This recipe includes all of the tips for making traditional water bagels at home, including refrigerating overnight, boiling and baking. All you need is a slather of cream cheese on these authentic beauties!
It’s been more than ten years since I first tackled homemade bagels and I’m just as in love with them now as I was then. If you are a die-hard bagel fanatic, you are going to absolutely love the ones that will come out of your oven using this recipe.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart was one of the very first cookbooks that I purchased, and in it was this recipe. After trying my hand at a number of other breads, I finally dug in and tackled these. I never looked back when it came to homemade bagel-making. There are some special ingredients and techniques, but we’re talking through everything below so you can create the most amazing, authentic-tasting bagels in your own kitchen.
How Do You Make Bagels?
The process to make honest-to-goodness, authentic bagels requires multiple stages and a couple of specialty ingredients, but is worth every single ounce of effort if you love true old-school bagels, not the thick, bagel-shaped bread you can buy in a sleeve at the supermarket. Let’s discuss!
The first step in the process is making a sponge from flour, yeast and water. That sits at room temperature for a couple of hours until it’s bubbling and foamy and nearly doubled in size.
Then, to that sponge the remaining dough ingredients are added – more yeast, more flour, salt, and barley malt syrup. A stiff dough is made, then portioned out into rolls and left to rest briefly.
The bagels are then shaped, covered and left to sit in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, the bagels are boiled in water that has sugar and non-diastatic malt powder added to it, then baked in a fiery hot oven.
The Specialty Ingredients
You may have noticed a few ingredients in the recipe that are unfamiliar or, at least, not things you would typically keep in your pantry. Let’s discuss them, the role they play, and potential substitutes…
High-Gluten Flour – This specialty flour (which you can purchase from King Arthur Flour) has a higher protein level (14%) than even bread flour (12%). For comparison sake, all-purpose flour usually has around 10%. That increased gluten protein is what provides elasticity and tough chew associated with classic bagels. You can substitute bread flour, but it is not recommended that you use all-purpose flour.
Barley Malt Syrup – This is strictly for flavor, as it helps release the natural sugars trapped in the flour starches. It will give you the familiar old-school bagel shop flavor, and you can purchase it from Amazon or King Arthur Flour, but you can also substitute honey or light brown sugar.
Non-Diastatic Malt Powder – I add this to the water bath, which creates a shiny exterior and helps the bagels brown in the oven. Again, you can purchase this from King Arthur Flour. You can omit this if you’d like; if you do, also omit the sugar and simply use 1 tablespoon of baking soda.
Authentic bagels require some steps that you don’t find in regular bread-baking, so let’s run through them…
The Sponge – Utilizing the sponge technique gives the bagels a better flavor and texture, and also allows them to freeze and thaw more successfully due to the increase of natural acid. Longer, slower fermentation improves the flavor and shelf life.
Overnight Refrigeration – This piggy backs on the sponge method above, giving the bagels yet another opportunity to get a long, slow fermentation going. Peter Reinhart goes so far as to say that he finds it impossible to make a decent bagel without the overnight method. The long, slow, cold fermentation allows the naturally occurring enzymes, as well as those provided by the malt, to release flavors.
Stiff Dough – This dough is extremely stiff, with a much lower liquid to flour ratio that you will typically find in bread recipes. This stiffness is necessary to allow the dough to withstand the boiling water without deflating or losing its shape. In order to ensure the dough has the correct consistency, use the windowpane test (described in the recipe and pictured below) to see if the dough has the appropriate hydration.
Boiling – A water bath is the traditional way to make bagels, creating the distinctive thick, chewy crust. Adding some sugar and non-diastatic malt powder to the water bath helps to “set” the outer crust of the dough and aids in its caramelization and color.
If you are a bagel purist and enjoy that chewy exterior paired with that beautiful crumb, you are going to fall in love with these. I am a total bagel minimalist and enjoy them with a slather of cream cheese and that’s it.
However, you can top them with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried onion, whatever you’d like!
