Bagels are so familiar these days — perhaps too familiar, given the contortions of new flavors, from chocolate chip to spinach.
But bagels, at heart, are about the basics: yeast, water, flour, salt and a bit of sweetener. What takes a bagel from good to great involves using the best basics.
Yeast, water and salt are straightforward enough, although for convenience’s sake, you can’t beat instant yeast. It doesn’t need to first be dissolved in warm water, but merely is whisked into the flour.
For bagels, bread flour is the path to the distinctive chewiness because it has more protein, or strength, than all-purpose flour.
The choice of sweetener is the final key to a great bagel. Barley malt syrup, readily available in local food co-ops and some grocery stores, has a “malty” taste that gives bagels their essential flavor. Lacking this, you can use honey, or even a light molasses. But once you try this syrup, you may find yourself slipping a spoonful into all sorts of recipes for a flavor that not only is sweet, but has some depth.
For the best-tasting bagels, as well as preparation ease, mix the dough in the evening, then let it slowly rise overnight in the refrigerator. This enables every smidgen of yeast to develop to its full flavor potential. In the morning, let the dough warm up on the counter for about an hour, then shape the bagels. While they rest, begin heating a large pot of water.
Briefly poaching the dough in simmering water is what makes a bagel a bagel, and not just a ring of bread. Stirring in some baking soda gives the crust a slight tang. After poaching a minute on each side, lift out the bagels with a slotted spoon, brush with egg white, add toppings if you wish, then bake in a hot oven for about 20 minutes.
Let them cool for at least 30 minutes, then slice, slather and savor.
Now, a modest proposal: While perusing various bagel recipes, one popped up that called for finely ground black pepper. It was from Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of the various “bibles” for cakes, bread and pies, and so no slouch in the baking department. She, in turn, has said she was inspired by Julia Child, who used 1 to 2 teaspoons in her bagel recipe.
Still, we had to try it, although cowardice led to using barely a half teaspoon. But here’s the thing: It’s wonderful. You don’t taste “pepper.” You just taste “more flavor.” Granted, black pepper isn’t everyone’s favorite seasoning, but trust us on this one: Just a bit added to this recipe makes a knockout bagel.
So it’s optional — but encouraged.
Sort of like making bagels in the first place.