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Sourdough Bagels

This recipe is the one we used at the Colorado High Attitude Bakery. I can't countA simple, plain, but delightful, sourdough bagel how often expatriate New Yorkers would stop me on the street with tears in their eyes, telling me that mine were the best bagels they'd had since they left "The City," and that they were better than most in "The City" these days. The reasons are simple. I didn't cut corners and used good ingredients. I don't know why so many bakeries cut corners on making bagels these days, it's really NOT that hard!

There are two main types of bagels in the United States, the New York Style and the California style. The New York style is dense, chewy, has a crisp crust and has a rich flavor that comes from overnight fermentation. The California bagel is light, well risen, has no real crust, and is relatively bland. People who like New York style bagels call California style bagels "donuts". People who like California style bagels call the New York Style bagels "bricks".

We will focus on making genuine New York style bagels. You can get donuts anywhere. New York style bagels are rare, even in New York. When the New York Bagel Makers Union was busted in the 1960's, quality control and tradition went out the window. A company that sells what it claims are the best bagels in New York makes a bagel that is horribly sweet. There are few places to get the real thing. After you go through this recipe, you will be one of the rare sources of the elusive, almost forgotten, New York style bagel.

It is interesting that this recipe gets such varied responses. A few people at The Fresh Loaf have said this recipe makes the best bagels they have ever had. That's truly flattering, since they reference recipes from famous bakers and say mine is better. A few other people have wondered what all the shouting is about. Some of the difference is a matter of taste. If you haven't had a New York style bagel you may not like them and prefer a lighter bagel. But, there is more. One baker commented on the recipe, saying she was unimpressed. I asked her how she had made the bagels. She said, "Oh, there was technique? I just mixed and raised the dough." Yeah, there IS technique involved. The overnight retard is essential for full flavor development, and the boil is essential for a good shiny crust. Even if you want to just mix and go, PLEASE read and follow the instructions.

In any case, this recipe will make 4 bagels of about 4 ounces each. I picked this recipe size because it can be easily made by hand in class. This recipe is a simplified version of the recipe I include in my "Back To Bagels" cookbook, available at Mike's Bread Shoppe.  You may be wondering why this recipe is for 4 bagels.  When we read "Dune" we learned "Fear is the mind killer". Here, we learn that bagels are the mixer killer.  Hobart makes heavy duty mixers that are so rugged the baker can hand them down to his children and grandchildren - I've seen Hobart's in bakeries that were older than anyone working in the bakery!  Unless... unless... you are making bagels or pizza dough, in which case your mixer may well be dead in 18 months.  Hobart makes special heavier duty (and more expensive) mixers for bagels.  In general, I encourage caution with regards to batch size and bagels.  With my ancient KKitchenAid K45SS, I won't make more than 4 at a time.  With my Ankarsum, I'll make 3 dozen.  The big take home here is, be careful.  If your mixer stalls when you are making bagels, you are overloading your mixer, so cut your batch size WAY down!  This happened with a friend's spiral mixer.  He thought it could make 4 dozen.  It disagreed.  We broke it into two batches in a larger mixer.

Ingredients:

GramsIngredientBaker's Percentage
150 GramsWater50%
30 GramsActive Sourdough Starter10%
5 GramsLight Olive Oil1.66%
300 GramsHigh Protein Flour (1)100%
10 GramsMalted Barley Extract (2)3.33%
7 GramsSalt2.33%

  1. High Protein Flour - we are looking for a white flour in the 15+ percent range.  GM's All-Trumps unbleached and unbromated flour, King Arthur's Sir Lancelot, and Honeyville Grains Imperial Hi-Gluten Flour are all good examples of what we are looking for.  The GM and King Arthur flours are usually only sold through food service companies.
  2. Malted barley extract can be found in brewing supply shops and on-line vendors.  It is used twice in this recipe, in the dough and in the boil.  You want a light dry malt extract, and it can be either diastatic or non-diastatic.  Because the amount of malt is very small, you can use q liquid malt extract.  However, you really want a barley malt, not a malted milk product which is mostly sugar.

All the measurements are given in grams because the bagel dough is very dense and using cups would be significantly less accurate. Bagel dough has to be thin enough to handle, but dense enough that it can stand up to the steps we'll talk about below.

