richer dough, the traditional flavors of salt, egg, onion, rye and plain have given way to a limitless expanse of flavors like blueberry, chocolate chip, cinnamon raisin, sun-dried tomato and herb, and maple walnut. Combine that with just as many new flavors of cream cheese and your options know no limits!

Updating a classic

So, are there modern twists you can put on the classic bagel? Hey, what about a bagel twist? I can hear the New Yorker groaning now, but in your market a bagel twist may be the perfect “grab-n-go” option to combine with fresh coffee. Another recent trend is the “mini” - consider bagel bites or poppers in a to-go cup. Keep the formulation the same, but experiment with the size and shape of the bagel.

You could also combine the popularity of whole grains with your bagel. Whole grains contain a powerful package of health-promoting substances including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. Many bakers already offer a wheat bagel, but you could add many other grains to your formula, including amaranth, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, rye, oats, sorghum, teff, triticale and wild rice. Each grain will add distinct flavor, color and texture to your product. Just keep in mind they are essentially “dead-weight” on the gluten structure and should be limited. To safely include other grains, suggested levels would be in the range of 10% to 20% base flour weight. 

The bagel - a once humble, ethnic food has established itself as a mainstay in the American diet. It is a classic baked good with a place in the hearts and minds of your consumers. By paying attention to the flavor and texture preferences of your region, you can successfully update a classic for your shop.