Good bread lies at the heart of New York City's culinary life. Sure, other cities also have their loaves (San Francisco sourdough and Dutch crunch, Boston and its brown bread) but New York's bread culture runs as deep and diverse as the history of our town.
Doughnuts first hit American shores with the earlist Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam. Waves of Germans, Italians, and Jews brought loaves of their own, once exotic immigrant specialties that have now made their way to every street corner.
Today, these breads are a ubiquitous but too often unnoticed part of our everyday eating habits. Few pay attention to the rye hoisting their tuna melt or the bagel on their trip to work. Luckily, the city is still home to dozens of neighborhood bakeries, both Old School and New Wave, where the owners respect both ingredients and traditions, and you can buy rich, fragrant, and deeply satisfying New York bread.
The babka is pastry pretending to be bread, a classification it owes largely to the loaf pan in which it's baked. It's made from flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, and more butter. Inside, you find a spiral of chocolate, cinnamon, or almond filling, and there's often a little streusel on top. Eat it with coffee for breakfast or dessert, and prepare to add a notch to your belt.
Where it came from: The original babka was a holiday treat baked by Jewish bakers in Eastern Europe (there are also Polish and Ukrainian versions). When the bakers moved to America, life got sweeter and richer, and so did the babka.
Where to get it: Fresh from the oven, nothing beats the babka baked by Breads Bakery, run by Israeli-Danish transplant Uri Schecht. If you're lucky, your local supermarket sells chocolate or cinnamon babka made by Greens Bakery, with almost more filling than dough.
We all know bagels, but how many of us know a great New York bagel? All it takes is dough mixed from high-gluten flour, water, malt syrup, salt, and yeast. After rising overnight, the shaped bagels are boiled in water mixed with malt syrup, then baked on wooden boards in the oven. The result is a fat torus with a crackly crust, a dense and chewy crumb, and a wheaty, slightly sweet, slightly sour flavor. How come the rest of the country keeps screwing up the recipe?
Where it came from: Bagels are Eastern European street food, originally sold by vendors for snacking on while you strolled. In the United States, the recipe was for decades a secret guarded by the bagel bakers' union. Only those cities lucky enough to have large Jewish populations got to try them. Then along came Mr. Lender, a bagel baker from New Haven, who perfected the art of freezing bagels. In 1965, his children leased the first bagel-making machine, which allowed their factory to make almost 5,000 bagels an hour. That let the genie out of the bottle, and we've been trying to put it back in ever since.
Where to get it: Start at Park Slope's Bagel Hole, where the smallish bagels are fresh every morning and the line frequently snakes out the door. Note that many good bagel bakeries will refuse to toast your bagel for you. A bagel fresh from the oven is perfect; toasting would only ruin it.
The bialy is not a bagel without the hole. It's made from a flour, water, yeast, and salt for a dough that's shaped into a disc with an indentation in the center. Into this central well bakers usually put fried onions, often mixed with poppy seeds. A bialy should be eaten when it's just out of the oven, so it's soft and warm and bit flour-y, with just butter or maybe a chunk of herring.
Where it came from: Bialys came from Bialystok, a Polish city that once had a large Jewish population. Unlike bagels, they never found a foothold in the rest of the United States.
Challah is a Jewish bread that has spread from the Sabbath table onto New Yorker's breakfast plates. (It makes superlative French toast.) Challah's rich, slightly sweet dough is made from flour, sugar, yeast, egg yolks, and oil. After rising, the dough is separated into braids that are woven together, often with 12 folds to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel. The loaf comes out of the oven glossy and golden and redolent of a warm, eggy aroma. Some people slice it, but I prefer to pull apart a fresh loaf with my hands.
Where it came from: Loaves like this were an integral part of Jewish, and Christian, holiday celebrations in Eastern Europe. For poor Jews, the Friday evening challah was often only taste of sweetness in their bleak lives. In America, the challah tradition remained strong even as Jewish immigrants shed many Old World customs.
Where to get it: Industrial challahs abound in New York supermarkets, but I prefer my challah fresh from the oven. Bakeries with excellent challahs include Breads Bakery, Hot Bread Kitchen, and Maison Kayser.
