How To Make Traditional Jewish Bagels

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Who doesn’t love a good bagel? I know I do. Not those dry quoits you find in supermarkets, but proper soft-yet-chewy bagels. I was taught to make these traditional Jewish bagels a long, long time ago, and they remain to this day, my favourite.

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During my late teens and early twenties, I used to go to a lot of nightclubs, and on the way home – usually in the wee small hours – I’d stop for a coffee at Bar Italia in London’s Soho, where I’d often meet up with chums who’d been to other clubs.

A bit later, we’d head over to Brick Lane, to Beigel Bake, to grab a beigel* or two for breakfast, before wending our weary way back home.

(Or in some cases, straight to work. Oops.)

Our freshly-baked 4am beigels were perfect. Especially when filled with salt beef. These days I prefer my bagels to contain, among other things, carrot lox and cashew cream cheese. Yum!

*Yes, beigel! We were completely unaware of the word, bagel, back then. Beigels seem to have originated in Poland, in the Jewish community, and indeed, our word, beigel (pronounced bye-ghel), seems to be an Anglicisation of the Polish, bajgiel (pronounced, bye-ghee-el). In turn, bagel seems to be an Americanisation.

And while we’re on the subject of etymology, ‘lox’ comes from the Yiddish word for salmon – laks. In German, it’s lachs, and in Scandinavian countries, it’s laks/lax. Now you know. 😉

Learning to make traditional bagels

Fast-forward a couple of years, and our chef, Pinchas, taught me how cook beigels… ummm, bagels.

You say potato, I say potahto…

And guess what? I discovered that they were a good deal easier to make than I ever imagined. Jewish baking mystique well and truly busted, thank you, Pinchas Josef!

Gaynes Park

Incidentally, waves of nostalgia flooded over me as I was writing this post, so I searched online for images of my old house, and it seems that it’s now been turned into gorgeous luxury apartments, costing upwards of a couple of million pounds!

Yes, I used to live in a Downton Abbey kind of house. | Image courtesy of Urban Myth

Check out some of the kitchens in the apartments! **drool**

I also found these images from 2007 & 2008, on Derelict Places. Long, long after I’d left (and clearly before the house was renovated). Although the house looks run down and altogether a bit sad, I did grin when I scrolled down the first page, and found a pic of the very cooker that Pinchas taught me to cook bagels on. It was much cleaner in my day though!

The secret to great bagels

… as I was to discover, is in allowing the dough to cold-ferment overnight, and in not baking or boiling the bagels for too long the next day. Really, 10-12 minutes is all the baking time they need, along with a minute of boiling.

Also, contrary to what loads of people will tell you, you don’t need to add any honey or molasses to the boiling water in order to get that nice shine on the top. Plain old water is perfectly fine.

I do recommend however, using a bit of vital wheat gluten to give the dough a bit more elasticity, and the finished bagels a bit more ‘bite’. I also use maple syrup (or apple ‘honey’) instead of sugar to activate the yeast. Pinchas used to use actual honey but I prefer maple.

I don’t know why but using a syrup instead of granulated sugar seems to make the yeast more frothy. Maybe it’s simply because the sugar is already in liquid form, and so can feed the yeast more easily. I don’t know, I’m not a chemist. Whatever the reason, it works.

Shaping

The traditional way to make bagels is to roll the dough into a sausage shape, wrap it around your hand, and join the ends. With the join next to your palm, gently roll the dough back and forth to seal.

I’ll be honest here, and say that I’ve never got the hang of making nice, uniform bagels this way – there’s always a skinny bit. Plus the hole is always too big, which is why I prefer to poke a hole in the dough, rather than faff around trying to get a perfectly rolled bagel.

Pinchas would not approve.

Notes

  • I have provided US measurements in ounces because using cups is notoriously imprecise. When baking, it’s important to get the measurements right, so weighing dry goods is the best way to do this. For liquids, do you really want to mess around, trying to work out a fraction of a cup? 😉 
  • I don’t have room in my current fridge, so I use the log store, which is completely unheated. You can use any cool area, as long as the bagels are well-covered, and safe from critters!
  • Know your oven! If you know that it runs hots or cold, adjust the baking temperature accordingly. Not all ovens are the same, and age and cleanliness play a part in temperature too. If your oven has an amount of baked-on grease, for example, this will negatively affect the temperature.
  • I don’t use a fan oven, so if you do, you’ll want it to be about 20° lower.
  • Nutritional information is calculated on the assumption that you’ll use 2 teaspoon of oil for the baking trays, and 2 tablespoon each of sesame and poppy seeds.

Anyway, the big question is, do you say bagel, or beigel?! Enjoy!

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