bagels on tray right is 1 min boil, left 3 min

Optimizing a Baker’s Bagel Recipe

A while back I was working with a client who owns a small bakery. She had only recently made the transition from a one-person business to a full-fledged bakery and I was helping her out making that transition.

One of the challenges she ran into was her bagel recipe. It was an expensive recipe where she used diastatic malt powder in both the bagels themselves, as well as the boiling water in which she boiled the bagels.

She wanted to know whether she needed to use the diastatic malt powder in both parts, or whether there was a way to cut down costs by leaving it out, without sacrificing quality.

She had learned by doing

The baker, we’ll call her Jen, learned to bake from websites and magazines. She was fully self-taught, had never taken a professional course. She was great at executing recipes and had developed a good feel for the products and processes she made. But, when asked why she did certain things, she wouldn’t have been too sure. She just knew they worked.

So when she started to use the diastatic malt powder in her bagel dough and boiling water, she did it because that’s how she was taught. She wasn’t sure it could be done different. But, the costs of the recipe were high, almost too high for her to charge a decent price. So, she asked me, what can I do?

A very expensive recipe

It became clear that the diastatic malt powder in her recipe was the most expensive ingredient. It was also hard for her to source. She has to get it through a special supplier and it was quite a hassle.

She needed quite a lot to add to the boiling water, and there was no way to re-use it. Could she just leave it out? Should she even try? She didn’t want to waste a batch and has tons of other things to do, so she wanted some sort of security of whether it might work at all.

And a simple change

Armed with her recipe and data, I set out to have a look at what was going on. I had a look at the types of flour she used, the yeast, all the other ingredients in the bagel. They all made sense. She didn’t use the cheapest ingredients, but that was an important part of her brand. She wanted high quality, in some cases organic products, so she made the conscious choice for those ingredients.

But, that diastatic malt powder was an exception. It became clear to me quite quickly that she could leave that out of the boiling water completely. As a matter of fact, the hot boiling water would even ruin any of the special properties of that powder anyway! It truly was a waste of money.

Curious to learn more about diastatic malt powder and what it can and cannot do in bagels? We wrote an extensive article on the topic, explaining the difference between diastatic and non-diastatic malt powder and more!

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend her to just take it out. I always think it’s best to do an experiment. So, I adviced her to make a batch of bagels in which she wouldn’t add any diastatic malt powder to her boiling water. I told her to just boil a few at first. If they didn’t look good, she could always add back in the diastatic malt powder. This way, she could just do it during her normal process, not having to plan a dedicated test batch. Nevertheless, I was quite convinced it was going to work.

Led to big cost savings

And it worked perfectly indeed! She could eliminate over 75% of the diastatic malt powder from her recipe. This cut costs considerably, without negatively impacting the quality of her product at all.

Cost savings don’t always have to be detrimental for quality. On the contrary, smart decisions may allow you to save costs and maintain or even improve quality.

Ingredient understanding paved the way

There are many bakers and food producers like Jen out there. Those who know how to make their products, but don’t really know why they’re doing something. They feel uncomfortable testing something new, not know what might happen.

However, if you understand the role of your ingredients and process steps, improving and changing your products becomes so much easier.

In the case of Jen, by simply knowing that boiling water inactivates the active components in diastatic malt powder, I could be quite sure that leaving it out would have no effect at all. And that turned out to be true.

Nevertheless, just knowing is never the full answer. You almost always have to test, just like Jen did. Designing such a (simple) test is key to making quality products. If you can get into the habit of doing little trials all the time, your products and your knowledge will become better because of it.

boiling bagels
Some bagel trials (by myself, not Jen) on the effect of different ingredients added to the boiling water bath. Read the full report here.

After this diastatic malt powder question, Jen and I tackled several more. Most weren’t as ‘easy’ as this one. But Jen started to feel more and more comfortable to test things out, resulting in a range of improved recipes. And, even better, Jen felt way more comfortable with her products. By testing and failing sometimes, she better knew what she could and couldn’t do, giving her a whole new experimental toolbox to play with!

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