artisan bread

For the Love of Bagels

 

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My favorite bagel combo is sesame seed bagel with cream cheese, lox, capers, red onion and tomato.

Want to get straight to baking? Find the recipe here!

Being from Los Angeles, I cannot say that I am the authority on what constitutes a perfect bagel. That being said, I love bagels. I have fond memories of my sister and I rewarding ourselves with a trip to the “bagelry,” as we had termed the local bagel shop, after coming off a hike. I have been guilty of bribing my husband with bagels in order to convince him to accompany me to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market as my personal pack mule of specially cheeses and heirloom produce. When I visited my best friend in New York, my only required plan was that we got bagels, piled high with lox and cream cheese. She ultimately improved upon the plan with the purchase of a couple of tall-boys and a suggestion to picnic in Central Park. As we sat there in the sun, my brain still foggy from my Red-Eye flight, savoring our bagels, and surreptitiously sipping our beers, I was pretty certain I had reached peak-happiness.

So, imagine my despair upon realizing that while France has a veritable cornucopia of delicious breads to offer, the French ultimately fail when it comes to the bagel. There are no shortage of shops offering bagels and it is a common staple on brunch menus, but they just do not hit the spot. They are generally chewy to the point of jaw exhaustion or so dry that no condiments can help. They often taste like play-doh, and they crust is seriously lacking when it comes to the crispness that makes the bagel a comprehensive sensory experience.
I had accepted that my life would have to be lived without bagels for the duration of my time in Paris. I was content to fill this gap with the readily accessible pastries that the French have perfected. I could not, in good conscience, complain about my ability to pop into one of the many boulongeries that pepper my walk to school and purchase a perfect buttery croissant for breakfast with pocket change.

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Just kidding, I still really missed bagels.

Then, in late January, Serious Eats’s resident “Pastry Wizard,” Stella Parks, also known as The Brave Tart, posted a brilliant bagel recipe that utilized the Japanese method of yukone to keep bagels fresh for 48 hours. The extended freshness of these bagels makes the 36-hour preparation process worthwhile, and I realized that the answers to my prayers had been answered! As I had just started to cultivate my wild-yeast, I saw the perfect opportunity to put the yeasties to work by altering Parks’s recipe to create a sourdough version.

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So dense.

For my first attempt, I made Parks’s version and my own sourdough adaption at the same time, and while Parks’s bagels came out beautifully, the sourdough iteration came out tragically dense and I had to classify them as a failure. This was a result of a few things: my starter was not far too young, and I did not use enough of it. This was my first time converting a recipe with commercial yeast and there are no good guides online about how to do this, so I was basically flying blind.

Luckily, I was able to get the formula right the second time. I use a 100% hydration starter, so when replacing commercial yeast with the starter, I had to consider the fact that I was fundamentally altering the chemistry of the recipe by adding flour and water to the mix. Thus, I had to adjust the flour and water amounts in the regular recipe in order to make sure that I maintained close to the original hydration level of the dough. Park’s recipe has a total of 455g flour and 270g water (including the yukone), this works out to a dough with 59% hydration.  I don’t have a set formula for how much starter to replace within a recipe with commercial yeast, but upon looking at other sourdough bagel recipes, I decided that I probably didn’t want the starter to make up much more than 20-25% of the total combined flour-water weight of the recipe and chose to go with 180g of starter. I also decided to bring up the moisture level slightly, amounting to a 60% hydration dough as I felt that the starter would benefit from more liquid. This makes for a slightly sticky dough, but it is still very workable.

Another change I made to this recipe was that I hand-knead this dough. I chose to do this for a few reasons:

  1. I really like kneading by hand, it’s a really meditative process.
  2. I couldn’t bring all of my kitchen appliances with me to France, and I have not invested in a stand-mixer or food processor that I think would have the capability to handle this dough.

I don’t think that hand-kneading caused any significant changes to the dough, but I would recommend a sturdy stand-mixer over the food-processor method that Parks recommends for her recipe. I worry that the added hydration to this dough would make it hard for a food processor to handle.

In addition to hand-kneading, I actually had better luck with allowing my bagels to do a cold fermentation overnight (8-12 hours) and then finished proofing them in a warm oven (if you have a proofing drawer this would work perfectly) for 2-3 hours. For some reason the wild yeast responded better to this than a full cold fermentation.
I also found that the sourdough version of these bagels benefits greatly from a roll-and-loop forming technique. This is more difficult than the stretch-and-poke method, but watch a few YouTube videos to see how different people approach the method, and you should be able to get it after a few tries. The poke method works fine, but there is a difference between how the two bagels turn out.

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Left is stretch-and-poke method, right is roll-and-loop. The roll-and-loop method creates a more even, and slightly more open crumb.

If you don’t want to take the time to create a sourdough starter, Parks’ recipe is beautiful and she has a great write up on her methods. I first discovered her after I was discouraged by all the recipes on French macarons that basically said a perfect meringue could only be made if the baker was able to balance an egg on her head and the moon was within the first two days of waning. Her post on macarons gave me the courage to try again after so many failures and because of her attention to detail in explaining technique, they came out flawlessly! In the world of endless online recipes, Stella Parks is winning in the pastry department.

Oh, and she’s working on a book that you can pre-order here!