Understanding how bagels are made


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

If you gave 10 different bakers a bagel recipe with the exact same ingredients, you would probably get 10 completely different bagels at the end of the bake. That is because baking bagels is an art form, and each baker is an artist who brings a unique point of view to their work.

While individual bagels may vary, the consensus in the bagel world centers on two main styles: New York and Montreal.

Montreal-style bagels are smaller in size than a typical New York bagel, softer on the outside and the dough is made with honey. Another key difference: each bagel is hand-rolled and baked in a wood oven and turned twice during baking time.

A look at the Jewish Light’s new Ultimate Guide To St. Louis Homemade Bagels reveals one important fact; St. Louis bagel makers predominantly bake New York-style bagels or a close variation. So, what exactly is a New York-style bagel and what are these variations?

The boiled bagel 

A boiled bagel from Lefty’s Bagels.

A traditional New York-style bagel can also be referred to as a “water bagel” because they are boiled before they are baked. This technique is used to set the crispy exterior and give the bagels a chewy quality.

Scott Lefton and Doug Goldenberg are preparing to open their new bagel shop “Lefty’s” in the next few weeks. and when they do, customers will be treated to this traditional style of bagel.

“We take the old-school approach to boiling and baking bagels, we don’t use steam,” said Lefton. “We boil our bagels and then bake in an oven with a stone deck. The bagels are placed first on a wet “bagel board” then after a few minutes we flip them off the board to the stone deck. The oven we have then has a conveyor that rotates the decks during baking,”

All of these factors contribute to a crispy, golden bagel crust.

So why doesn’t everyone boil their bagels before baking?

In his book “On Food and Cooking,” author Harold McGee’s writes that they used to: “The traditional bagels that Eastern European immigrants introduced to New York in the early 20th century were always boiled. But this step gets skipped in the more modern baking method. Instead, the shaped bagels are baked in a hot oven that is also injected with steam.”

The steamed bagel

Steamed bagels from Companion Baking Co.

Many bagel makers have elected to steam their bagels instead of boiling them. This produces a great bagel, but it will look and taste different from the traditional New York style.  One is not better or worse than the other; it is a matter of personal preference.

Josh Allen, who founded the Companion Baking Company in 1993, bakes his bagels in a steam-injected rack oven. This produces a bagel with more volume that is less chewy. Steaming also encourages more color and shine and tends to create a lighter, puffier bagel with a thinner crust.

“We use our skills, our knowledge of ingredients, formulation and fermentation along with our European steam-injected ovens to produce bagels that we believe land in the middle of the bagel curve. Ones that are flavorful and chewy, yet adaptable to a great schmear of cream cheese and smoked salmon or bacon, egg and cheese,” said Allen.

The local bagel scene is a mix

To further your St. Louis bagel-loving experience, we recommend our Ultimate Guide to St. Louis Homemade Bagels to help you find new and different bagels around town. You’ll find a healthy mix of boiled and steamed options and like the bakers who use their preferred methods in making them, we hope you have fun developing your own preferences and share your thoughts in the comment section below this story.