bagels on a tray

Why and How to Boil Bagels – Science of Bagels

You boil pasta, noodles, and gnocchi. You bake cake, cookies, and bread. Bagels, on the other hand? You bake AND boil them. As a matter of fact, doing both is crucial for getting that chewy, characteristic bagel texture.

And there’s more. How you boil your bagel can also drastically impact its color and gloss. And, it influences the final flavor of your bagel. About time we have a closer look at the importance and use of bagel boiling.

The basics of bagels

Before we dive head-on first into the boiling water, let’s zoom out and have a quick refresher on bagels in general.

Bagels are circular breads, with a hole in the middle. They might have the same shape as donuts, but taste very different. They tend to be savory and are a lot chewier and sturdier than a donut tends to be.

bagels on tray right is 1 min boil, left 3 min
A fresh batch of bagel experiments. (left: boiled for 3 min each side; right: boiled for 30s per side)

Bagels start out as quite a regular bread dough. You mix water, wheat flour, yeast, salt and maybe some sugar, into a firm sturdy dough. The dough doesn’t tend to be as flexible as you’d use for a ‘regular’ loaf of bread.

At some point during the process, the dough is left to proof. You might do this before the dough is shaped into rings. Others proof the dough in bulk, before shaping. During this time the yeast converts sugars in the dough into gas bubbles – carbon dioxide. This is what helps create a light and fluffy dough.

The bagels are boiled after both shaping and proofing. After this quick dip in hot water, they are finished by baking them in the oven.

The end product is chewy, relatively dense bread. Bagels don’t have a true crust, but a good bit.

A note on NYC vs Montreal bagels

If you decide to dig into bagels, you might find yourself caught in a heavily debated argument. Which bagel is better? The Montreal or New York City-style bagel? Both cities have a strong bagel history and a crowd of committed fans. Which is better mostly depends on who you ask.

Generally speaking, a Montreal-style bagel is smaller, but has a bigger hole, than its NYC counterpart. The Canadian bagel makers tend to sweeten their boiling water with a little honey. This is not regularly done in New York. Lastly, a classic Montreal bagel is baked in a wood-fired oven. Again, not something the New Yorkers do.

bagels, ready to be boiled
Bagels in the making

Why do you boil bagels?

Boiling a bagel is what gives it its characteristic texture. Skipping the boiling step makes a ‘regular’ bread, that just happens to be shaped like a bagel. Boiling gives it the chew. And it ensures there’s no crispy crust.

What happens during boiling?

As soon as the bagel hits the boiling water, it starts to change. Several major changes happen that are crucial for becoming a bagel:

  1. Gelatinizating starch
  2. Inactivating (some of) the yeast
  3. Alkalization of the outer layer (optional)
Starches gelatinize – defining the structure

First of all, the starches in the flour of the dough gelatinize. Starch granules in the flour absorb water. As a result, they swell, until they break. At that point, starch molecules are set free and absorb even more water and ‘cook’ the bagel.

Gelatinization of starch is a very common process in carbohydrate-rich foods. Boiling potatoes, making a roux for a pie filling, they all rely on the gelatinization of starch to get their distinct texture.

Once the starch has gelatinized, the dough loses some of its flexibility, but also vulnerability. The outside has become sturdier and can de handled more easily. It does mean that the bagel can’t expand that much anymore from now on.

Another effect of the starch gelatinization is that a lot of the water on the outside of the bagel has now been bound. It is no longer free. As a result, it won’t evaporate as easily anymore in the oven. This again ensures that the bagel doesn’t get a crunchy crust, like some other breads do.

Lastly, this process is crucial for creating a bagel with a nice shine and gloss!

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proofing bagels
Yeast deactivates – but not all

Baker’s yeast thrives at body temperature. However, once it gets too hot, yeast is inactivated. Remember that yeast is a living microorganism. At high temperatures the internal systems stop working. Boiling water is definitely hot enough to instantly kill off the yeast.