If You Like These Homemade Bagels, Try My Other Varieties:
Make the Sponge: Stir the yeast into the flour in a 4-quart (or larger) mixing bowl. Add the water, whisking or stirring only until it forms a smooth, sticky batter (like pancake batter). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the mixture becomes very foamy and bubbly. It should swell to nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is tapped on the countertop.
Make the Dough: In the same mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer), add the additional yeast to the sponge and stir. Then add 3 cups of the flour and all of the salt and the barley malt syrup. Stir (or mix on low speed with the dough hook) until the ingredients form a ball, slowly working in the remaining ¾ cup flour to stiffen the dough.
Transfer the dough to the counter and knead for at least 10 minutes (or for 6 minutes by machine). The dough should be firm, but still pliable and smooth. There should be no raw flour - all the ingredients should be hydrated. Break off a small piece of dough and gently stretch and pull it to see if it will hold a paper-thin, translucent membrane (called the "windowpane test"). If the dough seems dry and rips, add a few drops of water and continue kneading. If the dough seems tacky or sticky, add more flour to achieve the stiffness required. The kneaded dough should feels satiny and pliable but not be tacky.
Shape the Bagels: Immediately divide the dough into 4½ ounce pieces for standard large bagels, or smaller if desired. Form the pieces into rolls. Cover the rolls with a damp kitchen towel and allow them to rest for 20 minutes.
Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats, or parchment paper sprayed lightly with non-stick cooking spray.
To shape the bagels, use your thumb to poke a hold in a ball of bagel dough and gently stretch evenly until the hole is 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Alternatively, you can roll the dough into an 8-inch rope and wrap the dough around the palm and back of your hand, overlapping the ends by several inches. Press the overlapping ends together and gently roll back and forth to seal.
Place each of the shaped bagels 2 inches apart on the pans. Mist the bagels very lightly with non-stick cooking spray and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the pans sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Check to see if the bagels are ready to be retarded in the refrigerator by using the "float test". Fill a small bowl with cool or room-temperature water. The bagels are ready to be retarded when they float within 10 seconds of being dropped into the water. Take one bagel and test it. If it floats, immediately return the tester bagel to the pan, pat it dry, cover the pan with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator overnight (it can stay in the refrigerator for up to 2 days). If the bagel does not float, return it to the pan and continue to proof the dough at room temperature, checking back every 10 to 20 minutes or so until a tester floats. The time needed to accomplish the float will vary, depending on the ambient temperature and the stiffness of the dough.
Boil and Bake the Bagels: The following day (or when you are ready to bake the bagels), preheat the oven to 500 degrees F with the two racks set in the middle of the oven. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (the wider the pot the better - a Dutch oven is perfect!), and add the sugar and non-diastatic malt powder. Have a slotted spoon or skimmer nearby.
Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop them into the water, boiling only as many comfortably fit (they should float within 10 seconds). After 1 minute flip them over and boil another minute. If you like very chewy bagels, you can extend the boiling to 2 minutes per side. While the bagels are boiling, sprinkle the same silicone baking mats or parchment-lined sheet pans with cornmeal or semolina flour. If you want to top the bagels with anything, do so as soon as they come out of the water.
When all the bagels have been boiled, place the pans on the 2 middle shelves in the oven. Bake for approximately 5 minutes, then rotate the pans, switching shelves and giving the pans a 180-degree rotation. (If you are baking only 1 pan, keep it on the center shelf but still rotate 180 degrees.) After the rotation, lower the oven setting to 450 degrees F and continue baking for about 5 minutes, or until the bagels turn light golden brown. You may bake them darker if you prefer.
Remove the pans from the oven, transfer the bagels to a wire cooling rack, and let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Fresh bagels are best, but these keep well in an airtight container or bag for up to 2 days. If you won't eat them within that time frame, I recommend wrapping them individually in plastic wrap and placing in a ziploc freezer bag, and storing them in the freezer for up to 1 month.
You can substitute bread flour for the high-gluten flour, but I do not recommend all-purpose flour without compromising the texture of the bagels.
You can substitute honey or light brown sugar for the barley malt syrup in the dough.
To make a sourdough version, replace the sponge with 5 cups (35 ounces) of barm starter and increase the instant yeast in the dough to 1½ teaspoons.