Bagels differ from bread in three ways. First, they are flavored with malt. Many recipes use malt extract or syrup. I had trouble finding this in the store, and my husband Peter suggested that I use a porter beer which is heavily malt flavored instead. The worked very well and was much easier to find than the extract. A true bagel is boiled for a couple of minutes in water before it is baked. This step gives the bagel its chewy texture. The water interacts with the outside of the dough to form a crust. This crust prevents the dough from rising too much in the oven, giving a denser bread. The longer that the dough is boiled, the chewier the bagel is. Finally, bagel dough is a much stiffer dough than normal bread, meaning it has much less water. This is partly what gives the bagel its dense crumb and texture, and also allows it to stand up to the water bath.
While making bagels is quite straightforward, I do not recommend it if you have never baked bread before. The reason for this is because the dough is so stiff that it is much harder to knead than a normal bread dough and thus there is a larger probability of going wrong. The first time I made bagels, I made three batches before I had any success! The first batch I used an old sack of bread flour that had been sitting in my cupboard for three years. As I was kneading it, the dough was extremely crumbly and did not show any signs of elasticity. I looked up whether flour could be too old, and it turns out the protein and gluten content does deteriorate with age. So, I dumped that batch and started again. This time the dough felt better immediately, but I was so concerned with having a dry enough dough that I didn’t put enough water in it. After kneading for over half an hour and even enlisting my husband’s hands for a further 10 minutes, the dough still did not want to be smooth. I went ahead and finished the bread but while the bagels were baking, I read all the recipes I could find and realized that my dough had simply been too dry. While the bagels came out edible, they were misshapen and ugly. Of course, I had invited some friends over to try my bagels, and they gamely complimented my efforts but it didn’t really feel like a success! Later that afternoon, I decided to try one last time, making sure the dough was not too dry, and it finally worked. For this reason, I can suggest that if you do not make bread very often, buy more yeast than you need. If the first batch doesn’t work, you can always throw it away and begin again. While I dislike waste, the ingredients here are quite inexpensive, so you can afford to experiment. Do not be put off by the length of the recipe. It is not that difficult or time consuming, but I have tried to give a lot of detail so that you won’t have to do it three times before getting a good bagel!
For bagel dough:
50 grams (1.5 ounces) fresh yeast cake
3 dl (1 1/4 cups)water
3 dl (1 1/4 cups) porter style beer
3 tablespoons honey, syrup, or brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
10 to 13 dl (4 to 6 cups) strong bread flour
For boiling the bagels:
The rest of the bottle of porter
½ cup brown sugar
Optional, topping for bagels
Sesame seeds, caraway seeds, flake sea salt, or poppy seeds
In a bowl or large measuring cup, pour in the warm water. The water should feel slightly warm to the touch (around 100F, if you measure with a thermometer). The yeast is already active and does not need to be woken up. Better to have the water slightly too cold than too hot because water over 130F will kill the yeast. Crumble the yeast cake into the water and stir until it is fully dissolved. Then add in your choice of sweetening agent and the beer and stir.
In a large bowl, pour 10 dl (4 cups) of flour and add the salt and stir. Make a hole in the center and pour in the yeast mixture. Stir with a spoon until the flour is more or less incorporated and then start kneading the mixture in the bowl with your hand. You should have a stiff dough, much stiffer than a normal bread dough, but all the flour should be incorporated and the dough should be in one mass. If the dough is crumbly and does not seem to want to form a ball, then add a bit more water. If the dough is sticky, then gradually sprinkle in more flour. You should end up with a ball of dough that is a bit rough and lumpy but that sticks together. Although you want a dry stiff dough, it is better to err on the wet side if you are unsure. The worst that will happen is that you have a softer, more bread like bagel, while if it is too dry, the dough will not come together smoothly and you will have lumpy bagels. It is also easier to add more flour to make the dough drier during the kneading process than to wet a dry dough later. Put a towel over the bowl and let the dough stand for 10 minutes. This will allow the gluten in the flour to relax slightly, making it easier to knead.
