For the past couple of months, I've been on a quest to find the best bagel in San Francisco. This led me to a shocking realization: there are really, really bad bagels everywhere, and I'm not just talking in the convenience stores or supermarkets—places where you'd expect bad bagels (and for the record, I'm not talking about just San Francisco either. I mean everywhere). I'm talking honest to goodness bagel specialty shops. Places that bake, sell, and serve bagels for a living. The litany of crimes committed against bagel-kind all over the country is diverse and shocking, from bagels that are as hard and crusty as a loaf of sourdough to bagels that squish under the slightest pressure from your finger, like a donut-shaped slice of Wonderbread.
Now don't worry, I found some truly excellent bagels in San Francisco. But first, I have a few words to say about what makes a great bagel great.
Word of warning: I'm about to get as opinionated as I ever get. You will most likely be offended by at least one or two things I say. Your concept of what is good and bad in the world of bagels will be challenged. You may even feel like I'm personally attacking you for your preferences. And that's because I am. This is far too important an issue for live-and-let-live to apply. We're talking significance of a which-side-of-the-bread-do-you-butter level here, so I'm not holding back any punches. Feel free to come right back at me. I will defend myself to the bitter, un-toasted end.
How to Tell if Your Bagel Is Good: Does it Require Toasting?
I've had strong words with people about my feelings on toasting bagels. When I was growing up in New York (one of the two great bagel cities in North America, Montreal being the other) you couldn't get your bagel toasted at my neighborhood bagel shop (RIP Columbia Hot Bagels) even if you wanted to. It may just be my cream cheese-fogged memories, but I don't think I saw a bagel shop that offered to toast your bagel until the mid-'90s. It just wasn't an option, nor was it something you'd want to do. All through 1989 I remember waking up every morning thinking today might be the day they come out with the hoverboard. Not once did I think they might come out with that wheely-chain thingy that makes bagels browner!
Having tasted bagels around the country and around the world, I understand why toasting is the default for most bagel shops: It's because most bagel shops don't serve good bagels. If there is one Golden Rule for good bagels, it is this: A Good Bagel Shall Not Require Toasting. All Else Follows.
A good bagel should have a thin, shiny, crackly crust spotted with the kind of microblisters that you can only get from proper boiling followed by a high-temperature bake. It's these little bubbles that add both surface area and crunch. Want a quick visual guide? Here you go:
Those are extreme examples, but the closer you are to the one on the right, the better.
That crust should give way to a crumb that's dense and chewy, but tender and easy to bite through. A bagel should not ooze cream cheese from its center when you take a bite, any more than a cheeseburger should slide out the back when you clamp down on its bun. These are the qualities that great bagel-makers strive for. Bagel-makers who are immersed in the craft and obsessive about getting it right. The ones for whom a bagel shop is more than just another business. Great bagel-makers are like great pizza-makers in that sense: You will almost never find a good bagel anywhere other than at an owner-operated, single-location shop.
So what's my gripe with toasting? 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.
The other day I ordered a bagel at a well-respected San Francisco bakery where the nice lady behind the counter had the appalling audacity to tell me "our bagels came out pretty tough today. I wouldn't recommend ordering them un-toasted." If your bagels are tough, then why are you serving them? Had an overwhelming sense of duty to scientific inquiry not forced my hand, I would've turned and walked out of the shop as soon as those words came out of her mouth. If a bagel must be toasted to taste good, then it's not a bagel worth eating.
There are only a few times when toasting is acceptable:
- When all you have access to are mediocre-to-bad bagels.
- See #1.
- Okay, okay. If you really really like toasted bagels, then go ahead. I won't judge you. Much.
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.
Everything bagels rule the roost, but would you believe it? I'm particular about what goes on my everything bagel. Dehydrated onion, garlic, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, pretzel salt, and caraway seed are what belong there. Yes, I said caraway seed. Some folks don't put caraway seed on their everything bagels. Some folks also prefer Star Trek to Star Wars. They deserve our condolences and our understanding, but not our respect.
I ordered an everything bagel at that same San Francisco bakery and received something coated with pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and amaranth. Amaranth! That is not an everything bagel. That is a seed catalog, and a rather bourgeois one at that.
After everything, the best flavors are, in order of goodness:
- Garlic or Onion
- Poppy Seed
- Sesame Seed
- Cinnamon Raisin
I include cinnamon raisin in this lineup only because my wife likes to eat them with scallion cream cheese. If there is one thing more important than a good bagel, it's a harmonious marriage.
That is the limit of where bagel flavors should go. I've heard that the exact moment eight out of ten serial killers went wrong can be traced back to the first time they tried a blueberry bagel or a bagel topped with cheese and jalapeños. Don't let that happen to you. If nothing else, then think of the children.
