I Made Bagels For a Month Straight — Here’s What I Learned
Here's the fix for flat bagels!
I love making bread. As a professional recipe developer, I also love tackling cooking projects that are big on technique and involve a lot of research. So when the editors at Food Network Magazine pitched a Homemade Bagel feature last month, I raised my hand faster than you can say "schmear."
But the truth is, I hadn’t made homemade bagels since culinary school, and that wasn’t exactly last week, if you know what I mean. Living in, and around New York City, I’d eaten my fair share of bagels. Some have been fantastic; others, not so much. And let me tell you, I wanted to make GOOD bagels. Initially, my plan was to create a recipe that both honored the crispy-chewy texture and moderate size of an excellent bagel, but as I searched through well-reviewed recipes online and in my own cookbook collection, I got super confused — nearly every recipe had a different ingredient ratio or technique and the ranges in rising and cooking were drastically far apart.
So, I put the books down, ordered a large bottle of barley malt syrup and started experimenting. I kneaded, boiled and baked for weeks, checking a wide variety of factors along the way. Though I encountered a lot of pitfalls, I kept going until I could understand why these issues happened and how to avoid them. At long last, I ended up with bagels just as good (maybe even a little better!) as my favorite store-bought ones. Here are my top five tips for achieving bagel bliss right in your very own kitchen.
Get the Recipe: Homemade Bagels (pictured above)
Say "No" To Extra Ingredients
Bagel dough is a simple, but sturdy, dough without any of the softening or enriching elements typically found in brioche or challah, like butter or eggs. When first mixed, your bagel dough might seem dry, and it can take some elbow grease to fully incorporate all your flour into it. This is the nature of the dough, so do NOT be tempted at this stage to splash in any extra water! Once you start the kneading process, the flour will fully moisten and the dough will go from dry to sticky, which is good. But you shouldn’t add any more flour either.
If your dough is too wet, it’ll create large holes in the crumb of the dough and your bagels will be more like French bread, with a fluffy interior (see top photo). When too much flour is kneaded in, bagels become dense, hard and tough, instead of crisp and chewy. It can easily take 10 minutes of mixing and kneading before the right texture and gluten strength is achieved.
So, if the dough doesn’t seem quite right, just keep going for a few minutes before adding anything to see if time and effort alone is all that’s needed. This will likely be the case. If not, and you do need a touch of flour or water, add gradually with a very light touch. A pinch of flour or a few drops of water can go a long way.
Go At Your Own Pace
In all honesty, flat bagels are the most common issue you can encounter when making them from scratch. It was certainly the biggest one for me. The good news is that flat bagels are still delicious! The better news is that there are steps you can take to prevent this.
Sometimes we forget that yeast is alive and can be a little finicky. It’s basically the "engine" of any bread dough. You need it to make the bread "go" or rise. If you "go" too hot and too fast, however, you risk burning the yeast out before the dough is ready to bake. Go too slow, and your bread’s engine might cut out and stop.
This is further complicated by the fact that bagels rise two different times, and each time is equally important in creating the final result. The first time your bagel dough rises is at room temperature after you make and knead it. The total amount of rising time can vary depending on the day, weather and ambient temperature. For me, it varied as much as 30 minutes between batches.
During my testing, I sometimes ended up with a full bowl of dough that had large air bubbles popping from its surface. This is a sign of over proofing, and when this happened, I ended up with flat bagels (see photo above). Over proofed dough will lose its strength too early and cause the bagels to deflate either during the second rise or while cooking. To correct this, try to find a warm, — not hot — spot to rise your dough. When your dough is nicely risen and doubled in size, move on to the next step in your recipe even if this is quicker or slower than the estimated time listed.
When Forming Your Bagels, Push Your Dough Out, Not Down!
Shaping bagels isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Traditionally, a piece of dough is rolled into a skinny log and wrapped into a circle around your hand; the two ends then get overlapped and rolled together against a work surface until sealed. This takes a lot of practice, and if not done perfectly, the two ends may come apart during cooking, or lose air and stay flat and hard while the rest of the bagel rises (see picture above). The dough has to be rolled with just enough pressure to make the two ends one, but not so hard as to fully deflate. I found more success using an alternate method (see my Homemade Bagel recipe), in which you stick your thumb through a ball of dough and gently stretch the center into a 2-inch hole.
Though easier, this method also requires just the right touch. First, you must shape each piece of dough into a tight round ball by rolling it against a flour-free work surface. The tighter the dough ball, the better shape your bagel will keep. You must stretch carefully as you widen the center hole without pressing down on the dough. Think out, not down! Once shaped, your bagels should be a little tall and not low and wide as the dough will relax and fall gently on its own as it rests. If the dough springs back and the hole begins to close, give the dough a few minutes to relax and gently re-stretch it. It’s a delicate balance of firmly shaping the bagels without smashing out the air. Be sure that the parchment paper you set the shaped bagels on is lightly oiled too. If the bagels stick to the paper, it’s difficult to lift them off when it comes time to boil them, without tearing and deflating them or stretching out their shape.
Place Your Bagels As Far Away From Your Refrigerator Door As Possible
Photograph by Melissa Gaman
Positioning my tray too close to my refrigerator door caused half of these bagels to remain flat, while the other half puffed up during baking.
Your second rise is more about flavor development, and happens in the refrigerator after the bagels are shaped. The cold air will slow, and then pause, the yeast activity. This is why the bagels can be refrigerated for a minimum of 4 hours or overnight. The yeast activity will be the same, but overnight gives you a longer flavor development. However, I found nuances in this step as well.
Sometimes the bagels would puff quite a bit in the fridge and collapse in my hands when I went to lift them off the tray. I also encountered an issue where half the batch would end up flat, while the other half would be perfectly round (see photo above). I realized this was due to the fridge itself. Not all home refrigerators run at the same temperature, nor do they have the same strength of seal at their door. If I placed my bagels toward the front of my fridge, air would drift in from all the times I opened and closed the door. This prevented the yeast from going dormant quickly enough, and as a result, the bagels would keep rising, which also caused them to overproof. Eventually, I discovered that putting my tray towards the back of my refrigerator — where it was coldest — did the trick. Turning your tray, so that it runs flush horizontally along the back wall of your fridge also helps, since it further guarantees that your bagels are as far from the door as possible.
Position Your Bagels in the Center of Your Oven
Bagels are baked pretty quickly in a very hot oven. The sugar from the barley malt syrup — both in the dough and the boiling water — adds flavor and helps the bagels brown nicely. But like any sugar, it has the ability to burn and overbrown the bottoms of your bagels. Keeping your oven rack in the center position and adding a light dusting of cornmeal to the baking sheet can help create a buffer from the intense heat in the oven. If your baking sheets are thin, or if your oven tends to over-brown baked goods, try doubling up your baking sheets or putting an empty sheet on the rack below your bagels to help absorb some of the direct heat.