If You Want it Done Right, Do it Yourself (but do it a couple of times wrong first)

Or. Making Boiled Bagels at Home

homemade boiled bagels. black sesame maldon, sesame, garlic, smoked sea salt, plain

I was reading through the last of the three Austrian and Hungarian cookbooks Dan had brought me from America, trying to decide which recipe was most worthy of my blocks of actual, not sweet, cream cheese when I came across a recipe for bagels. "Well, this looks easy enough", I thought to myself, despite not having made bagels for ten years, "and it will definitely make Dan happier than a batch of rugelach". So, without any further research or recipe comparison, I set about following a recipe from a cookbook that was chosen specifically because it read like somebody's collection of family Hungarian Jewish recipes.

The problem with following somebody else's old family recipes is that sometimes they work great just from the written text and sometimes there's a whole lotta information missing.

My first batch of bagels was a disaster. The recipe used all purpose flour and even though the dough seemed really really sticky and slack to me, I went with it. I hadn't made bagels since culinary school, who was I to argue? I let my dough rise and then scaled it out. The directions for shaping said "place your finger in the centre of each portion and spin once or twice until the hole is about 1.5cm across. The bagels should be about 10cm across when you have finished". I used this hole poking and spinning method and ended up with some weirdly uneven bagels. Maybe we're going for a rustic look. I went and got out a ruler because I'm American and baking means I'm pretty good at weight conversions, but no, no I don't have any idea how big a centimeter is. My bagels had 3 cm holes and were only 8 cm across. I was a failure at the poke and spin method of shaping bagels.

Instead of doing a full proof, the recipe said to cover and let rise for ten minutes. While they were resting, I brought a large saucepan with 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil. I faithfully followed the instructions of boiling "less than one minute" removed them to a platter and then moved them to a parchment lined sheetpan.

I slid my tray into my preheated 200 degree celsius (392 Fahrenheit) oven and hoped for the best. I ended up baking them for a solid thirty minutes instead of twenty, and I still wouldn't describe them as golden brown. Worse, they were permanently stuck to the parchment. I was so disappointed I didn't even take a picture. I did cut some away from the parchment to try them and the texture wasn't awful but the flavor was very bland. I knew immediately that they didn't have enough salt, but I wasn't sure what else was missing.

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Determined to get it right, the next day I broke out Professional Baking, my old culinary school textbook. It's not the kind of book that's going to give you inspiration for unique or innovative desserts but it's the place I turn when I want solid, technique and mix method based recipes. It's not exciting, but I know it works and I know if a recipe doesn't work, there's a handy chart that will tell me the possibilities for what I did wrong. The downside is that it's written with the assumption that you have a full professional grade culinary school kitchen to work with, not the ingredients you can find in a Korean grocery store and an eight year old Artisan KitchenAid that makes some unfortunate grinding noises because you've treated it like an actual Hobart.

The first major difference between the recipes was that the new one called for high gluten flour instead of all purpose. This makes about a million times more sense to me. Bagels are chewy and high gluten is the flour you use to make bread chewier. Unfortunately, I don't have high gluten flour. I do have bread flour. Even though I knew substituting bread flour was probably fine, I didn't want to take any risks so I jumped on the internet and skimmed a bunch of recipes and message boards to make sure I wasn't going to end up with completely ruined bagels again. The consensus seemed to be that it was fine and what most home bakers went with since high gluten is expensive and hard to find on the retail market.

The next major difference is that instead of one teaspoon of granulated sugar to bloom the yeast, it had a whole ounce of malt syrup in the dough and I knew immediately what the flavor was that I had been missing. Again, this isn't a thing I or most home cooks have, so I went online to find substitutes. Honey or brown sugar seemed to be the most common. Honey is really expensive in Korea and I just have the regular Kirkland brand, not very flavorful stuff but my Korean dark brown sugar is really rich and sticky so I did a direct substitution with that. Then I realized it said the boil them in a malt syrup solution and I wasn't sure brown sugar was going to fly for that. Salt water hadn't done much in the way of crust development for me in the first batch so again I went online to find an alternative. One option is to boil them in a lye solution, like for pretzels but I don't have lye and working with lye makes me slightly anxious. The other option is to use baking soda, much simpler and much more likely to be found in your home kitchen.

