According to Wikipedia, the first written reference to bagels dates to 1610 in Kraków, Poland. Jewish immigrants brought bagels to the new world where slightly different versions became established in New York and Montréal. Today they are as American as apple pie but have suffered somewhat in the assimilation. As one gets more remote from the traditional Jewish communities on the East Coast they tend to lose their essential character. By the time you get to California what is passed off as a bagel is little more than a soft, puffy roll with a hole in it.
Funny story: some years ago, I was on a consulting assignment in Blacksburg, Virginia. When I mentioned that I had eaten a bagel for breakfast I was met with confused looks. As it happens, in the Appalachian mountain accent of the area a bay-gel is a dog you hunt with; the round bread with a hole in it is a bī-gel with a long “i.”
This recipe is for New York-style bagels using a hybrid of the traditional old-world sourdough sponge and the modern one using commercial yeast. If your sourdough starter is fairly lively and you have the time to let the sponge develop for 12 to 18 hours, you can leave out the yeast. If you don’t have a sourdough starter you can use 500 grams each of water and flour but increase the yeast to 3 grams (¾ teaspoon). Traditionally the dough is sweetened with malt syrup which usually available in the health food section of any large supermarket. At the risk of being charged with blasphemy you can use molasses. No one who is not from the Bronx will likely know the difference.
A note on units and measures: To get consistent results when making any bread you simply must use gravimetric units, i.e. weight. The amount of flour in a cup can vary by more than 10% depending on how you scoop it or whether the container has been shaken. Today, digital kitchen scales are inexpensive and every serious cook should have one. I prefer to use metric units because the math is easier—try dividing by 16 in your head. You really do not have to be familiar with the metric system to follow the recipe. Just set the scale to metric and read off the numbers..
Yield: 12 to 15 bagels depending on how large you make them
The first step to making bagels is to make a sponge which is basically the same as a French poolish or an Italian biga. In the days before commercial yeast was available, these pre-fermentations were used to produce enough yeast to leaven the bread. At the end of this step, a portion of the sponge would be set aside to start the next batch.
200 grams 100% hydration sourdough starter
400 grams water
400 grams bread flour
2 grams (½ teaspoon) instant dry yeast
Place all the ingredients into the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment or a spoon mix to combine but not enough to develop the gluten in the flour. Place a lightly-oiled piece of plastic wrap directly on the sponge and cover the bowl with a towel. Set aside at cool room temperature for at least 4 hours or, preferably, overnight.
The Bagel Dough
18 grams kosher salt
36 molasses (about 2 Tablespoons)
446 grams flour/16 ounces/ 3 cups
Add salt, molasses, and flour to the sponge in that order. Attach dough hook to your mixer and knead at the recommended speed for 8 to 10 minutes. The dough is quite stiff, so keep an eye on the mixer lest it walk across the counter and fall to the floor.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cover with a cloth. Rest for about 10 minutes.
At this point I like to weigh the dough then either divide by 12 to get the weight of an individual bagel or divide by the weight I want each bagel to be, adjusting to get an integral for each. Typically, this recipe will yield a dozen large, 125 gram bagels, or 15 smaller, 100 gram ones.
Divide the dough into however many bagels you are making. I portion them on my scale so they are all the same. Form each piece into a ball and set on the counter, covered by a cloth, to rest for another 10 minutes or so.
Making the Bagels
Water as needed
Baking soda, see method
Toppings, e.g. sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried minced onions, sea salt, etc.
Prepare sheet pans by lining them with parchment paper. I find that a half-sheet pan can accommodate about six bagels, eight if you crowd them a bit.
Preheat the oven to 450°F (425°F for convection).
Take a ball of dough and flatten it into a disc about two inches in diameter. Make a hole in the disc with your thumb then spin the bagel a couple of time around your index and middle fingers to enlarge the hole. Set of the counter. Repeat with each ball. Cover the bagels with a cloth and allow to rise for 10 to 15 minutes.
Flip each bagel over and allow to rise for another 10 to 15 minutes.
Measure water into wide pan to a depth of at least three inches. Add 4 grams (½ Tablespoon) baking soda for every 2 liters (½ gallon) of water. Bring to a boil then turn down to a slow simmer.
Put the toppings onto a plate and set next to the stove where the water is boiling.
Drop the bagels3 or 4 at a time into the simmering water making sure they are not overcrowded. After about a minute, flip them over with a large wooden spoon and let them boil on the other side.
Remove one bagel with a skimmer or slotted spoon and place onto the toppings. Using your fingers, quickly move each one around to coat and put, coated side up, onto the sheet pan. Repeat with the rest of the batch. Repeat until all the bagels are done.
Bake in the preheated oven for 12 to 13 minutes or until golden brown. I like to swap the pans from one rack to the other about halfway through to make sure they bake evenly.
Cool then store in a paper bag for a couple days or freeze for later use.