I cannot overstate the notion that bagel dough is different from almost any other dough you will encounter. The goal is not a light, fluffy well-risen loaf. It is a dense, chewy product. As a result, most of what you have, perhaps painfully, learned about doughs doesn't apply. I'll be mentioning how bagels are different from most doughs again from time to time. Try hard to not let what you have learned about most doughs get in your way and keep you from learning about bagels.

Process:Sourdough Plain Bagel Nutritional Analysis
Mix the ingredients above. In a mixer, I like to mix for 5 minutes, let the dough rest for 5 minutes, and then knead for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and well developed. The time can vary, depending on the efficiency of the mixer in dealing with doughs as thick and dense as bagels.

If you are making the dough by hand, knead, or stretch and fold, until the dough passes the windowpane test as seen in the Basic White Bread recipe. It cannot be overstated that the dough must be smooth and well developed. It is not easy to develop a dough as thick as bagel dough. Allow the dough to rise for about 2 hours. The dough is so dense that it probably won't visibly rise. You may procede when the dough will not spring back when gently pressed.

Unlike most doughs, I find that it is easier to judge the process by the results and adjust the process for the next batch based on the results, rather than going by the feel of the dough. We'll talk about how to adjust the process in later paragraphs.

The flour you use is CRITICAL to the sucess of the bagels. We use GM's All-Trumps, a flour only available to the trade at this time. It has about 14.2% protein. When we used another flour in the 11.8% protein range, the bagels did not come out as well. If the flour bag does not specify the percent of protein, divide the grams of protein per serving by the number of grams of flour per serving and multiply by 100. (A quick example. If a flour bag says the serving size is 1/4 cup, or 30 grams, with 4 grams of protein, the percent of protein would be (4/30)*100, or 13.33% protein.)

Because the dough is so thick, there is little reason to try to punch the dough down. Just use it. Cut the dough into 4 pieces that are more or less the same size.

This time, roll two of the pieces into strands about 10 inches long, and roll the other two into balls. Then cover the dough and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

There are two main ways to shape bagels. The easy way is to roll the dough into a ball, poke a hole in the center of the ball and then stretch the ball into the doughnut shape we all know and love. So that the pictures below would be clearer, we formed these bagels with a cinnamon - raisin bagel dough.

The purist disdains the poker's method, believing the ONLY way to make a real bagel is to roll the balls into strands about 10" long, form the strands into bagel shapes, press the ends together with some overlap, and then roll the seam to seal it.

Both methods work. Poking is easier, but it's also easy to stretch the bagel dough too far. The cigar roll can make a bagel with more a more consistent size, but it's also easy to not seal the seam well enough and have the bagel fall apart. Now that you've tried both methods, you can decide which you prefer. A hint - if you don't spread the bagels far enough, they'll be too tall to fit in a toaster.

Once the bagels are formed, put them on a baking sheet that has been covered with bakers parchment, spray them with some oil, and cover them with clingwrap. Leave them at room temperature for about an hour. This is called "floor time" in the trade, time when the dough is waiting for the next step in the process, or is perhaps minimally rising. Then put them in a refrigerator overnight.

In the morning, place a large pot of water on to boil and set your oven to 500F. If you want to seed the bagels, put some poppy or sesame seeds onto a plate as the water is heating. Add a tablespoon or two of malt extract to the water once it is boiling. Note, this is in addition to the malt extract that was included in the dough, or, there is malt extract in BOTH the dough and the boiling water.

Once the water is at a rolling boil, put the bagels into the boiling water, flat side down. Don't crowd the bagels in the pot as they need room to move around.

The bagels should sink to the bottom of the water. If they float at once, they were allowed to rise too long. After a few seconds, typically less than five, they should float to the top. If they don't, nudge them with a spatula, sometimes they will stick to the bottom of the pan. After a minute, whether they floated or not, flip them over. Give them another minute.

For your next batch: if the bagels never floated, or took more than a minute to float, let them rise a bit longer, give them a bit more floor time or use a warmer refrigerator next time. If they floated too quickly, let them rise a bit less, give them a bit less floor time or use a cooler refrigerator next time. If you are making a larger batch and your bagels never floated, let them rise a bit more at room temperature before you boil the rest of the batch.

A few people have had trouble with the timing and boil, I've added a blog post that covers it in excruciating detail. If you still have trouble, please write me. It works for me consistently and easily.

If you want to make seeded bagels, dip the rounder side - the top - in the seeds you prepared earlier as soon as the bagels are pulled out of the water.

