BAGEL. A specialty of East European Jews, the classic bagel is a small ring of dough made of white flour, yeast, and water. The dough is first boiled and then baked.
The Bagel in Europe
According to Mordecai Kosover in Yidishe maykholim, the earliest mention of the bagel is in the 1610 statutes of the Jewish community of Cracow, which state that it is permissible to make a gift of bagels to the woman who has given birth, the midwife, and the girls and women who were present (Kosover, p. 129). Even earlier sources indicate that the father would send pretsn, or pretzels, which are historically related to the bagel, to everyone on the occasion of a circumcision. Legends that trace the first bagel to the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 are apocryphal. The very same story is told about the origin of the croissant, the pretzel, and the coffeehouse.
A relatively affordable treat, the East European bagel was portable and small. According to a Yiddish proverb, only by the third bagel would one feel full. Bagels made with milk or eggs were known from at least the nineteenth century, and almond bagels were among the prepared foods exchanged on the holiday of Purim. Bagels and other round foods were eaten before Tisha B'av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and in the twenty-first century bagels are served after a funeral and during the seven days of mourning that follow. The round shape symbolizes the round of life. The beuglich described in Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto (1892) as "circular twisted rolls" suggest the obwarzanek, a twisted, fresh ring pretzel dating from the Middle Ages and still sold by street vendors in Poland and the large twister bagels sold in Toronto in the twenty-first century.
The Bagel in the United States
The bagel arrived in the United States with Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. From the 1890s until the 1950s bagel bakers struggled to form their own union, a process that began in 1907 with the establishment of a benevolent society for bagel bakers. With the influx of younger and more radical immigrants after World War I, the process of converting the benevolent society into a union intensified. Local 338, the International Beigel Bakers Union of Greater New York and New Jersey, coalesced in 1925 and was finally recognized as an autonomous local in 1937. Thanks to the union, bagel bakers in the New York metropolitan area won the best working conditions in the baking trade.
While radical in their politics, these bakers were conservative in their craft. Bagel bakers resisted technology because mechanization of the rolling process would eliminate jobs. As a result the bagel industry in the New York metropolitan area was one of the last of the baking industries to become fully automated. As late as the 1960s bagels were still made by hand in small bakeries by Jews for Jews, and Local 338 controlled the industry. Water bagels plain or salted were the basic varieties.
From 1955 to 1984 bagel bakeries outside New York and outside the jurisdiction of the bagel bakers' union found ways to distribute this highly perishable product far beyond the freshness radius of the bakery. They modified the dough, introduced flavors, packaged bagels in plastic bags, froze them, and shipped them to groceries and supermarkets across the country. Frozen bagels were marketed primarily to non-Jews. Once the bagel was packaged, it could be branded. The bagel began its shift from a generic product to a branded commodity.
With distribution channels in place and demand growing, the bagel industry was ready to increase production. Thompson Bagel Machine, which had been in development since World War I, was patented in 1960 by the Thompsons, an East European Jewish family in Los Angeles. In 1963 the first automated bagel-forming machines were introduced in New Haven, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; and St. Louis, Missouri. As the growing bagel industry outside New York started penetrating the New York market, the union weakened and automation entered, thereby transforming the bagel baking business and fueling its exponential growth. By 1984 Lender's Bagels, which started as a family bakery in New Haven in 1927 and was the first to use a bagel-forming machine, had become so successful that it was acquired by Kraft and then Kellogg, who saw the bagel outpacing and even supplanting croissants, doughnuts, cereals, and other breakfast foods.
The Bagel Boom
The bagel has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the food industry. The bagel industry, with relatively low barriers to entry, has attracted a wide range of people. H&H Bagels, the icon of the New York bagel, has been owned by Herman Toro, who was born in Puerto Rico, since the 1970s. Hand-rolling is largely a specialty of Egyptian and Thai immigrants. During the 1980s, with growing national awareness of the bagel and the introduction of bagel-steaming equipment, the developing bagel category became dominated by rapidly expanding chains, franchises, and privately held as well as publicly traded bagel companies. By the mid-1990s the bagel boom peaked, and a shakeout followed. Some of the companies that grew fastest showed the most serious losses. Meanwhile the bagel had spread to such places as Germany, Turkey, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and Bali.
The Bagel as Icon Food
After the Holocaust American Jews came to identify the bagel with the Old World and with immigrant Jewish culture. The bagel became a lightening rod for their ambivalent feelings. While Irving Pfefferblit declared in "The Bagel" that "the Jewish bagel stands out like a golden vision of the bygone days when life was better," upscale Miami hotels during the 1950s served lox on English muffins or tartines rather than on lowly bagels (Pfefferblit, p. 475).
