New York is known for a lot of things: the fast-walking pedestrians, Times Square, the 24-hour subway – but perhaps its most important aspect is the New York-style bagel. You can get them anywhere in New York, from a bodega in the farthest corner of Queens to the fanciest, over-priced artisanal bakery in Soho. Round, chewy, and delicious, native New Yorkers and tourists alike have them for breakfast, lunch, or even as a midnight snack. Whether they like them with the traditional cream cheese and lox or a heartier way to support your sandwich or just as it is, New Yorkers know their bagels.
But what separates New York’s bagels from the rest of the world? Is it the ingredients? The technique? Or some unexplainable phenomenon? Whatever it is, we decided to take a deep dive into the history of these delicious snacks to bring you the untold truth of the New York Bagel.
Bagels weren’t invented in New York
While no one can say for sure exactly where and when the bagel was invented, there is a popular legend that says the bagel was invented by a Vienna Austrian baker who created the delicious treat as a tribute to John III Sobieski, the King of Poland, by reshaping traditional bread to look like his majesty’s stirrup. Even though these delicious treats strike a remarkable resemblance to a foothold (although we’re not sure why you’d want to associate your food with a sweaty riding boot), according to Maria Balinska, author of “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread,” the story is just that – a story. Balinska claims the tale likely became popular “because Sobieski was very special in his relations with the Jews, even though he had many faults,” she said. “He surrounded himself with Jewish doctors, Jewish administrators.”
In fact, from as early as 1610, bagels have been mentioned in records from Krakow and a Polish bread called obwarzanek dates back to 1394 and has a similar look to the bagel. Also, according to Smithsonian Magazine, “Ring-shaped breads have a long history in other countries, too: Italy has taralli and ciambelle, and China has girde.” While it’s difficult to say exactly where the signature round shape came from, it’s safe to say it wasn’t invented by the same city that made it famous.
Bagels were probably brought to New York by Polish-Jewish immigrants
So, if the earliest forms of the bagel were found in places like Poland, Italy, and China, how did it end up being one of New York’s most popular foods? Like most things, they were brought here by immigrants. When a large amount of Eastern European immigrants started to arrive in the United States in the late 19th century, a large amount ended up in New York. With them, the immigrants brought many things, including their culture, their families, and their traditions. However, most importantly, they brought their cuisine, resulting in the development of a whole new type of bagel. However, the bagel remained almost exclusively in the niche Jewish markets until they became mainstream in the 1970s.
Then, in 1984, a merger between Kraft Foods and Lender’s Bagels, one of the top bagel sellers, came to be known as “the wedding of the century.” Since Kraft makes Philadelphia Cream Cheese, the union of the bagels and cream cheese became an American staple. By the mid-1990s, bagels were a multibillion-dollar industry and the rest, as they say, is history.
The word could possibly come from the Yiddish word “beigen,” to bend.
While it is often very difficult to trace the exact history of a word that goes so far back, many experts agree that the word most likely comes from the Yiddish word “beigen,” which means “to bend.” According to Balinska (via New York Times), “The first known reference to the bagel among Jews in Poland…was found in regulations issued in Yiddish in 1610 by the Jewish Council of Krakow. They outlined how much Jewish households were permitted to spend in celebrating the circumcision of a baby boy — ‘to avoid making gentile neighbors envious… and also to make sure poorer Jews weren’t living above their means.’”
Alternatively, the online etymology dictionary offers other possible ancestors of the word, including “boug,” an Old High German word meaning “a ring” and “beag” and Old English word also related to “ring.” In fact, in poetry, an Anglo-Saxon lord was called a “beaggifa,” meaning “ring-giver.”
It’s not all about the water
If you ask New Yorkers why New York bagels taste so good, the most common response you’ll get will be “it’s because of the water.” While New York water is certainly delicious, it turns out the water, or “wahtah,” as they like to call it in New York, has much less impact on the outcome of the bagel as we thought. New York’s water supply comes from the Catskill Mountains, about 91 miles from New York City. Generally, the water from the Catskills is considered soft, meaning it has a low concentration of Calcium and Magnesium. According to a video by Reactions, “the mineral content of water affects the gluten in the dough. Extra hard water strengthens the gluten which can make for tougher baked goods. If your water’s too soft, your dough gets too goopy.” This is why many people think New York’s bagels are so good – because the water makes the water soft and chewy.
However, Jansen Chan, director of pastry operations at the International Culinary Center in Manhattan, claims (via AM New York) “At the end of the day, it’s the sum of the parts that really make the bagel…I think everything, the flour, where they’re at, and the actual techniques — those factors are just as important as the water. It’s not just water that defines the bagel.” In fact, Chan thinks that “most palates could not tell the difference” between bagels made with different types of water.
The best bagels are cooled before they’re cooked
In order to make almost any type of bread, bakers go through a specific step-by-step process. First, they make the dough, shape the bread, and then allow the dough to proof. Proofing is when the dough it allowed sit and ferment before it goes into the oven, allowing it to expand and sometimes even double in size. The process is used to improve the crumb, crust, and appearance of the final product. Some breads proof at room temperature, while others proof in the refrigerator, a technique known as retarding. This step is where truly great bagels are created. While most breads are only proofed for about an hour, the best bagels are proofed for several days.
