bagels on a tray

Why and How to Boil Bagels – A Bagel Guide

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.

proofing bagels
“Raw” bagel dough, pre-boiling, it’s very vulnerable and you’ll have to handle these carefully to prevent collapsing.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

boiling bagels under different conditions

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!
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)

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!

Optimizing bagels

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.

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!



  • 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


  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.


  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!


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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  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 :-).


    • 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.

  9. I tried making bagels once and they got too crispy in the oven, not sure what I did, any suggestions? Thanks!

    • Hi Lindsey,

      I would try making your bagels again and possibly lower the temperature of the oven slightly and ensuring you boil your bagels well before baking. It’s hard to troubleshoot of just one specific try, so I would say, give it another go and see if you get the same result to begin with.

      good luck and enjoy!

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