Now it's time to bake the bagels in a 500F oven. Many bakers flip the bagels half way through the baking to insure both the top and bottom of the bagels are nicely crispy. I haven't found that to be necessary, but if you can certainly try. Steam helps give a crisp crust - toss a half cup of water into a heated cast iron skillet on the oven. I give the bagels about a 15 minute bake, with some steam in the oven. Don't be afraid to leave the bagels in the oven a few more minutes - you want the crust to have a nice deep tan/brown color.

Once baked, cool on a wire rack. Once cooled, you can slice them.  When they are fresh bagel purists tell you they don't need to be toasted.  Just schmear them with butter or cream cheese and enjoy.  When they get a bit stale, toasting can revive them.  I often joke that bagels are the only food we boil, bake and then toast... just to make sure they're really, really dead.

Since we just mentioned slicing bagels, be careful when you slice bagels!  In our hands-on bagel class we spend a bit of time teaching students how to safely slice bagels.  We put together a post on slicing bagels safely.

A little bit extra - Habanero Schmear

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm a bit of a pepper belly. I LOVE hot and spicy food. So, this devilish cream cheese schmear is right up my alley. All cream cheese schmears are variations on this theme, so if this isn't to your liking, go ahead and change it around. Use other flavors, play with the amounts. You'll never buy flavored cream cheese again!

Ingredients:
8 oz cream cheese (I prefer the real stuff, no low fat/no fat cream cheese please!)
2 habanero peppers, stems removed and finely diced (yes, that include the seeds and everything)


Process: 
Putting 8 ounces of cream cheese in a mixer and beat the cream cheese until it soft and fluffy. Add the finely diced habanero peppers and seeds. Mix in well. You can use the schmear now, but you'll be happier of you put in a sealable container and refrigerate for 4 hours or so to give the flavors a chance to mingle. I have no idea how long this, or any other home made schmear, will last. They are eaten around here before they have a chance to go bad!

17 thoughts on “Sourdough Bagels”

  1. its pretty amazing the difference flour makes, I made some using Sir Lancelot and a friend from Brooklyn taste tested and approved whole heartedly. Same recipe using Central Milling Mt High (which really isn’t) came out, meh. Too bad cause I’m out of Sir Lancelot and ended up with 50 lbs of Mt High. I have to find more uses for this flour, which seems rather soft for a self proclaimed high gluten flour.

    1. Hi,

      It could be the protein content, it could be the grains. It could be a bad batch. It can be hard to tell.

      Still, Sir Lancelot runs 14%, Mountain high is “only” 13%, which is a bit low for bagels.

      I’ve also had good luck making bagels with GM’s All-Trumps in the unbleached and unbromated version and Honeyville Grains Imperial hi-gluten flour.

      Central Milling makes some very good flours, but perhaps that wasn’t a good match for bagels. You might try making pizza or breads with it.

      Good luck,
      -Mike

  2. Thanks for the reply Mike, I always wonder about “the bad batch” possibility when I’m somewhat disappointed with a flour performance. . Its ok on its own, but I find it even a little too soft for breads with a good portion of whole grains and it isn’t malted (like CM’s ABC+ which I do like better for some things). Yeah, I’ll find some use for it, but pizza did come to mind, it might even work well for Neopolitan style in my Roccbox.

  3. Mike is my bagel yoda. After 5 years of sourdough baking at home, I can’t say what finally made me lose my hesitation and try this formula, but I sure don’t regret it. I started with All Trumps but have moved so Sir Lancelot – both have worked well. I favor shaping using the ‘cigar roll,’ but my technique certainly needs work (I have trouble getting the ends to seal). Regardless, these are delicious bagels and not daunting to make if you are faithful to the process on this page. Thanks, Sensei.

  4. David Schildkret

    I have barley malt syrup in the house. Can this be used to replace the malt extract? How much would I use? Thanks for a terrific site.

    1. This is an update, clarifying a clueless answer I provided before.

      The amount of malt extract in the recipe, and in the boil, is very small. You may use a dry or liquid malt extract, diastatic or non-diastatic barley malt extract.

      About the only thing you don’t want to use is malted milk powder as that is mostly sugar.

      -Mike

      1. Thanks. My flour arrived from King Arthur today, so bagels are in the near future. (Comment: for me, toasting is only needed for stale bagels. It’s almost a sacrilege to toast a fresh bagel.)

        1. Kenji Lopez-Alt says that a fresh bagel never needs to be toasted, but toasting can save a day old bagel. I tend to agree.
          -Mike

          PS – let us know how your bagels come out! -M

  5. Hi Mike,
    If you don’t have the high protein flour needed, will adding vital wheat gluten make up for the lower protein content?

