While bagels are popular across the world, there’s nothing quite like the bagels you find in and around New York City. While many enthusiasts say that it’s the Big Apple’s unusual water chemistry we have to thank for the taste and texture of the famous New York bagel, there are actually a variety of factors at work!
While water chemistry can and does influence baking, New York’s unique water only has a small role in turning out the classic tender and chewy product thousands know and love. The water in NYC is soft, with extremely low levels of calcium and magnesium. Water hardness affects gluten, the protein in wheat that can turn baked goods tough. In cities like Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles, the water can be very hard, leading to a tough, hard bagel. New York bakers, however, can turn out softer bagels because the gluten in their product isn’t as activated.
It’s not just the water that makes New York bagels famous, however. New York bagel makers generally cook the bagels lightly in water prior to baking them – a process which makes the inside of the bagel soft and chewy while lending a particular glaze to the outer surface once it is transferred to the hot, dry oven.
Why don’t bagel makers everywhere use this method? The boiling equipment required for properly poaching the rings of bagel dough can be expensive, and it adds another step to a prolonged process. Many bagel shops make bagels in the same manner as soft pretzels, simply brushing the dough with a little water and some baking soda before baking them in a an oven with a blast of steam to produce the desired finish.
Another difference between many honored New York bagel shops and locations elsewhere is the method of fermentation and the length of time allowed for the dough to finish. Traditional methods can yield as many as 50 flavors before additional ingredients are added, and provide a deeper taste experience.
In addition, the starter for the bagel dough can be significantly affected by the malt used. Many New York bagel makers use barley malts from the same growers that supply the finest breweries, making the finished product amazingly rich in flavor.
New York bagels aren’t supposed to be overly sweet – although whole grain or honey bagels and flavored bagels will taste sweet thanks to natural ingredients – and the best bagel will have a satisfyingly crisp crust followed by a tender center your teeth can sink into. Bagels are traditionally eaten split, toasted lightly or left un-toasted, and spread with a topping such as cream cheese, lox, or any of a number of other spreads.
If you are in search of the perfect New York bagel, you won’t find it in a doughnut shop or fast food restaurant. Instead, haunt old fashioned bagel shops and street carts to find bagels made by true New Yorkers with a passion for perfection!