Fool-proof bagels

I say fool-proof, but this is a recipe I have used for many years. I also use it when teaching how to make bagels at cookery classes and am always thrilled by the excellent results from the classes.

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It is something of a challenge to buy really good bagels, and even the fairly average commercial bagels are not cheap!

But bagels are so easy to make, whether using commercial yeast or a sourdough version: recipes for both are given below.

Now I adore bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, but just toasted and buttered (and it must be butter!) is a joy for me!

Bagels in a nutshell!

To make bagels you essentially boil the shaped and risen dough briefly – a firmer dough than is typical for bread – before baking. This results in a very chewy bagel with a great closed texture.

Flavoured bagels

Onion bagels are my favourite bagel flavour. The onions are sautéed very gently for about 20 minutes in a little butter until they just turn golden-brown, although you can blitz the onions in a food processor and use them raw.

You can, of course, omit the onions in the recipe below and make plain bagels, but there are so many delicious possibilities. Some of my favourites include:

  • cinnamon and raisin bagels: add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the flour with a small handful of raisins
  • roasted garlic bagels: work into the dough 2 bulbs of roasted garlic (roasted in the skins, before squeezing out the gorgeous pulp)
  • chilli and cheese bagels: work in up to 100g grated cheese of choice, and 1-2 finely chopped chillies
  • seeded bagels: mix 2-3 tablespoons seeds of choice in with the flour

You can top the bagels with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, onion seeds or a mixure of these – or simply leave them without a topping!

Proving: a very slow prove is best…

As with most breads, bagels shouldn’t be rushed. For the best flavour, I usually leave the pre-shaped dough to prove very slowly at least overnight in the fridge.

…but sped-up is still better than shop-bought!

You can speed up the process by leaving to prove in a warm place, with a little more yeast. They will still taste great.

In which case, use 7g dried “instant” yeast. The dough will take up to a couple of hours to double in size, depending on the temperature of the room.

Top tips for successful bagels

I recall the first time I made bagels a few decades ago, with several of them collapsing before my eyes as I lifted them off the greaseproof and into the boiling, even though they hadn’t been over-proved (which with bread can lead to collapses).

The key tricks are:

(1) Once you have shaped the dough into bagel shapes, place each on its own small square of non-stick greaseproof to rise. Once proved/risen, using a spatula and going underneath the greaseproof, place the risen bagels, plus their greaseproof, face down into the boiling water initially.

This ensures no collapsing will occur – and the greaseproof will peel off effortlessly after the boiling, if not of its own accord during the boiling!

(2) Alternatively, freeze the shaped and risen bagels until solid on the pieces of greaseproof they rose on and on a baking tray. Once they are all frozen pop them in a bag and keep in the freezer*. You then peel off the greaseproof and plunge those frozen ones into boiling water for a couple of minutes before baking.

*The risen bagels can stay in the freezer for several weeks or more so that you can have freshly-made bagels quite quickly: simply take them out of the freezer, poach them and bake them.

A few notes on the ingredients:

  • flour: go for the highest gluten flour you can find. The very strong bread flours are best but you get excellent results with standard strong bread flour.
  • water: less water is used in the bagel dough than most breads. This is essential for the denser structure of a bagel.
  • malt syrup: this is ideal in the dough, giving a certain level of sweetness and helping with the colour, but honey works well; alternatively it can be omitted
  • bicarbonate of soda: used in the poaching water, it helps give the characteristic shine, but it is not essential

For sourdough bagels

I have made these with a very active starter that had been fed earlier in the day as well as making them with starter that gets discarded prior to feeding. Both give great results here so go with what is easier.

For sourdough bagels, simply omit the yeast, and replace with 100ml sourdough starter.

Reduce the flour and water a little to use 450g flour and about 200ml water.

You can add more water or flour if the dough it either too stiff or too wet: but you want it on the firmer side.

– Once mixed and kneaded, cover and leave for 24-36 hours to ferment slowly in the fridge after which time it will be well risen and very bubbly.

– Proceed with the shaping and final proof/rise. For the final proof, give it a couple of hours at room temperature or until slightly puffy.

Recipe: onion bagels: makes 10 

see above for making a sourdough version

For the dough:

  • 500g very strong white bread flour (or strong)
  • 10g fine sea salt
  • 3g dried, easy-blend yeast or 6g fresh yeast (note: this is a small amount for this slower rise)
  • 260-280ml cold tap water
  • 1 tablespoon malt syrup or honey, optional
  • one medium onion, peeled and finely chopped (about 150g):
  • a little butter or oil for frying the onions

To poach:

  • 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • boiling water in a large pan

To finish:

  • beaten egg white
  • poppy seeds and/or sesame seeds

(1) Heat the butter/oil in a small pan and gently fry the onions for about 20 minutes until soft and light golden. Leave to cool.

(2) Mix the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl and mix in the onions. Add the malt syrup (or honey) and 260ml of the water and stir until it forms a fairly firm dough with no dry bits, adding just a little more water if needed. NB: differently to many bread doughs, less water is used for bagels and you want the dough to be quite firm.

(3) Knead well for about 10-15 minutes until very elastic and place the dough in bowl, cover with clingfilm. Chill at least overnight for its first rise – ideally for 24 hours or so. NB: the smaller amount of yeast will ensure the dough does not over-prove and take over the fridge during the long chill!

(4) Turn the dough onto the unfloured work surface and knead for a few moments. Divide into 10 pieces (each about 100g). Roll each piece on the work surface roll each piece of dough into a long sausage shape with one end slightly tapered and bring together to form a ring, pinching gently to seal; this tends to gives a more rounded bagel shape, as well as being smoother, owing to the higher surface tension of the dough.

You can take time to make them perfectly uniform or go more for a home-made look as I have done! However, I have found that the uneven ones, once risen and cooked, look practically the same!

NB: alternatively, roll the each piece of dough into smooth balls and poke a floured finger through the middle of each. Then use two fingers to gently open up the hole to give clear rings of dough, making sure there is a very sizeable hole: when they rise, the hole will become smaller so it needs to be large before proving.

(5) Place the dough on baking sheets onto which squares of non-stick greaseproof have been placed (one for each bagel). Cover with cling film or place inside a large bin liner and leave to rise at room temperature for about an hour, until a little risen (by about half) but not too puffy: the dough should still be fairly firm but with a bounce to it: it is important not to over-prove or they might collapse.

At this stage you can either boil them now (step 6) or else remove the clingfilm and freeze the dough on the trays for boiling at a later stage (in which case boil straight from frozen).

NB: if the hole has closed up too much, pop a floured finger back in and gently open it back up

(6) Before boiling, make sure the oven is preheating to 200C(fan). Into a large wide pan of boiling water, stir the bicarbonate of soda and salt. Add the bagels, a few at a time, frozen or otherwise: pop then in top side in first, and poach gently for one minute, before turning over and poaching for a further 30 seconds or so. Flip over again in the water and remove the greaseproof if it hasn’t already popped off. You will probably need to do this in batches.

(7) While they are boiling, line a baking tray with a double thickness of non-stick greaseproof or silicon sheets. Carefully remove the bagels and place them on the baking tray. Brush with egg white and sprinkle over poppy seeds and/or sesame seeds.

(8) Bake immediately in the oven for 15-20 minutes: they should be crisp and deep brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Author: Philip

Finalist on Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC Television 2018). Published recipe writer with a love of growing fruit & veg, cooking, teaching and eating good food.

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