What’s The Secret To Making The Perfect Bagel?
A bagel is both a hole-y and a holy thing. Slicing into a fresh bagel and tucking a coral blanket of smoked salmon, plus a Sudocrem slathering of cream cheese in the middle of it, is – for my money – one of the best lunches you can make in under a minute. Unlike a lot of overly processed bread products, the bagel isn’t light and airy but chewy and dense. A well-baked bagel will be capable of giving your mandible a workout on par with any of those terrifying Jawzrsize devices you’ll see advertised on Instagram.
A bit like a sardonic grandparent, a bagel is something you might not fully appreciate when you’re younger but something you’ll learn to love the wry nuances of as you get older. They're also a foodstuff that doesn't cater for fairweather fans. If you're into bagels, it's fairly likely that you're really into bagels.
The competition between New York and Montreal as to which city makes the better bagel is fiercer than the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers. It's a dough-based struggle for supremacy mirrored in the way that Beigel Bake and the neighbouring Beigel Shop vie for the title of Brick Lane's best bagel. The reason that bagels instil such a violent passion within their local communities is due to the fact that people are simply mad about them, and they have been for thousands of years.
The earliest known mention of a ring-shaped bread that’s boiled-then-baked can be found in a translation of a 13th-century Syrian cookbook, where they are referred to as “ka'ak”. In the UK, bagels are widely associated with Ashkenazi Jews as a result of the food product having been brought over to England by Jewish immigrants from Poland in the 19th century. More specifically, they were brought over to the east end of London where many Jewish expats found themselves settling at the time.
London’s bagel culture in 2021, much like the city itself, is unrecognisable from how it was back when those antecedent bakers first landed in the capital. Gone are the days when you had to trek halfway across the city to find a half-decent bagel. Nowadays, nationwide bagel merchants like Monty’s Deli are setting out to prove that “a bagel is more than a roll with a hole” via their hand-rolled, malt-boiled, part-baked bagels that you can get delivered to your door and heat up in your own oven at home. The bagel has left Bethnal Green like a roaming wingback going for goal and can now be found strewn all across the UK, feeding whoever it so pleases.
One of the prime examples of what modern bagel culture is like in the capital can be found at Bagel King – a bustling Camberwell spot that’s open 24-hours a day and offers a menu of globally-inspired bagels, Jamaican patties, and jerk chicken. You're always guaranteed to see people queuing up at Bagel King in droves to get a late-night feed. But why is it that we all love bagels so much?
“Because there's a hole,” Paul Traynor tells MOB Kitchen. Paul is the co-founder of The Bagel Guys and, more importantly, a talented bageller who you can find working his magic at his always busy Netil Market stand with business partner, Jordan. “Seriously though,” continues Paul, “bagels just taste really good and there's definitely a bit of a bagel renaissance going on in the world right now. There are loads of young interesting indies doing their own thing from Seattle (Mt. Bagel) to Miami (El Bagel) to Edinburgh (Bross). Everybody's different but shares the love of the bread with the hole.”
Selling around 1,000 bagels a week from their tidy Hackney hatch, The Bagel Guys are part of a growing crop of London’s new wave bagel makers. The Bagel Guys’s New York-style sourdough bagels are hand-rolled and made with top quality British flour; the subtle lactic tang you get from the sourdough is what makes TBG’s bagels so unique. And delicious.
“We took what we knew about sourdough bread, not very much admittedly, and applied it to bagels”, says Paul, “the first few batches looked pretty freakin' awful, but they tasted great and were very close to what Jordan and I both thought was the 'right' bagel flavour. A little crunch on the crust, yet soft and doughy on the inside, with malt but no sugar or honey added to the dough. It only has the mildest hint of sweet.”
Not only do The Bagel Guys use a live sourdough starter, but they also ferment their bagels for almost 24 hours – they’re mixed at about 8am, shaped at around 3pm, and then put in the fridge overnight until they are boiled, seeded, and baked starting at 6am the next day – for maximum bagel flavour.
You might be sceptical about all the chat surrounding gut cultures and microbiomes but the health benefits of sourdough bread over fast-acting commercial yeasts are nothing to sniff at. “As far as our not-so-super scientific understanding of it leads us to believe: the extended fermentation time allows the bad stuff in the flour to become really good stuff and makes peoples' tummies feel better than if they eat store-bought industrial bread or bagels,” says Paul.
The wider vision of The Bagel Guys, though, isn't just about serving something that tastes great slathered in cheesy scrambled eggs or making a bagel that won’t give your bowels any hassle. “There's a lot more money in being a high-end sandwich shop, but what we wanted to be was the community pillar that a bagel shop in the States is,” affirms Paul.
When it comes to community pillars in London one needs to look no further than Sam Kamienko – the perennially busy man behind Kamienko’s Bagels. After being furloughed from his position as head chef at Leroy in Shoreditch, Sam decided to turn to bagel making to fill his time, cycling around London to deliver his bronzed baked goods all around the city.
