Science of making bagels – Why & How to boil bagels

Here in the Netherlands bagels aren’t that common. You can find the plain variety in various supermarkets, but that’s about it. So, when I feel like eating special bagels, I’ll have to make them myself.

That’s when I realized that the characteristic chewy, dense bagel texture is actually because of its special production process. It’s not a regular bread. Whereas making bread involves kneading, leavening and baking, making bagels adds an additional step: boiling! It’s this boiling step that makes bagels so different from regular breads.

So, about time we have a closer look at this boiling process. Why is it done and how does boiling time influence the bagel quality?

The cult of bagels – NYC vs Montreal

Once I started googling ‘bagels’, I found tons of mightily interesting discussions. Before diving into the science of bagels I’d like to discuss some. It shows how food is part of culture since the first hot topic I ran into is ‘which bagel is best, the New York or Montreal style bagel’? Of course, nobody agrees on this question, which makes it even more interesting to read.

It seems that the main difference between the two is the water in which they’re boiled The NYC style is boiled in plain water, whereas the Montreal style is boiled in water with honey. According to the bagels lovers, that gives an essential different (although I doubt whether I’d taste it).

The cult of bagels – Boiled vs. steamed bagels

Besides the NYC vs. Montreal bagel discussion, I ran into the “boiled vs. steamed bagel” discussion. Apparently, boiled bagels are less fluffy and more dense, whereas steamed bagels are more fluffy. I quickly found out that home made bagels are generally boiled, not steamed though. The use of steam is more common in industry, it’s easier to make large quantities of bagels using the steaming method. The bagels are not immersed in a water bath, but go through a steam oven. Most people seem to prefer the boiled ones as far as I could find, but I suppose a good not too expensive bagel is also appreciated by many.

bagels, ready to be boiled

Why boil bagels?

After being distracted by all these bagel discussions (please, do let me know if there’s another discussion that I haven’t come across yet!), I set ahead to figuring out why bagels are boiled. I quickly found out I couldn’t just skip this step, I’d be making ‘regular’ bread and not the dense bagel style.

So why are bagels boiled? In one of my previous infographics I zoomed in on flour, showing some general science principles. This will help you understand why bagels are boiled. A bagel dough contains of course flour and thus starches. When placing the dough in boiling water the starch granules will gel. The starch will absorb water and swell, starch granules might even break (after boiling bagels you might see the water is not clear anymore). This gelling of starch will stiffen the outside of the bagel. You will feel this when taking the bagel out of the water. Before boiling it was very flexible whereas after boiling it’s firm and not elastic anymore. (Just in case you’re wondering where the food chemistry is in this post, this is a typical example of applying food chemistry…)

Another thing happens at the same time. The yeast is killed of, so the dough will not rise anymore. Together with the firmer shape, boiling the bagel dough will set the final shape of the bagel, it will not rise any further in the oven. Since they don’t rise anymore, the structure remains more dense and chewy. Also the crust will be different compared to breads, it won’t form this crispy curst on the outside, instead, it’s more dense overall.

Making bagels

When choosing a bagel recipe though, there are still a lot of decisions to be make. What you put in the boiling water (honey, malt syrup, baking soda or nothing at all)? Should bagel dough be left in the fridge overnight?

But, I wanted to have bagels for lunch that day I decided to make bagels. So, I decided to just go for a recipe that suited me at the time (something I think is always best if you’re simply trying to make good food for yourselves). I found one on Tasty Kitchen and of course I couldn’t resist changing it again, resulting in the recipe mentioned below.

Whole wheat sesame bagels
Recipe type: Baked good
Author:
Serves: 8 bagels
Ingredients
  • 175g whole wheat flour
  • 175g plain flour
  • 1,5 tsp sugar
  • 1,5 tsp dry yeast
  • 0,25 tsp salt
  • 210 ml water
Instructions
  1. Mix all dry ingredients with a spatula and place in a stand mixer with the dough hook.
  2. Add the water and knead in the mixer for 15 minutes. The dough should come together and be firm, add more water if it doesn't come together properly.
  3. Leave to rise until approximately doubled.
  4. Knead the dough shortly and shape into 8 little balls. Shape these balls into bagels by pressing a hole in the middle.
  5. Leave to rise for a couple more minutes.
  6. Boil the bagels in water for 1 minute each side (read on to learn more about the effect of the durationof boiling!).
  7. Bake the bagels in a preheated oven at 220C for 18-20 minutes.

Bagel boiling test

I really enjoyed the bagels, eating them with cheese, cucumber and roasted walnuts, jummm. They actually really tasted like bagels and reminded me of them, so I considered my quest a success!

However, I quickly realized I would have to do a deeper dive into this boiling process and decided to set out and do another experiment. I would make bagels with varying boiling times!

Once I made the dough and had left it to rise, I shaped them into bagels. I placed them bake on baking paper to let them rise a little more. In the mean time I brought some water to the boil. By the time I wanted to boil the bagels, they had all stuck to the baking paper. This was the exact same problem I ran into last time and I haven’t yet figured out how to prevent it. Any tips? It’s a shame, the bagels looked very nice after their first rise but sinc I couldn’t get them off the paper properly, the got kind of misshapen (see photos…).

However, I kept on going and decided to boil the bagels for either half, one or two minutes per side. I also left one bagel on the baking paper and placed it in the oven without boiling. All bagels were baked in the oven at the same time, no differences there. In the end, I had 8 bagels, with different boiling times, see photo below.

sesame whole wheat bagel experiment, four different boiling times

Sensory evaluation of bagels

Perfect timing, when the bagels came out of the oven it was lunch time. So we set out a sensory test, each eating half a bagel of each bagel type!

As you can see, the bagel that hadn’t been boiled looks pretty different from the rest. For one, I didn’t have to take it from the baking paper to boil. but it also had a more crunchy crust, whereas’the others were softer. When eating the bagel though, we didn’t taste that much of a different. It was probably the most airy one and tasted most like a normal bread, although it was more dense than ‘normal’ bread.

When it comes to the other three, which were all boiled, I had expected that the one that had been boiled longest would be the firmest and most tough. However, the contrary was the case, we thought the 2 minute bagel was least dense and had the best structure. The 0,5 minute bagel was densest.

That got me thinking. Why was the longest boiled bagel the most airy one? The only reason I could think of is that the others were simply boiled for too short a time. Boiling a bagel too short will cause the outside to cook, but the inside to collapse if it hadn’t taken on a permanent structure yet. That can cause it to collapse once it leaves the boiling water.

freshly baked wholewheat bagels with sesame seeds

Baking bagels – a recap

My hypothesis is that a certain boiling time is required to:

  • Set the bagel in its final shape, making it firm enough to not collapse. The entire bagel will have to become warm enough for the gluten to set.
  • Gelatinize the starch in the outer layer to keep moisture in the bagel. Starch gelatinizes by placing it in water and heating it to increased temperatures.
  • I also noticed that the bagel which was only boiled for 0,5 minute per side was the most crunchy at the bottom. Would this be because it had the thinnest layer of gelatinized starch so still managed to lose enough moisture to get crispy?

Good luck making your own bagels and feel free to play around with the boiling time of your bagels to get them the exact right way you’d like to eat them! Let me know how your experiments worked out! I’d be interested to hear if my theories are correct (or not).

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