With the suburbanization of Jews and secondary migration of Jews to California and Florida during the postwar years, the bagels and lox brunch became a Sunday morning ritual with its own equipage, including bagel slicers and decorative bagel platters with compartments for smoked salmon, cream cheese, butter, olives, radishes, and slices of onion and tomato. So important did this meal become that "bagel and lox Judaism" became a metaphor for the gastropiety of suburban Jews.
The close identification of the bagel with New York City arises in no small measure from its labor history, though some claim the secret to the New York bagel is the water. Paradoxically the further the bagel traveled from New York, the more it became identified with New York and with all that is metropolitan and cosmopolitan. However, other cities with large Jewish communities also have long bagel histories and distinctive bagels. The Montreal bagel has a narrow coil and a big hole. It is rolled by hand, boiled in water sweetened with honey, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked in a wood-fired oven, which gives it a slight smokiness.
New bagel eaters with no prior loyalties are a prime market for bagel innovations. With but a few concepts (size, shape, flavor, topping, stuffing, and carrier or platform), it is possible to produce combinations, permutations, and improbable hybrids. The early Lender's frozen bagels weighed two ounces. Bagels in the twenty-first century range from three to more than five ounces. There are cocktail minibagels and overstuffed party bagels the size of a tire. Cosi recently introduced the squagel, a square bagel. Where there were once only a few varieties (poppy seed, pumpernickel, and eventually cinnamon raisin), by the twenty-first century there were unlimited flavors (from cranberry granola to piña colada), toppings (everything from poppy seeds, sesame seeds, caraway seeds, and garlic to streusel), and fillings (from cream cheese to bacon and eggs).
At bagel shops offering twenty types of bagels, which is not uncommon, and even more varieties of spreads and fillings, customers can create hundreds of combinations. Bagel eaters from birth tend to be disdainful of what might be called the random bagel effect. "Turkey, tomato, sprouts, avocado, and cream cheese on a peanut butter and chocolate chip bagel" at Goldstein's Bagel Bakery in California is an ungrammatical culinary sentence for those fluent in the language.
The bagel replaces bread, pizza, croissant, and tortillas as the preferred carrier or platform for their fillings and toppings. New hybrid bagel products include the bagelwich (bagel plus sandwich), bragel (bagel plus roll), bretzel (bagel plus pretzel), fragel (fried bagel), and flagel (flat bagel) as well as the Bageldog, pizza bagel, UnHoley Bagel (ball injected with cream cheese), bagel chips, bagels for birds and dogs, and bagel bones for people. The bagel is distilled into a flavor of its own for bagel-flavored rice cakes and matzoh.
The bagel has become not only a platform for other foods but also a carrier for meanings and values as diverse as those who eat them. For many it is an icon of East European Jewish culture, for others it is quintessentially New York, and for many around the world, including in Israel, it is American.
See also Bread ; Breakfast ; Judaism ; United States: Ethnic Cuisines .
Kosover, Mordecai. Yidishe maykholim: A shtudye in kulturgeshikhte un shprakh-forshung. New York: YIVO, 1958.
Pfefferblit, Irving. "The Bagel." Commentary 7 (May 1951): 475–479.
The bagel is a dense ring of bread, often rather bland, raised with yeast and containing almost no fat. In fact, the average bagel is about 4 oz (113.4 g) and 200 calories and contains no cholesterol (unless it is an egg bagel) and no fat (unless it is a specialty bagel such as cheese). The bagel's peculiar crustiness and density results from regulating the amount the yeast is allowed to rise so the bagel does not become too bready (not a desirable trait in a bagel). Whether handmade at home or with the aid of machinery in a bagel bakery, bagel dough is always boiled in water then baked until it is golden brown.
The popularity of the bagel is staggering. The appetite for bagels has increased 37% since 1994, and it is estimated that in the near future sales may increase as much as 7% over the previous year's figures to reach $840 million by the year 2000. Bagels are purchased by 46% of all consumers—and most purchase frozen bagels from their local supermarket. However, the fresh bagel market is expanding and the bagel bakery is visible in most communities. Once the product of small specialty bakeries in ethnic communities, the bagel is now seen on the menus of donut and cake bakeries and baked by restaurants all over the country.