    1. Hi Autumn,
      Depending on where you are, you might check out a Restaurant Depot. This is a chain of restaurant supply warehouses. Normally they require one prove one owns, or works for, a commercial food enterprise. During the Covid-19 crisis, they have waived that requirement. The usually have a good stock of flour. (And toilet paper.)

      If that’s not a option, in a recent bagel class we were out of high protein flour and had no VWG (vital wheat gluten) and no time to get either. So, we used bread flour and the results were better than I was expecting. So, if you have bread flour, you might just use that and see what you think. All purpose flour is another matter, really. I wouldn’t recommend it without the addition of VWG.

      Using VWG helps doughs rise better and can make almost any bread taller. However, if you use more than about 5% VWG, the crumb becomes gummy. With that in mind, how much VWG does one have to add to get the protein of flours up to more reasonable levels?

      I played with some numbers. Bob’s Red Mill VWG is 70% protein. All-Purpose flour is usually around 10%, bread flour 12%, and high protein flour about 14%.
      The easiest case is upgrading bread flour to protein levels in high protein flour. If you use 96.55% bread flour and 3.45% VWG tiy get 14.001% protein. Or, remove 1/2 TBSP from a cup of bread flour and replace it with 1/2 TBSP of VWG.

      Upgrading all-purpose to have the protein levels of high protein flour is a bit trickier. To get to 14% protein would take 6.7% VWG which would be over our 5% threshold. It would also be just under a TBSP if you want to try it. Using 5% VWG would give us 13% protein, which might be good enough. Or, 95% AP flour, 5% VWG, or remove 2 tsp from a cup of AP flour and replace it with 2 tsp of VWG.

      Upgrading AP flour to have the protein level of bread flour is again pretty easy. 3.5% VWG will do it. Or, use 96.5 AP flour and 3.5% VWG. Or, remove 1/2 TBSP from a cup of AP flour and replace it with 1/2 TBSP VWG.

      The cup measurements assume you have a 130 gram cup of flour. We talk about that in the “What’s a Cup?” post.

      While that satisfies the math of juggling protein, it isn’t clear from the spreadsheet that it would make good bagels. If you try it, I hope you’ll let us know!
      -Mike

  6. Just made a batch, and they are pretty good. (My shaping technique needs improving: I think the 10″ rope might be too long; 8″ might be more like it.) Yours is the only recipe I’ve seen that includes oil. I am not sure, but I don’t think this is usual in NY bagels. Is this a change you made for home cooks for easier dough handling? How would omitting the oil affect the final product?

    1. I also would like to know about the addition of oil to the recipe. Is it added because of the sourdough? To make the dough easier to handle? And what would omitting the oil do to the final bake?

      1. Hi Janey,

        I got the recipe from Greenstein’s “Secrets of a Jewish Baker” and modified it for sourdough. He called for the oil, so I left it in.

        A bit of oil helps dough development, in my experience. It also helps the baked good last a bit longer.

        If you have trouble with the oil, leave it out. The recipes here are not carved in stone and brought down from on high. If youy leave the oil out, please let us know how it works out.

        Be brave, change the recipe and make it yours,
        -Mike

  7. Oh, and by the way, only stale bagels require toasting–at least for me! As a native New Yorker (now living far from NY), toasting a freshly baked bagel amounts to sacrilege. :o) When I was growing up, toasting was viewed as a way to revive a day-old bagel. Nowadays, when commercial bagels are so pillowy, even fresh ones require toasting to ensure that they have any body at all.

    I hasten to add that this is only my view and that everyone should feel free to enjoy them however they want! (But do try a fresh bagel without toasting. I think you’ll be impressed with your handiwork.)

  8. I’m using a “Dry Malt Extract” in powdered form. I believe I read in the comments that your 10 gram weight is syrup. Since the syrup is around 20% water, should I be using only 8 grams of powder in this recipe? Thank you.

    1. Hi Skip,

      I’ve edited the recipe, and the answer to another comment, to remove ambiguity.

      The amount of malt extract is so small you may use dry or liquid, diastatic or non-diastatic barley malt extract without changing the measurements.

      About the only things you don’t want to use are hopped malt extracts or malted milk powder. Hopped malt extracts are more focused for making beer, and malted milk powder is mostly sugar and really not suitable for bagels.

      -Mike

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