You boil pasta, noodles, and gnocchi. You bake breads.
But, as is typical for food, definitions aren’t that straightforward. Some breads are boiled, not just baked. That chewy, slightly tougher structure than a light bread in a bagel? Boiling the bagel definitely contributed to that. not always,
Boiling isn’t the only thing that sets a bagel apart, the round structure, with the hole in the middle makes it a bit of an outlier in the bread universe as well. But, probably not surprising, that shape is somewhat related to that boiling step.
How bagels are made
Bagels are a type of bread. You can make a bagel with as little as three ingredients: water and flour to make a dough and yeast to ensure the dough leavens and doesn’t become too hard/chewy. Often you’ll also add some sugar (for taste and food for the yeast) and salt (mostly for taste) or toppings such as seeds for some extra flavour. The dough is quite a firm and tough one, a lot firmer than most breads. As a result, it won’t swell as much and as easily as a lot of other bread doughs.
After kneading the dough and leaving it to proof or just rest for a little, which is pretty normal for any bread, the dough is shaped into a ring. It might get another rest or proof, or not, before the rings are dropped in hot boiling water. They end their journey in a hot oven.
The end product is chewy as a whole, a lot more dense than a ‘regular’ loaf of bread. Bagels don’t have a very crusty crust, but, the outer layer is just a tad different than the inside.
NYC vs Montreal bagels
Two types of bagels are often discussed and debated: the Montreal vs. New York City bagels. Both cities have a strong bagel history and both have a crowd of fans, each claiming ‘theirs’ is the best.
You can find a generic non-descript bagel in both cities for sure. Same for having both having good and not so good bagels. However, looking at creme de la creme of bagels, a Montreal bagel will be smaller and have a bigger hole than its New York counterpart. Also, a good Montreal bagel is boiled with a little bit of honey whereas the boiling water of a New York bagel does not contain the sweetener. A classic Montreal bagel is then baked in a wood-fired oven whereas a NYC doesn’t have to.
Both are great bagels, is one really better than the other, or are they just different? Suffice to say, there are tons and tons of recipes out there for great bagels, all just slightly different, but still bagels.
Proofing vs. not proofing
Breads that use yeast tend to need some time to proof. During this time the yeast converts the sugars in the flour into gases that will cause the dough to increase in volume. Very firm doughs don’t rise well, the tension resist expansion. Generally speaking, bagels don’t need as much proofing as most other breads. A dough that is too light and airy won’t withstand boiling as well.
When looking for bagel recipes (e.g. the one at the end of this post) you will find bagels that need proofing and those that barely need any. They will make bagels of different textures, nevertheless, they’re all bagels.
Why boil bagels?
Skipping the boiling step makes a ‘regular’ bread. It loses that characteristic bagel texture and isn’t cooked as well. Boiling sets bagels apart.
When boiling the bagels the starches in the flour of the dough gelatinize. During this process the starch granules absorb water, swell and ultimately break releasing more starch molecules (the same happens when boiling potatoes). This process stiffens the starches and thus the bagel, starting from the outside. By cooking the starch on forehand it won’t loose as much moisture anymore in the oven. As a result bagels won’t get that super crunchy crust that some sourdough breads for instance might get.
Boiling also kills off some or all of the yeast, depending on your boiling time. As a result, the bagels won’t puff up as much anymore when they’re in the oven next.
Boiled vs. steamed bagels
Larger scale manufacturers have largely switched to steaming bagels instead of boiling them in water. This is more efficient since it allows them to skip a piece of equipment. The steam treatment can be done in the oven, just before baking.
When boiling your bagels you need a firm, dense dough. If it is too pillowy and delicate it won’t handle the boiling step very well. This is where steam has an advantage. The dough is put onto racks and as such doesn’t need to withstand as much forces pushing upon it. As a result, bakers can (and often will) make slightly lighter bagels this way.
No matter which style you prefer, they definitely differ in their outcome due to the heat capacity of water and steam. Boiling water contains a lot of heat. If you’re boiling the bagels in a 1 liter pan of boiling water that water contains about 415kJ of energy. If you use steam on the other hand in that same 1 liter volume you’ll have less than 0.001kg of steam. That amount of steam contains less than a hundredth of the amount of energy that the boiling water contains. As such, the bagel boils a lot faster in boiling water since there’s a lot more energy available to transfer.
Flavouring the boiling liquid
Boiling bagels is useful for another reason than just texture: taste. As the Montreal bagel bakers showed, you can add honey to the boiling liquid. This gives the bagel a slight hint of sweetness and improves browning in the oven. Another option is to add other sugars such as malt syrup.
Others might call for alkalizing (increasing the pH-value) the boiling water by adding food grade lye or baking soda. None of these are essential for making a bagel but all do have a subtle effect on the bagel’s outside.
How long to boil bagels for?
Probably the most important part of boiling bagels isn’t the addition of some sugars or some baking soda. Instead, the most influential parameter is how long to boil them for. This can have a huge impact on how your final bagel turns out.
The ideal boiling time unfortunately won’t be a one size fits all. Larger, thicker bagels, need more than small skinny ones since the heat takes more time to penetrate through the bagel dough.
Want to keep yeast alive?
