A Happy New Schmear to You!

The origins of the bagel, and the joy of baking and eating one.

By Crawford Kilian 1 Jan 2010 |

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian is a longtime bagel baker.

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It's great to feel kneaded.

Such is the mystique of the bagel that even some of its deepest admirers assume only experts, using arcane techniques, can make it. In fact, you can create a near-perfect bagel in your own kitchen.

More mystery than history surrounds the bagel's origins. Jewish folklorist Leo Rosten dates bagels back to 1610 in Cracow, Poland. They were given to women in labour, perhaps to ensure a safe and easy delivery since they were considered lucky.

Others say a Viennese baker in 1683 produced a circular bun, a beugeln or stirrup, in honour of a victory won by the Polish king Jan Sobieski. Whatever its origins, Rosten says it soon came to symbolize the unbroken circle of life. Served after funerals, the bagel offered both physical and symbolic consolation. The modern bagel arose around 1910. It was an American invention; some unknown genius thought of boiling the bagel before baking it, which created a shiny skin and broke down some of its starch into sugar.

A privileged craft

Making bagels was once a privilege reserved for very few. Bagel-bakers in New York and New Jersey formed a union, admitting only their own sons. This period ended as bakers migrated to meet the demand of growing Jewish communities from Montreal to Los Angeles.

As demand for bagels grew, however, so did pressure to mass-produce them. A Winnipegger named Mickey Thompson patented an early bagel machine in 1918. After the family moved to Los Angeles, Mickey and his son Daniel built increasingly sophisticated machines until, in the early 1960s, they had one that could produce 1,500 bagels per hour.

Since then, mass production has created numberless bagels. Some producers are huge corporations like Lender's, the American firm that pioneered the frozen bagel using Thompson machines. A few firms still produce them by hand. But whether made by hand or machine, commercial bagels are not quite the same as homemade.

Though bagel baking is a lot of work, it's a voluptuous kind of work, intensifying the sensual pleasures of ordinary bread baking. Part of the pleasure comes from the dough itself. It starts out rather dry and stiff, but kneading makes it smooth and elastic, a delight under the hands.

Even in a household where bread baking is part of the routine, bagels make an exciting change. All other kitchen activities become subordinate to those of the baker, whose ego can swell more dramatically than the bagels themselves.

A sorcerer's atmosphere

The sheer length of time required for the risings makes this a special event, and between the rising and the baking comes the boiling -- a process with its own sensory rewards.

After the peace of the long risings, the kitchen erupts into frenzied activity. In a sorcerer's atmosphere of adrenalin, steam, and boiling water, the baker gently drops each bagel into the kettle, turns it over at just the right moment, and retrieves it with a flourishing of slotted spoons. A single baker can do it all, but helpers are convenient and provide an audience for the baker's histrionics.

Commercial bakers put the boiled bagels into cold water for a few minutes, to slow the rising, before popping them into the oven. Homemade bagels can continue to rise, though the results aren't as regular and uniform as the mechanically extruded commercial product.

The final ritual before baking is the laying-on of egg-wash and toppings: sesame or poppy seeds, or coarse salt. Then, as the bagels bake, everyone in the house spends 20 to 30 minutes breathing an ambrosial aroma.

Since they take so much work, you might as well make a lot of bagels, and because they go stale within 12 hours unless frozen, you'll need help eating them. That's why an afternoon spent baking bagels comes to its finest climax with a "deli night" -- a party in which guests put their own dinners together from a buffet of bagels, cold cuts, smoked salmon, raw veg and dip, and some good strong home-pickled onions.

Like the tortilla and the chapati, the oatcake and the baguette, the bagel is both the foundation of its own culture and an enhancement of others. Go on, have another!


Recipes vary in their details, and some bakers are fussy about types of flour, quality of water, and just what should go into the dough. The following recipe, which I've developed over the years, works well and lends itself to experiment.

In a bowl, mix:
10 ml (2 tsp) sugar
150 ml (2/3 cup) lukewarm water
30 ml (2 tbsp) dry granular yeast
Set aside and allow to double in volume.

Into a large bowl, sift:
1.5 to 1.75 l (6 to 7 cups) flour
10 ml (2 tsp) salt
90 ml (6 tbsp) sugar

325 ml (1-1/3 cups) lukewarm water
90 ml (6 tbsp) salad oil

2 large eggs and 2 egg yolks

Pour the foaming yeast into the flour, salt and sugar; add the water and oil, and finally the beaten eggs. Mix with a wooden spoon; then turn out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth, about 15 minutes. The dough will be velvety, not tacky.

Place the kneaded ball of dough in a greased bowl, cover, and allow to rise in a warm place. When it doubles in bulk, punch it down and allow it to rise again until doubled. While it's rising the second time, put a large, heavy pot on the stove with about 4 litres (4 qts) of water and 30 millilitres (2 tbsp) of sugar. Bring the sugared water to a boil.

Punch the dough down a second time. Then turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Grease two or three cookie sheets with vegetable oil or butter. Also beat three egg yolks with a little water and set aside. Have toppings ready: coarse salt, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds are all good.

Pull off a fistful of dough and roll into a ball in your hand. Flatten the ball into a disc and poke your finger through the middle to make a sizable hole. When you have four or five bagels made, start dropping them into the boiling water. (While they boil, go on making more bagels.)

The bagels will sink briefly, rise to the surface and begin to swell. Let them cook for about a minute, turn them over, and cook for another minute. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain for a moment and place on a buttered cookie sheet. The bagels may continue to swell. Brush each boiled bagel thinly with egg-wash and sprinkle on the topping while the egg-wash is still moist.

When the cookie sheet is full, place in a 190°C (375°F) oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes. The bagels will rise in the oven, and may crowd one another, but that's no problem. (The next batch can continue to rise on the counter while the first batch bakes.) They will be lighter and less regular in shape than commercial bagels.

Test for doneness by tapping; they'll sound hollow, like a loaf of bread. If left in too long, the bottoms may burn. Allow to cool on a rack for a few minutes. This recipe makes 24 to 30 bagels.  [Tyee]

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