That said, it does take some time for that heat to fully penetrate the whole bagel. As such, some of the yeast in the center may survive.

Alkalization of the outside (optional)

Lastly, if you boil the bagels in alkaline water – such as water with dissolved baking soda – you can alkalize the outside of the bagel. That is, you increase the pH-value on the outside.

This does not lead to a visible difference at first. However, once the bagel has been baked, those boiled in alkaline water are significantly darker in color! The change in pH-value has sped up the Maillard reaction, causing the bagel to brown faster.

boiling bagels under different conditions

Does steaming vs. boiling make a difference?

Boiling bagels gives them a characteristic texture, nevertheless a lot of larger manufacturers have moved away from boiling. Instead, they use steam to pre-seal the bagels. It is simply easier to steam large quantities of bagels than it is to boil them.

However, it does result in slightly different bagels – and opens up some new opportunities:

  • More delicate doughs: to boil a bagel, the dough needs to be sturdy enough to survive a drop and dip in water. In steam ovens on the other hand, the bagels undergo less handling. As such, more delicate, lighter doughs can be used!
  • The bottom doesn’t shine because the bottom of the bagels in a steam oven often don’t pre-cook as well!

What do you boil bagels in?

Aside from of course water, the boiling liquid for bagels can contain a few other ingredients. These ingredients can change the flavor and appearance of the bagel. Use it to your liking!

Sugars – add flavor?

The boiling liquid for bagels often contains honey, malt syrup or (brown) sugar. They can make the bagel a little sweeter, or add a little flavor.

However, we found that both brown sugar and honey didn’t add much to our bagel in terms of flavor. A slight sweetness, maybe, but not much.

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.

Baking soda – makes a brown bagel

What did make a big difference? Using baking soda in the boiling water! As we discussed above, increasing the pH-value of the liquid impacts the outer layer of the bagel. As a result, the final bagel turns a nice dark brown color in the oven!

If you use too much baking soda, your bagel may even start to taste like a pretzel! Pretzel also get an alkaline treatment to develop their color and taste. We caught this flavor when using 1 tbsp baking soda / liter of water.

bagel boiling experiment
4 bagels, each boiled for a different amount of time. Notice how the reference (0 seconds) lacks shine? Boiling ensures the bagel gets some shininess!

How long to boil that bagel for?

So, you’re all set to boil some bagels? But, how long should you boil them for?

Unfortunately, there is no one ideal boiling time. It depends.

  • On the size of your bagel – thicker bagels can handle more boiling.
  • On the texture you’re after
  • On the extra puff from the yeast you’re after in the oven

Texture – firmness and strength

The shorter you boil your bagel, the thinner the layer of cooked dough on the outside. You could technically cook the whole bagel for several minutes. By that time, all the starch will have gelatinized. As a result, the shape will be set. It can no longer expand in the oven. Also, it will become quite tough, maybe a bit too tough for most bagel lovers.

It’s why most bagel recipes instruct you to boil them for a limited amount of time, often just 30 seconds per side. This ensures the outside is cooked and firm. However, the inside will still be pretty much raw. As such, the inside is still flexible. In the oven, these doughs can still expand a little, making for a nicer, rounder bagel!

Want to keep yeast alive?

In the oven, bagels can still puff up a little. This is due to water in the bagel that evaporates, but can also be due to some residual yeast. Upon entering the nice warm oven, the yeast gets a last push to grow and produce gas.

This is highly desirable. Bagels that have only been boiled often look less than perfect. However, in the oven, the last expansion of the bagel makes them round and puffy!

bagels 1 vs 3 min boil each side
Both bagels looked pretty much identical when leaving the boiling water. However, the bagel on the left was still sufficiently raw and flexible to puff up in the oven! As a result, the overall bagel looks more attractive.

Bagel Troubleshooting

Ready to make some bagels, but still have some questions? Hopefully, we’ve got them covered for you!

Does the type of water you use matter for the quality of the bagel?


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!

