Ah, bagels. The world’s greatest comfort food (for me). Nothing, and I do mean nothing, beats a fresh-out-of-the-oven everything bagel, sliced horizontally, and topped with plain cream cheese, thick tomato slices, raw red onions, belly lox, and, if available, capers. But short of all that, even a good bagel by itself can make me feel wonderful…
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats seems to agree with me. In fact, he wrote an entire manifesto about what makes a good bagel, and it’s a thing of beauty. To be fair, he put it up in May of 2015, but I only found it recently.
I’m much pickier about my bagels now than when I used to be. And this manifesto is a great breakdown of why…
First things first… should you toast your bagel?
Both Kenji and I are in agreement… if you have to toast your bagel, then it’s an old and probably terrible bagel:
… Toasting is the great bagel equalizer. It takes excellent bagels, mediocre bagels, and even poor bagels and through the magic of dehydration, protein coagulation, and the Maillard reaction, makes them all taste more or less the same. It makes day old bagels taste like hour-old bagels and hour-old bagels indistinguishable from bagels fresh out of the oven.
This may seem like a good thing—bad bagels taste like good bagels? Sign me up, right?—but it’s not. It makes all bagels taste exactly mediocre. Gone are the subtle nuances that make a great bagel truly great. There is no more thin, crackly crust, there’s just toasted crust all around. There is no more chewy-yet-tender, dense-yet-light crumb with that slightly malty aroma…there’s just toasted bread flavor. Toasting is the bagel equivalent of making everyone wear blindfolds and Spanx at an orgy. You may still enjoy yourself, but you’ll never really know the quality of what you just tasted.
Yes, I sometimes toast my bagels at home, because we get bagels in bulk (as gifts; one of my dad’s congregants owns a bagel shop, so every once in a very common while, we’ll have a sealed bag of, like, two dozen bagels just hanging on our front door). But I only toast them out of necessity. I’m no longer comfortable in a bagel shop where the first question I’m asked after ordering a bagel is “do you want it toasted?” Like… why do I need it toasted? How long has that bagel been sitting in the basket?
So when are bagels at their peak freshness?
A good bagel need not be hot, but it should be fresh. As we’ve found in the past, a bagel’s at its best within 30 minutes of baking. After this point, the crackly crust loses its crispness and the innards start to get tough rather than tender. For this reason, it’s virtually impossible to get a good bagel anywhere other than at the location at which it’s baked.
I’ve had good bagels that were still good a few hours after baking, but day-old bagels? Forget about it. Some people will say that it’s okay to toast a great day-old bagel because, by that point, it’s lost its crust and inherent bageliness. Here’s my advice: reheat that bagel in the oven or a toaster oven whole, not sliced. This is the best way to revert that bagel to a semblance of its former glory.
If you’re at a good shop, and you get that bagel straight out of the oven, you have 30 minutes to scarf it down. But don’t worry… it could very well be the best food-related 30 minutes of your life.
And now we get to flavors…
When I was younger and uncultured in bagels, I loved it all… I even ate chocolate chip bagels!
As I grew up and was introduced to New York bagels, my palate was refined, and I learned to know better.
For both Kenji and I, everything bagels are king.
Let me just quote myself:
Nothing, and I do mean nothing, beats a fresh-out-of-the-oven everything bagel, sliced horizontally and topped with plain cream cheese, thick tomato slices, raw red onions, belly lox, and, if available, capers.
You can’t make that with a plain, salt, sesame, pumpernickel, egg, or any other kind of bagel. That is an abomination on anything other than an everything bagel. Plus, everything bagels, by themselves (no cream cheese, butter, toppings, or anything else), when made well, offer such a unique and fun flavor experience.
Here’s Kenji’s list of his other acceptable flavors aside from everything:
- Garlic or Onion
- Poppy Seed
- Sesame Seed
- Cinnamon Raisin
Something’s wrong… what’s Kenji’s excuse?
OK, regarding the flak on the cinnamon raisin bagel business, I have two things to say about that:
Firstly, cinnamon raisin was sold in every bagel shop I knew as a kid and obviously only things that existed in my extremely narrow viewpoint as defined by my childhood are important.
Secondly, my wife loves cinnamon raisin bagels with scallion cream cheese therefore according to rule #1 in life (my wife is always right), cinnamon raisin is an acceptable flavor.
All right fine. Eat it. But I won’t be.
I’d like to leave you with a poem, written by Richard Marcus and posted to Facebook on October 13, 2014. It’s called “A Bagel is More than a Jewish Donut“:
A bagel is more than a Jewish donut,
More than a roll with a hole.
More than a strange English muffin.
A bagel’s got bagely soul.
It is something a baby can teethe on.
The true home of cream cheese and lox.
Bagels are tied to the hulls of big boats,
To keep them from hitting the docks.
A bagel’s a friend.
A bagel’s a buddy.
A bagel never forgets.
Bagels as hard as bricks and concrete
Make wonderful weapons and pets.
A bagel is kind.
A bagel’s well rounded.
A bagel is wholesome and neat.
I’ve seen bagel Boy Scouts
On busses and subways
Graciously give up their seats.
A bagel is brilliant,
The Mozart of bread,
The Shakespeare of flour, inspired,
The Rolls Royce of noshing,
The Buick of Bulk,
And as chewy as one of the tires.
I once knew a man who was struck by a bagel,
It gave him such a “potch” that he schvitzed!
Yet, I heard him exclaim,
“I would rather be maimed
By a bagel, than be crippled by Ritz.”
First given to Israelites fleeing from Egypt,
Who cried, “Schmears on matzo destroys it!
Smoked salmon on manna?
That’s a pox on the lox!
Such a mess just to fress, who’d enjoy it?”
Hearing our pleas, God looked around
Saw angels with heavenly lights ‘round their heads,
He thought: “What if I coil,
Then boil, then bake
A halo out of some kind of bread?”
And that was the gift (along with those tablets)
That let the Jews know they were chosen,
But then some schmuck said “Can I make a buck
If I made them in flavors and froze ‘em?”
So bagels today? Feh!
They’ve gone to extremes,
Gluten free? Low carb? Makes me gag;
It’s like eating a bagel in drag.
But in hard times like these,
A real bagel’s a comfort,
Like a warm teething ring we can eat.
They fill us with love, they fill us with joy,
Not to mention two pounds of wheat.
So when you’re worried or tired,
Outsourced or fired,
Caught in the grind and the crunch,
Stagger right into your neighborhood bagelry
And take a nice bagel to lunch.