It’s impossible to get good bagels further west than about New Jersey, so I make my own. My recipe’s adapted from Baking Illustrated, Alton Brown’s pretzel recipe (yes pretzels, see below), and some techniques I learned at Wheatfields.

There’s a few keys to making everything turn out right:

  • Use the highest protein flour you can find. King Arthur Bread Flour is the best commonly available one you can find (at about 12-13% protein). If you can find something higher, go with it.
  • You probably need a stand mixer. Done correctly, the dough’s incredibly stiff; kneading by hand is unlikely to get the gluten formation that you need. If you do knead by hand, you’ll need to put in a solid, no-cheating 15 minutes or more. Under-developed bagels will be flat and hard as a rock.
  • If you’re looking for good bagels you already know this, but the water bath step is not optional. But you may not realize that it’s not just the boiling water: it’s boiling in a highly basic solution. To be really traditional you should use a lye solution (1 tablespoon lye per quart of water, or a 1.5% solution), but lye scares the crap out of me so I use the baking soda method below instead. The baking soda bath makes the outer crust slightly lighter and less formed than a lye bath will, but the flavor and texture is correct, so I’m OK with the compromise.
  • These are best baked on a pizza stone or stoneware sheet. Metal trays may over-cook the bottoms of your bagels. Unglazed Terra Cotta tiles (from the hardware store) make really solid baking stoneware, and they’re way cheaper than a pizza stone.

This recipe makes 8 bagels. It can be scaled up to 4x simply, but beyond there you’ll need to play with the yeast to deal with the bulk effects of the dough.

Ingredients

  • 22 oz (625 g) high protein flour (see above)
  • 2 (5 g) teaspoons salt
  • 1¼ cups (300 ml) water
  • 1½ (4 g) teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon (15 g) malt syrup (optional; honey is a good substitute)
  • Cornmeal for dusting the baking stone

Instructions

In a standing mixer (see above), mix the flour and salt with the dough hook. Heat the water to 80 °F (26 °C), then add along with the yeast, egg yolk, and malt syrup. Mix on low speed. The dough will take a long time to come together, a couple- three minutes at least, and will look very dry. But resist the temptation to add more water - you want a very stiff, dry dough.

Once everything comes together, increase the speed and knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is very smooth, shiny, and stiff. If you’re kneading by hand, this’ll take at least 15 minutes, maybe more.

Divide the dough into 8 portions (each should be about 4oz / 100g). Roll each into a ball, then tuck them under a slightly damp towel until you’re ready for them.

Roll each ball out into a rope about a foot long. Try not to taper the ends; you want a smooth cylinder. The dough will be very elastic, so you may want to roll each one out not quite all the way, let it rest, then roll it out again.

Now here’s the tricky part: shaping the bagels. Shape the rope into a circle, overlapping the ends by an inch or so. Dampen the area that overlaps with a bit of water, then pinch the overlapped area together. Put a couple of fingers through the hole and roll the overlapped area until it seals. It took me quite a few batches to get the technique down; expect to screw a bunch up before you get it right.

Place the bagels on a sheet pan, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and put them in the fridge. Let them proof overnight, 12-24 hours.

About 20 minutes before baking, remove them from the fridge and let them warm up a bit. Preheat the oven with a baking stone to 450 °F (230 °C). Bring a gallon or two (4-8 L) of water to boil in a big stockpot.

When the water boils, add baking soda, about a half cup per gallon (see above if you’re brave enough to use lye). Drop each bagel into the water. They’ll float, so you’ll want to push them down with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Boil for about 30-45 seconds, until the bagel puffs up slightly and gets shiny. Remove to a wire rack to drain.

Dust the baking stone with cornmeal to prevent sticking, then transfer the bagels into the oven. Bake for about 13-15 minutes, until the bagels are gold and crisp. Let them cool on a wire rack.

Variations

Topped bagels

After boiling and drying for a moment dunk the bagels in whatever toppings you like. Sesame or poppy seeds, onion or garlic flakes, chunky sea salt, whatever.

Egg bagels

Instead of the one egg yolk, add 4 (or even more). For each yolk you add, remove a tablespoon (15 ml) of water.

Whole wheat bagels

Substitute half the bread flour for whole wheat flour, remove the egg, and reduce the water by 3 tablespoons (45 ml). The dough won’t be quite as elastic and the bagels won’t puff as much, but this makes a half-decent whole wheat bagel.

Pretzels

So as I alluded to above, pretzels and bagels are basically the same thing! To turn this into a pretzel recipe, just make a few simple changes:

  • Replace the malt syrup with 1/4 cup (60 ml) of honey.
  • Increase the water by 1/4 cup. (60 ml).
  • Replace the overnight proofing with a standard double-rise. So, after mixing and kneading the dough, but before dividing, allow the dough to rise until doubled, about an hour, then punch it down and let it rise until doubled again, 30-40 minutes.
  • Divide into 12 pieces instead of 8, then shape into pretzels. This actually easier than making bagels, but much harder to describe in text. I tried, but finally gave up. There’s a picture on page 126 of Baking Illustrated, check that out.
  • Boil, top, and bake exactly as for the bagels, though perhaps the bake will be slightly shorter, maybe 12 minutes or so.