If you want your bagels to puff up a bit more in the oven, you shouldn’t boil them for too long. If you do, all the yeast will die and it won’t be able to puff up the bagel anymore. However, if some alive yeast is left it can do that.
In the test below bagel dough either wasn’t boiled at all, or for half, a whole or 2 minutes on each side. The bagel that wasn’t boiled clearly puffed up most in the oven. None of the yeast was killed through boiling so it continued to rise upon entering the warm oven.
Firmness and strength
It also depends on your bagel dough. Very firm doughs, that don’t expand much in the boiling water, nor in the oven, are less prone to over- or undercooking. Their shape is pretty much independent of boiling.
If your bagel dough isn’t super firm you should choose your boiling time wisely. In the experiment below the dough was either boiled 3 min per side (left) or just 1 min per side (right). The 3 min rings puffed up beautifully in the boiling water. However, they weren’t cooked full through and they collapsed in a matter of minutes after leaving the boiling water. It’s what gave them all the small bumps. The dough was too soft to hold it up.
The 1 min bagels didn’t puff up as much in the boiling water, but only they weren’t heated up as much. They on the other hand still had some alive yeast in them which allowed them to puff just a little extra during baking. Also, they didn’t collapse after boiling, giving them a smooth look.
Boiling the 3 min dough even longer might have made it firmer. Also, leaving out some moisture of the dough might have made it firm enough to stand up.
An important aspect of bagels are the toppings! Whether it’s a few sesame seeds, poppy seeds, cheese, onion pieces or one of many more alternatives, they notch the bagel up a level. Bagels are also perfect to top. After boiling the bagels are of course nice and moist on the outside. This is perfect for holding on to these toppings. In bakeries you will see them roll the freshly boiled, still moist bagels, through trays of seeds. The seeds stick very easily to the bagel without needing extra moisture or egg washes!
- 175g whole wheat flour
- 175g plain flour
- 1,5 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp dry yeast
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 210 ml water
- Optional: sesame seeds, poppy seeds or other topping
- Weigh all ingredients except for the optional ingredients into a mixing bowl of a stand mixer or in a regular bowl.
- If you're using a mixer, use the dough hook and knead for 10-15 minutes. The dough should come together as a whole and not be sticky to the touch. The dough will be firmer than that of a regular bread dough, that is a good thing. If you're kneading by hand knead until smooth. The dough will be firm and not sticky at all at the end.
- Leave the dough to rise for approx. 1 hour. When you poke the dough lightly with a finger it should bounce back. Because the dough is quite firm it might not double in size and that is fine.
- Form the dough into a simple ball and split into 4 or 8 little pieces. Two option here: 1) shape the pieces into a tight little ball. Poke a hole into the center with your finger and expand the center hole until it's about 2-3 cm or an inch in diamater. 2) Roll the dough into a strand and attach the two edges together by rolling them together tightly with one hand.
- The dough should not be sticky. However, if you're afraid of it sticking to a surface, sprinkle a tray lightly with a little bit of semolina flour or use a non-stick mat.
- Leave the uncooked bagels to rest for another 15-45 minutes, depending on how light and airy you want them.
- Bring a pot of water to the boil.
- Gently place the bagels into the water one by one (unless you're got a really large pot, then just throw them all in). Boil as many as fit into your pan at a time.
- Boil them for 1 minute, then rotate and boil for another minute.
- Place the bagels on a baking tray. Treat them carefully, they won't be fully cooked so they're still a little delicate. Continue boiling the other bagels.
- Try to prevent large puddles of moisture on the baking. If you carried a lot of water over on the baking tray, simply place them on another dry one. A few drops of water on the tray is no problem.
- Optional: roll the bagel through your topping or generously sprinkle your topping on the bagels.
- Bake the bagels in a preheated oven at 220C for 18-20 minutes until they're a light brown. The bagels will still expand slightly in the oven.
ps. Some say that one of the reasons a New York bagel is so unique is its water. I would like to believe it, but scientists have proven the opposite. Nevertheless, plenty of anecdotal stories like this one can still be found claiming it is because of the water!
ps2. Two of the more famous Montreal bagel bakeries are the Fairmount Bagel and St. Viateur. For NYC check out New Yorker Bagel or Brooklyn Bagel (note: we haven’t visited any of these so base these just on paper research!)
The Engineering Toolbox, Properties of Saturated Steam – Pressure in Bar, link ; data used for explaining difference in boiling water vs steam heating
Fairmount Bagel, 2019, How to make the perfect Montreal bagel: 100 years of wisdom from Fairmount Bagel, Youtube, link
The Fresh Loaf, Montreal Style Bagels, 2009, link ; this makes a firmer, less proofed bagel
Maria Godoy, Chew On This: The Science Of Great NYC Bagels (It’s Not The Water), May-21, 2015, NPR, link
Parks, S., Homemade Bagels Recipe, Jan-30, 2017, Serious Eats, link
Reinhart, P. New York Style Bagels, Fine Cooking issue 43, link
Reinhart, P., The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread [A Baking Book], 2011, p. 115, link
Seattle Bagel, About us, link
Spot Bagel, Boiled Bagels vs. Steamed – How to SPOT the Difference, 2011, link
Togut, L., New York’s Best Bagel Comes From a Department Store, Sep-5, 2014, Serious Eats, link