The world’s largest bagel was made by Bruegger’s Bagels for the New York State Fair on August 27, 2004. It weighed 868 pounds!
Being an ex-New Yorker, I love bagels! Bagels and lox (or smoked whitefish) was a Saturday evening dinner tradition. And when we visited Grandma and Grandpa on Sundays, it was bagels once again.
Having not lived in New York since 1982, my recollection of the way a New York bagel tastes is buried deep in the old gray matter. I remember watching them being made (boiled and then baked) and, back in the 60s and 70s, you didn’t have many flavor choices. Sesame, onion, salt, garlic, plain. Maybe a few more. We have found a local bagel shop that meets our tough standards, and everyone we’ve introduced these bagels to loves them. Do they taste just like New York bagels? I haven’t a clue!
A bit of history: A bagel (Yiddish: baygl; Polish: bajgiel), also spelled beigel, is a bread product originating in the Jewish communities of Poland. It is traditionally shaped by hand into the form of a ring from yeasted wheat dough, roughly hand-sized, that is first boiled for a short time in water and then baked. The result is a dense, chewy, doughy interior with a browned and sometimes crisp exterior.
Though the origins of bagels are somewhat obscure, it is known that they were widely consumed in Ashkenazi Jewish communities from the 17th century. The first known mention of the bagel, in 1610, was in Jewish community ordinances in Kraków, Poland. In the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries, the bajgiel became a staple of Polish cuisine and a staple of the Slavic diet generally. Its name derives from the Yiddish word beygal from the German dialect word beugel, meaning “ring” or “bracelet”.
Bagels are now a popular bread product in North America, especially in cities with large Jewish populations, many with alternative ways of making them. Like other bakery products, bagels are available (fresh or frozen, often in many flavors) in many major supermarkets in those cities.
But who, in their right mind, would go out of their way to eat a supermarket bagel? Or a frozen bagel?
Bagels with cream cheese and lox (cured salmon) are considered a traditional part of American Jewish cuisine (colloquially known as “lox and a schmear”). Bagels were brought to the United States by immigrant Polish Jews, with a thriving business developing in New York City that was controlled for decades by Bagel Bakers Local 338. They had contracts with nearly all bagel bakeries in and around the city for its workers, who prepared all their bagels by hand.
The bagel came into more general use throughout North America in the last quarter of the 20th century with automation. Daniel Thompson started work on the first commercially viable bagel machine in 1958; bagel baker Harry Lender and his son, Murray Lender, leased this technology and pioneered automated production and distribution of frozen bagels in the 1960s. Murray also invented pre-slicing the bagel.
Around 1900, the “bagel brunch” became popular in New York City. The bagel brunch consists of a bagel topped with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato, and red onion. This and similar combinations of toppings have remained associated with bagels into the 21st century in the U.S.
In recent years, a variant has emerged, producing what is sometimes called the steam bagel. To make a steam bagel, the boiling is skipped, and the bagels are instead baked in an oven equipped with a steam injection system. In commercial bagel production, the steam bagel process requires less labor and results in a fluffier, softer, less chewy product more akin to a finger roll that happens to be shaped like a bagel. Steam bagels are considered lower quality by purists.
According to a 2012 Consumer Reports article, the ideal bagel should have a slightly crispy crust, a distinct “pull” when a piece is separated from the whole by biting or pinching, a chewy inside, and the flavor of freshly-baked bread. The taste may be complemented by additions cooked on the bagel, such as onion, garlic, sesame seeds, or poppy seeds. The appeal of a bagel may change upon being toasted. Toasting can have the effect of bringing or removing desirable chewiness, softening the crust, and moderating off-flavors.
Wikipedia gives a nutritional summary of a typical bagel, but who really wants to know that?
As suggested above, other bagel styles can be found elsewhere, akin to the way in which families in a given culture employ a variety of methods when cooking an indigenous dish. Thus, Chicago-style bagels are baked or baked with steam. The traditional London bagel (or beigel as it is spelled) is harder and has a coarser texture with air bubbles.
While normally and traditionally made of yeasted wheat, in the late 20th century variations on the bagel flourished. Non-traditional versions that change the dough recipe include pumpernickel, rye, sourdough, bran, whole wheat, and multigrain. Other variations change the flavor of the dough, often using blueberry, salt, onion, garlic, egg, cinnamon, raisin, chocolate chip, cheese, or some combination of the above. Green bagels are sometimes created for St. Patrick’s Day, red bagels for Valentine’s Day, and now, my local bagel shop offers unicorn or rainbow bagels. They look pretty, but taste kind of weird.
Though the original bagel has a fairly well-defined recipe and method of production, there is no legal standard of identity for bagels in the United States. Bakers are free to call any bread dough a bagel, even those that deviate wildly from the original formulation.
Here are some cultural references to bagels that I’m sure you’ve never heard of:
- “Bagel” is also a term for sleeping 12 hours straight—e.g., “I slept a bagel last night.” There are various opinions as to the origins of this term. It may be a reference to the fact that bagel dough has to “rest” for at least 12 hours between mixing and baking, or simply to the fact that the hour hand on a clock traces a bagel shape over the course of 12 hours.
- In tennis, a “bagel” refers to a player winning a set 6–0; winning a match 6–0, 6–0, 6–0 is called a “triple bagel.”
Mark your calendars for the next National Bagel Day to be celebrated on February 9, in which people celebrate the rich history of getting together and eating bagels. What could be better?