Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or coarse salt for topping
Never have bagels been more abundant or elusive: Most bakeries, coffee shops, and corner delis hawk them, but an authentic crackly, chewy bagel is as common as a tasty burrito in Dubuque. Tired of settling for bland impostors, we turned to our own oven.
Traditional bagels are made of high-gluten flour, yeast, water, salt, and malt. Some bagelries substitute sugar, brown sugar, or honey for the malt. In the name of convenience, we started with basic pantry items and then added more esoteric ingredients to build a more bona fide bagel flavor and texture. After baking nearly 100 bagels, we’re confident that our recipe produces the best in the West.
What to buy: Malt syrup is a natural sweetener made from a mash of corn and barley that is not quite as sweet as honey and has a slightly earthy note; it adds that distinct maltiness that makes a bagel really taste bagel-y. It can be found in natural food stores or online.
Game plan: The bagels are best when eaten within an hour but are pretty darn good for 2 or 3 days. They’ll keep well in a cotton or paper bag, and will need a quick warming or toasting before being consumed. They also freeze well: Once they’ve cooled completely, slice them and store them in a freezer bag for up to a month.
1Place 1 1/2 cups of the tepid water in a bowl and dissolve the yeast completely; set aside. Combine flour, malt syrup, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Add yeast mixture, scraping any undissolved yeast out of the bowl with a spatula.
2Mix on low until most of the loose flour has been worked into the dough and the dough looks shredded, about 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium low and continue mixing until the dough is stiff, smooth, and elastic, about 8 to 9 minutes more. (If the dough gets stuck on the hook or splits into 2 pieces, stop the machine, scrape off the hook, and mash the dough back into the bottom of the bowl.) The dough should be dry, not tacky or sticky, and somewhat stiff.
3Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a large oiled bowl, and turn it to coat in oil. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and let the dough rise in a warm place, until it is noticeably puffy and springs back when you poke it, about 20 minutes. (The dough will not double in size.)
4Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425°F and arrange the rack in the middle. Fill a large, wide, shallow pan (about 3 to 6 quarts) with water, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium low and let simmer. Cover until you’re ready to boil the bagels. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper greased with oil or cooking spray. Place a metal rack inside of a second baking sheet and set aside.
5Turn the risen dough out onto a dry surface. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces, about 3 ounces each. (While you work, keep the dough you’re not handling covered with a damp towel to prevent drying.) Roll each piece into a 9-inch-long rope, lightly moisten the ends with water, overlap the ends by about 1 inch, and press to join so you’ve created a bagel. As necessary, widen the hole in the middle so it is approximately the size of a quarter. Cover the shaped bagels with a damp towel and let rest 10 minutes.
6After resting, stretch the dough to retain the quarter-size hole (the dough will have risen a bit) and boil the bagels 3 or 4 at a time, making sure they have room to bob around. Cook for about 30 seconds on each side until the bagels have a shriveled look, then remove to the baking sheet with the rack in it. Adjust heat as necessary so the water stays at a simmer.
7Whisk together the remaining 1 tablespoon water and the egg white until evenly combined. Brush the egg wash all over the bagels, then sprinkle as desired with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or coarse salt. Arrange the bagels on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper about 1 inch apart and bake. Rotate the pan after 15 minutes and bake until the bagels are a deep caramel color and have formed a crust on the bottom and top, about 10 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes so the interiors finish cooking and the crusts form a chewy exterior.