According to chef Richard Coppedge of the Culinary Institute of America (via NPR), “superior bagels are made from shaped dough that’s first left to sit in a refrigerator for a couple of days. This process is called retarding because the cooler temperatures slow down the activity of yeast in the dough as it rises. This longer, slower fermentation gives the microbes more time to generate tasty flavor compounds.” This process definitely gives a new meaning to the phrase, “slow and steady wins the race.”
The boiling makes the difference
In a lot of ways, a bagel is just another type of bread. However, the one thing that sets a true bagel – a New York-style bagel – from all other types of bread, is the boiling step. For most other types of bread, the recipe is essentially the same: make the dough, let it proof, and bake it. However, if you’re making bagels, after you let it proof but before you bake it, you must let the set dough boil in a mixture of water and malt barley. No other type of baked good calls for this step, making it one of the most unique aspects of the bagel. So, if you’ve ever had a really underwhelming bagel, it’s probably because the baker didn’t boil it before baking it.
According to Coppedge (via NPR), “the chilled dough rings are poached or boiled in a solution of water and malt barley for anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. This pre-gelatinizes the starch in the dough, locking the liquid inside of it and expanding the interior.” Coppedge says it “is essential to produce a more ‘chewy’ bagel.” According to a video by Reactions compares it to “flash frying a steak before putting it on the grill.”
You don’t have to be in New York to make New York-style bagels
Since we’ve already established that the secret to New York bagels has more to do with the technique rather than the ingredients, it makes sense that there would be bakers in other parts of the world who have successfully made New York-style bagels.
For example, one bagel chain called Bagel Baron has brought delicious New York-style bagels to the people of California. They claim their secret is that their bagels are hand-made and are fermented for 48 hours. They’re definitely doing something right since their bagels have won internal New York Times tasting competitions. Especially since California has some of the “hardest” water in the country, Bagel Baron’s success is even more evidence that the water has very little to do with making a New York-style bagel.
Also, down south near UNC Chapel Hill, Alpine Bagel Café is, according to Spoon University, “doing the bagel business right by chilling their bagels for almost 24 hours and never skipping the boil (which is probably why their lines are never-ending during the lunch rush).”
There’s a reason for the hole
There has been much speculation about why bagels have their distinctive ring shape. Since bagels used to be carried by vendors on poles, it naturally sparked the question, which came first? The pole or the hole? Were bagels created so they could be carried on poles or did vendors decide to use poles because the bagels had holes in them? According to Maria Balinska, “the poles are needed because of the hole! I have seen pictures from the beginning of the 20th century of baskets like these in New York. And in fact until the ’70s, bagels were distributed on rope or string from the wholesale cellar bakeries around the city to delis and supermarkets.”
However, that is not the only reason for the hole. Balinska also claims that the hole “allows the bagel to cook faster, since there is a greater surface area for the volume of dough. It also means that you get more crust for the same amount of dough. And then there is the intrinsic attraction of the ring shape. It’s a draw for children, both because it is easy to grasp and because you can play with it.”
The Montreal bagel is giving New York’s a run for its money
Even though there are some bakeries in California and North Carolina that are churning out good New York-style bagels, one or two great bagel spots in a city does not a bagel capitall make. However, Montreal has begun to give New York a run for its money with its own style of bagel. According to Balinska, “the Montreal bagel isn’t better than the well-made New York bagel — it’s just different. One of the big attractions of bakeries like Fairmount and Saint Viateur is that they are still artisanal, with the hand rolling and the wood-burning ovens.”
The Huffington Post explains the difference between New York-style and Montreal-style bagels: New York-style bagels are soft, chewy and doughy. Montreal-style bagels, on the other hand, are smaller, denser and sweeter” Montreal bagels are also boiled like New York bagels, but instead of boiling them in water and barley malt, Montreal bagels are boiled in water and honey, giving them their signature sweetness.
There were so many bagel bakers, they needed their own union
By the early twentieth century, there was such a demand for bagels, especially in New York, that the number of bakers in the city skyrocketed just to meet the demand. As a result, a trade union, called Local 338, was created for the bakers to fight for their workers’ rights. By 1915, thirty-four bakeries in New York were being represented by the union. However, this also meant that the bagel industry became more regulated and bakers had to follow strict rules: “weighing two to three ounces, a proper bagel was made with high-gluten flour and mixed with malt syrup, salt, water, and yeast. They were half the size of what we’re used to today and sold on strings of five dozen.”
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, the Thompson Bagel Machine was introduced to the market. The machine could make 300 dozen bagels in the amount of time it would take two men to make 125 dozen. As a result, Local 338 was shut down in the early 1970s. Just like the countless other industries, machines took jobs away from the hard-working bakers. Luckily, the bagel business is still alive and well, considering you can’t walk a block down a New York City street without running into a bagel shop.