My bagel sinks when I try to boil it, why?


Remember that whether something floats in water depends on its density. If the density is lower than that of water, it will float. If it is higher, it will sink (or sediment). If your bagel sinks, it means its density is quite high, it’s dense.
You can resolve this by leaving it to proof for longer. The yeast in the dough will create more gas bubbles. Gas has a very low density, so will lower the density of the bagel as a whole!

6 bagels

Basic Bagels

Yield: 6 regular bagels
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

A relatively simple bagel recipe that can be scaled up or down without issues!

Ingredients

Dough

  • 350g bread flour
  • 15g sugar
  • 1/2 tsp dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 190g water

Boiling liquid

  • 1 tbsp baking soda (optional)
  • 1 liter water

Instructions

  1. Add all ingredients for the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer and knead into a firm, sturdy dough. This will take approx. 10-15 minutes. The dough should not be sticky to the touch.
  2. Leave the dough to rise for approx. 1 hour or place in the fridge for 12-18 hours. When you poke the dough lightly with a finger it should bounce back.
  3. Split the dough into 6 equally sized portions.
  4. Shape the dough into bagels using one of two options (both work fine):
  5. Option 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 diameter.
  6. Option 2: Roll the dough into a strand and attach the two edges together by rolling them together tightly with one hand.
  7. Place the bagels on a non-stick surface, coat with a little oil to make it easy to pick up the bagels again when boiling them.
  8. Cover the bagels to prevent them from drying out and leave them to rest for another 30-45 minutes.

Boiling

  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil.
  2. If using, add in the baking soda.
  3. Gently place the bagels into the water one by one. Boil as many as fit into your pan at a time.
  4. Boil for 30s on each side.
  5. Place the bagels on a baking tray.
  6. Bake the bagels in a pre-heated oven at 220C for 18-20 minutes until they're a light brown color.
  7. Leave to cool and enjoy!

References

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

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15 Comments

  1. Hi there, thanks for this explanation and for doing your own boiling tests! Just a word re preventing the bagel dough sticking to the baking paper or baking pan – I’ve read that corn meal does the trick. That’s what bagel store folk use, at least here in NYC. If you look at a well-made (and boiled – not steamed! never steamed) bagel in a bagel store, you will often see corn meal kernels on the bottom…

    I can’t find a date on this posting so you may have figured this out ages ago, but just in case….

    • Hi Amy,

      Thanks for stopping by and for the great tip! I definitely have to make bagels again soon and use your tip. Sticking of the bagels and their less than perfect shapes definitely is something I still need to get better at :-).

  2. I MADE A HUGE BATCH OF BAGELS TODAY AND EVERY SINGLE ONE STUCK TO THE PANS. EVEN WHEN I USED WAX PAPER AND OIL, OR FLOUR AND OIL THEY ALL STUCK,,,WHAT A MESS. THANKS FOR THE CORNMEAL TRICK.

    • Hope your next trial works better! If they’re really sticky, you might want to add some more flour to the dough as well? Sometimes different flours require very different amounts of moisture.

  3. Hello,

    RE: BAGELS STICKING PRIOR TO BOILING. This happened to me 15+ years ago when I first attempted making bagels at home. What I do is, let’s say making 6 bagels. Take a sheet of wax paper, or parchment paper, the length of your baking pan, then cut into 6 squares/rectangles (make sure the pieces are big). Form your bagels with the hole in the middle (poke your finger through and spin and stretch) and lay on one of the cut out pieces of wax paper. Let them rise 20-30 minutes.

    When ready to boil, simply take a spatula and lift them up, under the wax paper, that way you’re not “handling” the bagel. Grab a corner of the wax paper and place the bagel into the boiling water. After a couple seconds when the wax paper gets wet, the bagel slides right off into the water, throw the wax paper sheet away. And Repeat.