Doughnuts are a fry bread,made from yeast dough that's been enriched with sugar, butter, milk, and eggs. Once the dough hits the hot oil, it sizzles and puffs up into fat golden rings that only retain a trace of grease (after draining). The earliest doughnuts were only seasoned with spices or fruit; today they've become magnets to hold all kinds of flavorings both sweet and savory, one weirder than the next. Many cities claim the title of doughnut capital, but New York, where the bread first landed, held the crown, even though neighborhood doughnut shops are largely a thing of the past.
Where it came from: Many European cuisines have a fried dough tradition. The Dutch variant, known as olie-koecken ("oil-cakes") landed in New Amsterdam in the early 17th century. By 1800, it had become known as the "dough-nut" and soon acquired the distinctive ring shape. As a schoolboy, Henry James bought his doughnuts at a bakery at the corner of 6th Avenue and 8th Street. The practice of covering doughnuts with all kinds of sweet glazes didn't begin until well into the 20th century.
A "hero" is the monicker for the New York version of an overstuffed sandwich on a long roll. It's made from a loaf of Italian bread, which is baked with a crisp crust and a relatively dense crumb to absorb drippings from the filling of mixed meats and vegetables, oil and vinegar. The classic place to eat a hero is on lunch break at a construction site, the beach, or in front of the TV on game day. Prepare to spend the rest of the afternoon digesting.
Where it came from: Hero sandwiches were probably invented in Coney Island during the 1930s. They were a perfect food for muscle-bound Brooklynites to eat after a day of showing off on the sand.
Where to get it: Until it closed, Manganaro's, which invented the six-foot hero, had a lock on the hero business in the city. These days, however, I prefer the bread, and the heros, made by Parisi, one of the last remaining Little Italy bakeries, or from Il Fornaretto in Midwood.
When you order an egg-on-a-roll in a New York coffee shop, the roll better be a Kaiser roll. Crisp on the outside yet soft on the inside, a good Kaiser roll is a high point of the New York baker's art. It's made from white flour, yeast, salt, and water dough that's been enriched with butter, sugar, and egg. The result is a delicate, slightly crunchy roll, often sprinkled with poppy seeds, that has a clean aroma faintly redolent of flour and butter.
Where it came from: Originally known as Kaiser Semmels (German for "roll"), these rolls take their name from the rulers of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Louis Fleischmann, a native of Vienna, brought the rolls to New York in 1876 when he opened his Vienna Model Bakery at the corner of Broadway and 10th Street. Fleischmann's rolls were so good that you didn't even need to put butter on them, and soon every other bakery was copying him.
Where to get it: New York's Jewish bakeries still understand the value of a great roll. My favorite Kaiser rolls come from Chiffon Kosher Cake Center.
Also called prosciutto bread, lard bread is the porkiest of our New York loaves. A specialty of city Italian bakeries, it's a dense white bread, often ring-shaped, flavored with lard, scraps of prosciutto and salami ends, and maybe also ham, cheese, and black peppercorns. The best time to buy it is typically on Saturday, when it's fresh out of the oven and tempting Italian families shopping for their big Sunday family dinners. Tear off chunks with your fingers, but bring a napkin to wipe off the grease.
Where it came from: Lard bread is native to Southern Italy, where it was prepared for feast days in order to make use of every bit of freshly butchered pigs.
Our Favorite Lard Breads in NYC »
The New York-style pizza slice came into being thanks to geometry, because the best way to divide a circle is along its diameter. It also didn't hurt that a pizza's crusty circumference proved a perfect hand hold for grasping a steaming hot slice. New Yorkers eat their slices belly up to the counter, walking along the street, even sitting at tables—but not (sorry Mr. Mayor!) with a knife and fork. Because a New York slice should be transportable, it can't be too thick, like in Chicago, or too thin, as in New Haven (where they don't sell slices anyway). An ideal slice is about a quarter inch thick, crisp on the bottom and on top soft under a blanket of mozzarella and tomato sauce.