Inspired by the familiarity between Earls Court and New York City (his words, not mine), Sam started selling his bagels three or four days a week over lockdown, getting up early each morning to shape, boil, and bake the bagels before topping them in a range of different toppings. “I think having family on my father’s side who are Polish Jews has resonated something spiritually within myself and bagel-making,” says Sam, who has subsequently left Leroy to pursue his bagel vision full-time and currently makes around 300 bagels a week out of his own kitchen.
“Eating bagels is something I have grown up with and continued the ceremony on my Sunday off working as a chef. It's such a simple product but quite tricky to get right and that’s what really appeals to me,” he continues, “it's just boiled and baked bread, so I think that can be open to interpretation. Ultimately, though, for me, a good bagel should be slightly sweet, chewy and really moreish to eat even plain without any seeds or fillings. A lot of bagels out there lack flavour and the crumb is just super dry. There is a lot to nurture with the bagel and it’s a shame that shortcuts are made and that artisan bagel craft has been lost.”
Part of the appeal of a bagel lies in those more ceremonial aspects. Schmearing a bagel with a topping of their choice and pairing it with a scalding hot black coffee is the way that most New Yorkers start their day, and that sense of tradition plays a huge role in how popular the bagel has become as an international food product. Sam’s long-term goal is to operate a modern Jewish bagel bakery/deli emporium right here in the UK; he dreams of running the sort of place where you'll find bagels flying around to and fro with all the supporting acts of smoked fish, cream cheese, chopped salads, spreads, and scalding hot coffee in tow.
While their followings continue to grow on a daily basis, Kamienko’s Bagels and The Bagel Guys aren’t the only ones that have seen increased consumer demand for their rings of dough. “We’re baking up to 2,000 bagels a week from our tiny kitchen in Stokey,” says Alex Coppard, co-founder of The Good Egg, “we’re at capacity, really, selling out every day.” Located just opposite Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, The Good Egg is a "sort-of" Middle Eastern restaurant inspired by North American Jewish delis and the many nights that Alex spent chowing down on beigels in London’s east end.
“We've certainly made a big dent on the bagels at Brick Lane over the years,” admits Alex, “we were also lucky enough to go to New York and Montreal a couple of years ago and tried the wood-fired, hand-rolled bagels at Fairmount and St-Viateur – two of the oldest and most famous bagel bakeries in the world. We’ve always made fresh bagels daily in Stoke Newington so when we were first locked down last year, and were thinking of opening for takeaway, we took the opportunity to pay homage to the great tradition of those famous bagel bakeries of Montreal.”
The Good Egg’s bagels are Montreal-style – which means each bagel is hand-rolled and flipped straight out of a sweet honey poaching liquor into lots of white sesame seeds before baking – and can come filled with everything from salt beef and pastrami-spiced smoked salmon to whipped feta and dukkah. What makes The Good Egg such a popular spot isn’t just down to the bagels they boil and bake but the quality of the produce they fill them with – the team cure their own salt beef sourced from heritage breed cattle, for example.
Getting a bagel filled with merguez meatballs and harissa might sound a little fancy but, when it boils down to it, it’s sort of the opposite. Rather than being a foodstuff that comes with a tome of strict rules which must be adhered to, the bagel is an egalitarian item that can be stuffed with just about anything and everything. The only thing limiting you is your imagination. The ackee and saltfish bagel from Bagel King is a testament to that.
“Bagels ain’t bougie,” agrees Papo Gomez of Papo’s Bagels. The lovechild of two real deal New Yorkers, Papo’s Bagels was born out of Georgia Fenwick-Gomez and Gabe ‘Papo’ Gomez’s mutual desire to find proper New York-style bagels in London. “We both grew up in NY, so bagels were a staple as far back as an everyday morning routine on the way to school,” says Georgia, “later on in life, it was about lunch breaks at Baz Bagel & Kossar’s; Russ & Daughters with our kid. We would eat bagels at any time of the day. They are the ideal comfort food.”
Part of Papo’s appeal is that it’s still a super personal, bootstraps bagel operation and a far cry from faceless entities like New York Bakery Co. that are willing to sell such heinously offensive items as “bagel thins”. The couple currently deliver their thick and chubby bagels – available in plain, sesame, salt, poppy, onion, or everything – all over London. At the time of writing, Georgia and Papo are hand-rolling just over 1,000 bagels every week. An impressive production rate, to say the least.
As for Papo’s secret to making the perfect bagel? Well, a bagel has to be boiled, that’s a non-negotiable – and so, too, is an overnight proof so that you can “let the dough do its thing”. The most important thing of all, however, is a hell of a lot more simple. “You’ve gotta give it some love,” says Gabe.
Having spoken to so many talented people who are passionate about making brilliant bagels, with each focussed on making those rings of joy in such disparate ways, I can confirm that love really is the one ingredient that they’ve all got in common. And we could all use a little more of that in our daily diets, couldn't we?