    I boil them about 1.5 minutes and using a spatula gently lap/splash water onto the top side, then using spatula gently flip them and repeat process for another 1-1.5 minutes. I use an old steamer pot and boil two at a time. I transfer to a lightly greased baking pan, and while they are still wet and steaming, my wife and kids add their favorite toppings (salt, poppy seeds, minced garlic, etc.)

    I repeat for the remaining bagels, then bake them at 425 degrees for 18-20 minutes until brown on top. I then flip them because a lot of times the bottom of the bagel is still a little wet or mushy/underdone, and bake them for 5 minutes to dry the moisture.

    I also use an old cast iron skillet I don’t use anymore (you can use a casserole dish), I place on the bottom rack of oven and fill with water, then turn the oven to 425 to preheat. The water boils and creates steam while the bagels are BAKING and keeps them moist and not drying out.

    Hope this helps.

  4. Hey! To get them not to stick you’ll just wanna use a silicon mat! It works wonders just put it on the mat after boiling and then bake and voila!

  5. When I boiled my bagels, there were small sections on some of the bagels that were very soggy but the rest of that bagel was fine. My recipe called for 3 min. boil per side. When I baked them, those soggy sections came out looking different then the rest of the bagel as well. Any thoughts on why there would be soggy sections? Not every bagel did this.

    • Hi Alicia,

      Good question and if I remember correctly I’ve had that same issue before. In my case I had some trouble getting the proofed bagels from the parchment paper on which they were rising which broke up the dough. Those pieces seemed to become more moist, could that have been the case for you as well? By ‘breaking’ the smooth outer layer I can see how some extra moisture can get into the bagels during boiling. This would also explain why not every bagel had this problem.

      Others seem to have this problem when the moisture balance of their dough wasn’t correct. That seems less like to be your issue since not all bagels showed the problem.

      When you’re boiling bagels you’re essentially putting flour and water in more water. If the flour isn’t well ‘bound’ in your dough, there’s a bigger chance of it leaking and absorbing moisture. Resting the bagel to ensure the flour is well hydrated and kneading it well to ‘bind’ the moisture can help.

      Hope that helps!

  6. Great article. I’ve been eating bagels since a child in the 1960s, and my mum and her family way before that. The historic Jewish bakeries in Whitechapel, London were local to us and the bagels were known as beigels to us (my family still find it hard to refer to them as bagels!) Like New York and Montreal Jewish bakeries sprung up everywhere in the UK and in later years the awful supermarket versions were soon everywhere. Recently I’ve been making my own bagels and find the whole history and methods interesting. Thanks for your article and testings

  7. The reason a more boiled bagel won’t puff up as much is because the exterior has been gelatinized and is “set,” whether there are yeast alive or not is irrelevant as they do not have time to respire and create a significantly relative amount of carbon dioxide. Think about how long it takes just to get the dough to rise. Rising in the oven comes from expansion of the already present CO2 and moisture present in the dough..if the exterior is still pliable, whatever is inside can expand, if it is set and harder, it cannot expand.

    • Hi John,

      I just made another batch of bagels to have a look at this :-)! And my bagels definitely increased in size in the oven (though less since the outside was gelatinized) and I’m pretty sure some of that was due to yeast (of course, some of it may have also been because of gas expansion as you mentioned, it’s probably a mix). I only boiled the bagels 30s on each side, that does not seem to be enough to completely kill off the yeast through to the center.
      Do keep in mind that the sudden burst of heat does cause yeast to give one last push to ‘live’. It’s very common for most breads, they can expand quite considerably in the oven still (in the first few minutes) because of the yeast becoming nice and warm, just before it’s too hot to survive!

  8. Have you tried cooking them through by boiling? Can they be eaten after that? It would be a great way to prevent acrylamide formation.

    • Hi J,

      You can cook them through by just boiling the bagels. However, they remain a little rubbery (because of all the moisture) and won’t turn brown (Maillard reaction won’t happen significantly in boiling water). So we didn’t enjoy eating them. That said, we didn’t try to optimize for making it work this work, so it might become better.

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