Lightly dust a working surface with flour and start kneading the dough. After about 2 to 3 minutes, it should start becoming smooth. The dough should not be at all sticky. If it is sticky, dust a bit more flour on it and continue to knead. Repeat until the dough no longer feels sticky. Because the dough is dryer than normal and because you are using bread flour with a higher gluten content, it will take longer to knead. If you should feel that your dough is too dry, wet your hands and knead again until all the water is incorporated. You can repeat this several times until you reach a consistency that feels better. Continue kneading for a further 15 to 20 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic and forms a neat ball.
If you have a mixer with dough attachments or a bread-maker, you can let the machine do this work. In fact, many recipes I have read recommend using a machine, presumably because the machine can do a better job with the stiff dough and you may find that a machine can incorporate a bit more flour than you can do by hand. Do keep an eye on it, though, to make sure the machine does not overheat due to the stiffness of the dough!
Put the dough in a clean bowl, cover with a dishcloth, and set in a warm spot. Let rise for 1 hour or more, until the dough has doubled.
Punch the dough to get the air bubbles out and turn it out and knead for a minute. The dough should be smooth and elastic. At this point you can put the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight or up to two days. The dough will slowly rise in the refrigerator, and this slow rise will improve the flavor and texture of the bread. If you have room in your refrigerator, you can also form the bagels now and let them rise on the trays overnight. Then, in the morning, you can simply dash out, remove the trays and let them warm up while you go back to bed for another hour. However, if you are in a hurry, you can skip the slow rise in the refrigerator and go straight to forming the bagels and baking them after they have risen.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator and cut into 12 even pieces. You can form each bagel in one of two methods. (1)Roll each piece into a smooth ball and then stick your thumb into the center and make a hole in each piece. Roll the dough around, stretching it evenly to make a hole about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. (2) Roll out the dough into a snake. Wind it into a circle and press the two ends together very hard. Then roll the area which you have pressed to even it out. It is said that professional bagel makers use this method, but you can choose whichever suits you best.
Put each bagel on a parchment covered baking sheet and cover with a towel. If the dough is cold from the refrigerator, let them sit out on the counter to come to room temperature for 60 to 90 minutes. They should rise a bit during this time. If you skipped the second rising in the refrigerator, let the bagels rise a second time, about 20 to 30 minutes. If you put them in the refrigerator already shaped, then they only need to come to room temperature, they will already be risen.
When you are ready to bake the bagels, preheat the oven to 400F (200C). Bring a pot of water, about 4 inches deep to a boil. The pot should be big enough to fit 3 to 4 bagels. Pour in the rest of the beer and ½ cup of sugar. This will increase the malty flavor and the sugar will make a nice crust on the bagels. The water should not be at a rolling boil, but at a simmer. With a slotted spoon, lay each bagel into the water, in batches of 3 to 4, whatever fits comfortably in your pot. If you have refrigerated the dough, you need to make sure it has come to room temperature. If the bagel does not rise to the surface of the boiling water and float, then the bagel is still too cold. Wait for another 15 to 20 minutes and then try again.
Let the bagel simmer for about a minute and then flip them over and simmer for a further minute on the other side. The bagels will puff out a bit in the water. Have ready a plate where you have sprinkled the topping of your choice. Take each bagel from the boiling water and lay on the plate. The water from boiling will help the topping stick to the bagel. Remove the bagel and put on the baking sheet, topping side up. You can smooth the topping with a finger if it is not even. Repeat until your baking sheet is full. You should probably be able to fit 6 to 8 bagels on one baking sheet.
Bake the bagels for 15 to 25 minutes until they are golden brown. Serve warm, split with butter or cream cheese or other topping of your choice. Bagels freeze very well. Simply let them thaw out and toast.