This round, my dough was too stiff to really get good gluten development and cooperative shaping, but I decided to see it through just so I could compare results at the opposite ends of the spectrum. These bagels were also boiled longer on each side and cooked at a higher temperature than the first batch. They turned out flavorful and chewy but a little too dense and by the next morning they were too dry inside to eat without heavy toasting.

Round three I noticed my book said one pound of flour for the US measurement but 500 grams for metric. I had followed the metric weights my first time around and the dough had been too stiff, so I changed it to the proper conversion of 454 grams. I also ended up adding about 50 grams more water to get a firm but slightly sticky dough which meant I didn't haven't to take it out of my screeching stand mixer half way through the process and finish kneading by hand and that it was easier to shape. At first I thought I had underbaked this round and they were a little dough-y but it was probably more that I was impatient and tried the first one while it was still too hot because when we served them for brunch the next morning, they seemed spot on.

Three rounds later, here's the recipe I ended up with after correcting all my mistakes.

Ingredients

(I really recommend using metric weight for the most precise measurements but I know not everybody has a kitchen scale so I've also done my best to provide accurate conversions for this recipe)

  • 300 grams/10.5 ounces/1 1/3 cup Water
  • 5 grams/.18 ounces/1 3/4 teaspoon Active Dry Yeast
  • 454 grams/1 pound/3 1/2 cup Bread Flour
  • 30 grams/1 ounce/2 tablespoons 1 teaspoon Dark Brown Sugar
  • 8 grams/.25 ounce/1 1/4 teaspoons Salt
  • 4 grams/.13 ounce/1 teaspoon Oil

Optional: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, minced garlic, finely diced onions, coarse salt

Directions

  • Dissolve yeast in slightly warmer than body temperature water (105 fahrenheit if you want to get out a thermometer)
  • In a stand mixer bowl, mix together the flour, salt and brown sugar. Add in dissolved yeast and water. Add in oil. Mix with the hook attachment on the lowest speed for ten minutes. Check the consistency of the dough. It should be fairly firm but slightly sticky. If it seems overly firm, add water 25 grams at a time while the dough is mixing. If overly, sticky add flour 25 grams at a time. Mix an additional three minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. (I always use the windowpane test)
  • Using lightly floured hands, form your dough into a ball and place into a lightly greased bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and let rise for one hour or until doubled in size.
  • Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and roll into a log. Scale out the dough into 70 gram/2.5 ounce pieces. If you don't have a scale, divide into ten even pieces.
  • There are two options for shaping. The method I had the most luck with is lightly balling all the pieces and then going back and gently flattening. After flattening I poked a hole in the middle and then used my fingers to gradually stretch and shape the bagel. The other option is to roll the pieces into a rope (like for a knotted roll or braided bread) and then to wrap the rope around your hand and use your palm to roll the rope on your work surface, sealing the ends together. I didn't get as smooth and even a shape with the second method but it could just be that I'm not as familiar with it as the first method.
  • Lightly cover with plastic wrap and let proof for thirty minutes.
  • While the bagels are doing their final proof, bring a large pot of water with a tablespoon of baking soda to boil and preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (230 degrees celsius). Prepare a sheet pan by either lining with a silicone baking mat or very lightly greasing to prevent the sticking crisis I had with my first batch. Or, if  you have it, sprinkle a pan with semolina.
  • Drop the bagels two to three at a time into the boiling water and boil for one minute on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon and place evenly spaced on a sheet pan. Part of the purpose of boiling is to keep the bagels from getting much rise in the oven, so you don't have to worry too much about them being too close together.
  • Egg wash and sprinkle with the desired toppings. If your oven cooks super evenly bake for twenty minutes or until golden brown and then remove. If your oven is like mine and heats totally crazy, bake for ten minutes, rotate and bake an additional 12 minutes (because you'll lose some heat opening the oven door) or until golden brown. Resist the urge to tear open a bagel immediately (bread continues to cook as it cools which is why breaking into too early can fool you into thinking it's doughy) and let cool on a rack for at least 45 minutes.

Bagels are best eaten within 36 hours of making them but like all bread, you can freeze the extra if you're not going to bagel monster your way through ten in one sitting.