Bagels are made in three different places. These include the large commercial bakery that bakes bagels then freezes them for transport across the region or country in plastic bags, the local bagel bakery that bakes fresh bagels for immediate consumption (from dough made there or made else-where), and at home. The fresh bagel bakery's traditional flavors-salt, egg, poppy seed, onion, plain, and rye-are now sold alongside new flavors like chocolate chip, spinach and cheese, cinnamon raisin, dried tomato and herb, and maple walnut. The cream cheese (the schmear in Yiddish), which often imparted the bagel with some pizzazz, now comes in many new varieties, including jalapeno and vegetable.
The history of the bagel is not clear. Bagel folklore tells us that the roll was devised as a tribute to Jan Sobieski, a Polish general, who saved Vienna from the invading Turks in 1683. As the triumphant hero rode through town, the grateful townspeople clung to his stirrups—called breugels. The king had a baker fashion bread in the shape of Sobieski's stirrups as a tribute. Eventually the stirrup-shaped breugel became round and was known as a bagel. Other stories indicate that the name comes from beigen, the German word for to bend, and could be a descendant of the pretzel. Still others believe the round hole was perfect for Russian and Polish bakers to skewer them on a long pole and walk the streets hawking their fresh bread.
Eastern European immigrants brought their skills as bagel bakers to the New World—by 1915 a bagel bakers union #338 had formed in New York City. Some of these bagel bakers and their apprentices began baking bagels in parts of the country—particularly the East Coast—when they moved out of the city. Harry Lender, a Polish immigrant, saw interest in the bagel and he and his son Murray baked bagels in quantity and packaged them for sale to supermarkets. In 1960 Dan Thompson invented the first machine for making bagels. Until that time, all bagels were hand rolled. By 1962 the Lenders were baking and freezing their bagels and distributing their goods nationally. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, bagels made a slow trek across the country via bagel entrepreneurs.
Now bagel bakery chains ranging from New York state to Colorado have sprung up to accommodate the needs of bagel connoisseurs. There are cookbooks devoted to making homemade bagels, including recipes for making bagels in bread makers.
Ingredients for bagels vary tremendously according to who makes the bagel, whether it is made at home or in a commercial bakery, and the flavor of the bagel. Generally, all bagels must contain at least the following: water, salt, flour, and yeast. Water is needed to both soften the dry yeast and add moisture to the batter. Salt must be present to slightly inhibit the action of the yeast-without salt, yeast can rise too much. The flour the bagel baker uses matters little-various recipes call for bread flour, regular flour, bromated flour, whole wheat flour, and rye flour. Some call for a pinch of sugar to assist the yeast in rising.
Of course, the flavor of the bagel determines the remainder of the ingredients. This can vary from maple syrup, to jalapenos, to walnuts. The flavors are only as limited as one's imagination.
The design and marketing of commercial bagel bakeries is extensive. Many bagel bakeries bring in competitors' bagels for blind survey by the general populous. These guests are served a variety of bagels and asked as series of questions regarding important characteristics of bagels including texture, chewiness (density), flavor, value, and fat and nutritional content. Answers to these questions help the bagel bakery determine the direction of product development. These bakeries cannot produce an infinite number of flavors within their facilities. Thus, these taste surveys help the bakeries determine the bagel flavors they will offer to the public. Customer surveys and continual blind tastings insure that the companies can offer the consumer what he or she is looking for in a bagel.
The bagel franchises prepare bagel dough and bake them in a variety of ways. Essentially, the dough must be created with the raw ingredients, the yeast must rise, the bagels likely stored for some period of time before baking (as it is unlikely a new batch is made each time bagels are baked), and the then the bagels boiled and baked.
Some bagel bakery chains make the dough in regional commissaries in very large quantities-they mix the ingredients, form the bagels, activate the yeast, then cool it for storage until it is ready to be transported to small bakeries which produce the fresh, hot bagels. Thus, all but the baking of the bagels occurs at the regional commissaries. Here we'll look at this method of fresh bagel baking in which bagels are mixed and formed in one place and then sent to the store for baking.
Mixing the ingredients at the regional commissary
- 1 Many, but not all, bagel bakeries use fresh ingredients and fresh dough as opposed to frozen dough to make bagels. All ingredients, flour, salt, yeast, water, and various flavorings, are mixed together in a batch. The definition of a batch is determined by the amount of flour included. At one national bakery chain, a batch is defined as using 200 lb (90.8 kg) of flour, which makes 316 lb (143.5 kg) of dough.