Where it came from: Naples, where street urchins lived on pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the late 19th century, it came to America with immigrants from Southern Italy and found its first stronghold in Little Italy before spreading around the country.
Where to get it: We have a whole guide answering this very question.
For decades, the only fresh pretzel widely available in New York was the street pretzel—one of the city's original street foods, but today usually oversized, over-salted, and gummy. Then the craft beer boom led to growing demand for bar snacks, and what's better with beer than a lightly salted pretzel that's both soft and crisp? A number of small pretzel bakeries have opened up in New York over the last decade. The best of these follow the German style: relatively dark, dusted with a few fat crystals of salt, and twisted into a ring with one side soft and bulging and the other tapering down into two crisp edges.
Where it came from: The pretzel has been around for over a millennium in Central Europe. The original treat was probably invented in an early medieval monastery; the shape is said to resemble the crossed arms of someone in prayer. Eighteenth century Germany immigrants brought pretzels to Pennsylvania, and then a second wave from Germany carried them to New York beginning in the mid 19th century. New Yorkers discovered them in the beer halls and saloons of the Lower East Side's Little Germany and have been eating them ever since.
Where to get it: For a traditional German-style pretzel, I prefer the pretzels produced by the Bronx Baking Co. They also make a delicious bacon-wrapped pretzel.
The Rye Family
A New York rye bread, also called a "deli rye," is meant for sandwiches, particularly fatty piles of pastrami or corned beef covered with mustard. It's usually made from about 40% rye flour and 60% wheat flour, as well as yeast, water, salt, and ground caraway seeds for bite. It should be dense and chewy but also soft enough not to pull out your false teeth.
Where it came from: This loaf's ancestors back in Eastern Europe were 100% rye breads. In the New World, wheat flour was cheaper than rye, and Jewish immigrants found they prefer the lighter color and softer texture of loaves made from a rye/wheat blend. In doing so, they gave up the original bread's dark flavor.
Where to get it: For a New York Rye with gusto, go to Orwasher's. For a softer loaf, try the ryes made by Chiffon Kosher Cake Center.
A perfect corn rye is the Holy Grail for dedicated New York bread aficionados. It's a big, leathery boule encasing a moist and dense crumb with a wonderful nutty aroma. It's made from a mixture of rye and wheat flours, with caraway seed optional. If you manage to get one home still warm from the oven, lock the door, bring out a bar of good butter, and leave your cares behind. Unfortunately, the old-time bakers who remember how to make a great corn rye are fast dying out. Luckily, the younger generation recognizes this loss and is now making excellent updated versions of the bread.
Where it came from: Corn rye, originally called "Kornbroyt," was originally a specialty of Jewish bakeries in Poland and the Baltic region. "Korn" means grain; the only cornmeal in this loaf is a dusting on the bottom.
Marble rye is an optical illusion. It looks like a drunken version of the yin and yang symbol, with two opposing doughs competing for space in the same loaf. However, they're actually made from the same deli rye dough: the brown side is the same dough that's been colored to make New York style pumpernickel. No matter, marble rye on either side makes whatever we put between them taste better.
Where it came from: Marble rye is a specialty of the Jewish baking tradition. It will live forever thanks to reruns of "The Rye" episode of Seinfeld.
Where to get it: Chiffon Kosher Cake Center in Midwood.
Pumpernickel is in the eye of the beholder. In Germany, pumpernickel is a dark, sour, and dense loaf made from 100% rye flour and whole rye berries. A New York City pumpernickel is essentially a New York deli rye that's been colored a chocolate brown and often comes with raisins and walnuts. The coloring is either made from a caramel blend or a mixture of molasses and coffee, adding a slight bitter-sweetness to the dough. As we know, taste is as much in the eye as in the mouth or nose, so this loaf tastes completely different than a deli rye.
Where it came from: Like all our "New York" ryes, this version of pumpernickel has its roots in the Jewish baking tradition of Eastern Europe.
Where to get it: Orwasher's is the place to go for both a classic New York pumpernickel and the raisin walnut versions.