At 8 a.m. on a Sunday I found myself walking into the employee entrance of Barney's, the upscale clothing store in Midtown. This was the last place I expected to be sent to write a story about bagels.
Naturally I was excited to document one of New York's quintessential foodstuffs. But at the store cafe, Fred's? Who the hell is Fred?* It's in a department store? Why had I not heard of these bagels?
*For the record, Fred's is named after Barney's son.
But here's the thing. We've been closely—nay, obsessively—following the state of the bagel in New York these days, repeatedly tasting the hip newcomers, taking stock of the old guard, and doing some bagelnomics along the way. And we'll just come out and say it: Fred's makes bagels that are just as good, if not better, than any of the city's other contenders for Top Bagel. It's also one of the most tradition-oriented bagel operations in town.
Meet Mark. Mark Strausman is Barney's unofficial Jewish food historian and something of a bagel obsessive. He carries this photo on his iPhone to remind him of the bagels of yore. Nostalgic much? You bet.
To Mark, the classic New York bagel is a dying art. He describes your average bagel as an "8.5-ounce balloon" that lacks the characteristic chewiness of the bread he knows and loves.
"Straussie's bagels" are none of those things. Before the 1980s and '90s, your typical bagel was only three to four ounces of bread. At Fred's he makes them a petite two-and-a-half ounces for ease of mixing and matching flavors—everyone can try at least two. The crust is smooth and shiny, but it crackles, like a good baguette. The dense crumb is chewy on the inside, like a real New York bagel should be. The flavor is malty, yeasty, and rich, but not too sweet. And thanks to the small sizing, it doesn't sit like a brick in your stomach.
There's a catch: Fred's only make bagels on Sundays, but for the bagel-lover, they're worth planning into your week. The cafe offers them to-go by the dozen ($19.95): order by Friday at 5 p.m. for pickup on Sunday after 11 a.m. Can't plan ahead? Try wandering in on Sunday morning in the hopes of a spare dozen, but expect no guarantees.
If you'd rather sit down at the restaurant, you can order Straussie's bagel basket with cream cheese on the Sunday brunch menu for $9.
So what goes into and honest-to-goodness New York bagel? We stepped into the kitchen with Mark to find out.
Step 1: Make the Dough
The way Mark sees it, the most crucial factor in making a great bagel is starting the dough from scratch. You'd be surprised at how many New York bagels are made from bagel mix—a just-add-water blend of flour, yeast, malt barley, and other dry ingredients. Mix is a handy shortcut, but Mark doubts its ability to produce an amazing bagel.
Next up is using good ingredients, especially flour. Bleached and bromated flour speed up the bagel-making process, and they look crisp and white, but Mark thinks they lead to inferior taste and texture. Less processed, higher quality flours also tend to have more consistent protein contents from bag to bag, which means a more reliable dough. Mark always uses King Arthur unbleached high-gluten flour—the extra gluten gives the bagels their characteristic chewiness.
The dough is a pretty simple mix of flour, water, salt, yeast, and malt barley. Malt barley gives bagels their characteristic twang and a hint of sweetness (fun fact: a Montreal-style bagel substitutes honey for the malt barley, making it sweeter). If you're attempting bagels at home, you may discover that malt barley is hard to find, but you can order it from King Arthur in liquid or powdered form.
The mix is a relatively dry one: between 50% and 60% hydration, which is drier than your average artisan bread. In baker's percentages, the proportion of dry ingredients is roughtly 100% flour, 5% malt barley, 0.5% dry yeast (more if fresh), and 2% salt.
Step 2: Let the Dough Rise
"A good bagel takes a little mixing and a lot of fermentation," Mark told me. "A bad bagel gets a lot of mixing and a little fermentation." Over-mixing in a mechanical mixer generates heat, which causes yeast to go crazy and makes the dough completely rise before it can develop fermented flavors. Over-mixing also destroys carotenoids in the wheat, which add to the bagel's color and flavor. A slow and controlled fermentation process allows the flavors to develop over time, lending the dough a sweet aroma and ensuring a flavorful final product.
Mark lets the bagels ferment at room temperature (ideally 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) until the dough doubles in size. Once it does, it means the yeast is "firing on all cylinders," as Mark puts it. With high heat and humidity, dough can double in size in as little as half an hour; at lower temperature and humidity it's more like two hours. ("Fermentation is the art inside the science of baking," Mark says.) The dough is then transferred to the refrigerator to continue fermenting overnight at an even slower rate.
Step 3: Shape the Dough
Shaping the dough by hand is trickier than it looks. It takes practice for the bagel baker to make a perfectly round bagel, as opposed to a lopsided one.
One key move is to roll out a perfectly even log of dough. Mark then wraps this around his palm...
...and gives the seam an extra roll to both seal it and even out the ring. It's important to keep the dough covered immediately before and after shaping —especially in high heat or humidity—to prevent it from rising too rapidly and forming an unseemly crust.
Step 4: Rise Again, Covered
Once the bagels look, well, bagel-shaped, they continue to rise for another 20 minutes or so. Shaping the dough beats out gas bubbles, and letting it rise again allows it to relax. You know it's ready when it looks like a properly plump bagel, since it won't rise much more in the oven.
Step 5: Boil 'Em
Boiling is what gives bagels their smooth, shiny crust. Hot water gelatinizes the surface of the dough, causing it to cook and tighten before it bakes. Adding barley malt to the water—enough to make it look like black tea—adds that golden color and malty flavor to the crust. Some recipes call for using an egg wash to enhance browning, but eggs won't add that telltale malted barley twang.
Step 6: Baking
As soon as they've finished boiling, Mark lines up the hot bagels on traditional bagel boards—blocks of wood covered in burlap. The boards are soaked in water to keep from catching fire in the oven, and they both help the wet bagel dough from sticking to the oven and add moisture to the baking environment.
For onion/poppy/sesame/everything bagels (i.e. bagels covered in stuff), Mark sprinkles the desired topping directly on the bagel boards before placing the hot, boiled bagels on top.
The bagels go in the oven at 450 to 470 degrees for about 12 to 18 minutes ("it depends on the oven—our upper oven runs cool, the lower oven runs hot..."). The telltale sign of doneness is a rich brown color. Mark is staunchly against the pale, pasty, undercooked bagels that you so often see.
Once the bagels look nice and golden on one side, Mark reaches in with little more than a towel, flips the boards over, and lets the other side cook.
Give Them a Rest
While you may be tempted to indulge in fresh-from-the-oven-bread, bagels need time to cool so their interiors can set. His bagels wait at least 30 to 45 minutes before going out to meet the world.
Mark carefully times his bagel production so that they're at their peak for early Sunday afternoon—by early evening they start to fade. Bagels have a very similar shelf life to French baguettes—that is, not long. If you don't eat all of your bagels the same day, store them in the freezer and perk them back up with a good toasting.
And when you pay a visit to Fred's for their Sunday bagels, don't forget the fish. Mark doesn't mess around with tradition, and the cafe cures a mighty fine lox (real-deal unsmoked belly lox, too!). This is what you want for brunch.