- 2 Once the ingredients are mixed in a batch it must be closely monitored for temperature—too hot and the dough will rise too high too quickly or even be killed off because of the heat, too cool and it won't rise sufficiently. Since yeast is a living organism, it also has a limited life span as the yeast dough must be used within about 48 hours after mixing for the best bagel product.
The mixing can occur with a machine purchased for mixing bagel dough, suchas a spiral mixer. Mixing takes about 10-12 minutes and is carefully timed.
Dividing the dough
- 3 When the mixing is finished, the dough is taken from the mixer, put on a table and laid in strips. The large strips are fed into a divider, which perfectly portions out the amount of dough required to make an individual bagel, either 3-5 oz (85-113 g) of dough. The bagel is just a clump of dough at this point.
Forming the bagel shape
- 4 Next, the dough rolls under a pressure plate, which rolls the dough into a cigarlike form. This cigar shape drops onto the former, a round forming tube, which rolls it around and meshes the ends together to form the bagel shape. The forming machine shapes one bagel per every second.
- 5 A person picks the bagels off of the belt (coming at a fast and furious pace) and puts them onto a cornmeal-coated board. Those bagels deemed irregular or too small are rejected and remade. When the wooden board, which accommodates 25 bagels, is full, the bagels undergo a proofing process in order to get the yeast to rise.
Proofing the yeast and stopping the proofing
- 6 The boards are put into a proofer and subjected to heat (so the yeast will activate) and humidity (so the bagels won't dry out) for about 20 minutes. The bagels are then taken out of the proofer and subjected to a quick chill to about 20-25° F (-6.7--3.9° C) for about 15 minutes in order to stop the yeast from activating too much and rising too much. Note that all bagel bakeries do not subject their bagels to this chilling process. Without this chill, the product is bready rather than chewy.
Ready for transport to the stores
- 7 The product is taken from the chilling process and placed in a holding cooler adjusted to just under 40° F (4.4° C) where it waits to be transported to smaller branches in the bakery system. There it is baked fresh on premises. The bagels are not permitted to rise in the holding cooler as they cannot rise under 40°. The boards (with 25 bagels each) are tagged as to their age, shrink-wrapped and when ready for shipment are placed in a transport rack (there are 30 boards on a transport rack) and put on refrigerated trucks destined for a bakery.
Distribution to the store
- 8 Once the transport racks come into the store, they are ready to be baked. Their tag, which indicates flavor and age, tells the bagel bakers how much time they have before the life span of the yeast is over and that the dough is not usable.
- 9 Each bakery has at least one huge kettle filled with boiling water and malt for reactivating the bagels. Water in these kettles must be at a rolling boil. The bagels (usually one board or 25 bagels at a time) are dropped into the kettle. In this hot kettle, the dormant yeast is reactivated. After about 90 seconds, the bagel comes up to the surface of the water in a "float." Kettling with malt in the water helps put on a hard crust and retards drying.
- 10 These floating bagels are scooped out and laid out onto sticks, which are burlap-covered aluminum. The toppings (poppy seeds, sesame seeds, salt, etc.) are sprinkled on the top of the bagel, which is face up on the sticks. The sticks are then flipped out onto the shelves of the bagel oven; thus, the bottom of the bagel (the side without topping) is face up in the oven. The bagels take about 20 minutes to dry out and cook. The bagel cook generally eyes the bagels and decides when they are finished. Huge wooden paddles called peels then lift the baked bagels off the shelves into the wire bins for purchase.
Perhaps most important for quality control is that all ingredients are up to the minimum standards required by the franchise or bakery. Good quality flour and yeast are of the utmost importance. Second, temperatures for water, for the proofer, the cooler, and even the temperature of the flour before mixing must be precisely monitored or yeast will not activate properly. Third, the life span of the yeast must dictate handling priorities. As one baker put it, bagels just mixed and proofed are like "teenagers" with robust yeast waiting to rise; however, bagels that were proofed nearly 48 hours prior are like "90-year old grandpas"—they have little "zing" in them and may not make the best bagels. Thus, it is imperative to know the age of the raw product as indicated on the tags attached to the boards. Lastly, the bagels are only as good as the experienced bagel baker who must pull inferior or malformed bagels off moving belts or who monitors baking regardless of what the timer reads.
Where to Learn More
Bagel, Marilyn and Tom. The Bagel Bible. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1992.
Mellach, Dona Z. The Best Bagels are Made at Home. San Leandro, CA: Bristol Publishing Enterprises, 1995.