Learn the science behind:
Removing unnecessary steps from a production process is a great way to improve efficiency and sustainability. However, many steps are there for a reason. If you take them out, your product may lose its unique characteristics.
If you’re a bagel maker, you may have tried to skip the boiling step. And sure, it still makes perfectly fine bread. But, it’s no longer a bagel.
Luckily, there are still ways to optimize and improve your bagel production process. You might be able to shorten the boiling time, or change the composition of the boiling water. But, to do so, you need to know why you do what you do, so you can make the right decision so your specific production process.
Use this guide to help you on your way.
Boiling sets bagels apart
Bagels are seemingly ‘normal’ breads. Sure, they’re shaped a little differently, into a circle with a hole, just like a donut. But, they start out like many other breads with a basic yeasted dough. The dough might be a little firmer than normal, but differences are minor.
No, the bagel truly distinguishes itself after the first proofing step: when it’s dropped into a bath of boiling water. This boiling step is quite unique. Most breads are simply baked, but bagels are boiled before they enter the oven.
The end product is chewy, relatively dense bread, with no real crust to speak of. Boiling is crucial to get that unique consistency.
No boil is No bagel
By boiling a bagel you quickly inactivate (some of) the yeast in the dough. This prevents the bagel from expanding as much in the oven, making for a firmer, tighter product. It stops the proofing process.
Boiling also gelatinizes the starch in the flour. During gelatinization starches absorb water, swell and release starches in the water. This causes the bagel dough to lose some of its flexibility, but also vulnerability. You can’t compress the dough as easily anymore, but it won’t puff up as much anymore either.
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.
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.
Optimizing your boiling water
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.
Optimizing the boiling process
The ideal boiling duration
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!
Adding some color
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.
Steaming vs. Boiling
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!
Ready to make some bagels, but still have some questions? Hopefully, we’ve got them covered for you!
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!
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!
You can’t optimize a bagel production process by simply removing the boiling step. But, you can improve and tweak the boiling step to improve your production process.
However, to do so it helps to understand what happens during this process and how time and composition can greatly influence how your final bagel turns out.
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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