For the record, when I pick up a flavored bagel, those flavorings better stay attached. I want an everything bagel, not a plain bagel with an everything flavored plate. I can't eat plates. Can you? The coating of tasty-looking Maldon sea salt applied to the salt bagel at a certain highly praised San Francisco bakery (it's still the same one) looked great, but it sloughed off like dead skin cells the moment I tried to bite into the bagel.
A small amount of flotsam that makes its way to the plate is okay, though: this gives you the opportunity to trap escaped bits of garlic and caraway seed with the cream cheese side of your last bagel quarter. Everybody knows the last bagel quarter is the best.
It's a given that a bagel should be sliced in half horizontally so that it can be properly topped, but I also want my bagels cut in half vertically. This cutting method allows you to eat the bagel one quarter at a time, which is not only ideal from a textural standpoint, so that your top teeth first meet with cream cheese while your bottom teeth first meet with crisp crust, but it also provides a convenient point of entry that a completely round bagel half doesn't. What's more, that vertical cut should be made after wrapping the bagel in deli paper so that one vertical half stays nice and closed while you operate on the first vertical half.
On Butter, Cream Cheese, and Toppings
Easy one. Butter is best when melted. Cream cheese turns slimy and sticky any hotter than room temperature. So if the bagel is hot and fresh out of the oven, butter. If the bagel has had a chance to cool, cream cheese. As a kid, when I knew I wanted a buttery bagel, I'd always feel the glass in front of the display cases to see which ones were the hottest. Whether I wanted plain, sesame, egg, or everything, freshness and temperature trumps all when butter is in the picture. The bagel man would slice it open and smear on the butter which sat in a display case right next to the garlic bagels, giving that butter a garlicky aroma just by virtue of its proximity.
As for the cream cheese, there's debate over the proper amount. I know from our Senior Features Editor Max Falkowitz's great piece on the economics of bagel and cream cheese pricing in New York that he has feelings about the proper amount of cream cheese, and just how to order it. Perhaps in Forest Hills where he grew up, saying "just a schmear" will get you a knowing look, a nod of approval, and a thin layer of cream cheese on your bagel, but at my childhood bagelry, I believe you'd get your a$% kicked saying something like that. The only person I ever heard using the expression was my Romanian violin teacher, and she was from Jersey.
For my money, I want more than a "schmear" of cream cheese. I want a slathering. You can always remove excess cream cheese, but you can't make up for it if there's not enough. And after splitting the bagel, that cream cheese had better be spread on both sides so that when you pull the two halves apart for eating you have equal coverage on the two newly-formed open-faced bagel sandwiches.
Despite what the Department of Health says, cream cheese should be kept in a deli display at, or slightly below, room temperature. Fridge-cold cream cheese will not cut it. Speaking of which, if that cream cheese comes pre-cut into slices, turn tail and run as fast as you can. If you're given little fridge-cold packs of Philadelphia along with a plastic knife, throw them to the ground scornfully, and then run. And if you order cream cheese and the nice lady behind the counter says they don't have any, gasp in horror and quietly back away towards the door. As soon as you are on the street, run.
Flavored cream cheeses are acceptable if and only if those flavors are scallion or lox. Again: fruit does not belong anywhere near a bagel.
You want other toppings? Go for it. Just limit your selection to a mayo-based salad of some kind (whitefish would be the best option), or some quality hand-sliced lox with tomatoes, red onions, and capers if you really insist. If you're able to put eggs and cheese on your bagel, call it a breakfast sandwich, and eat it comfortably, you've got one of two things in your hands: an overly soft bagel or overcooked eggs. Neither is cause for celebration.
If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where you've got access to great bagels, make sure this factors into your equations when deciding whether or not to move to a new city and be aware that good bagels are not the norm. I know that this rant is going to divide readers into two categories: those who want nothing more than to eat a bagel with me, and those that want nothing more than for me to leave them and their bagel choices alone. Just beware: only one side will fall on the right side of history, but both sides will get the bagels they deserve, no more, no less. The choice is yours.
EDIT: I forgot to mention something about size. Bagels, like Americans, have an obesity problem. At many bagel shops, even in New York (or maybe especially in New York) bagels have gotten so fat and swollen that they completely lose their hole. It's the bagel version of no longer being able to see your feet or having to lift up a muffin top just to be able to pee. Without that hole, a bagel no longer has a place for extra cream cheese to collect. It no longer has a convenient point of entry for a good bite. It's also just the wrong damned size. Too big to eat comfortably in one sitting, too small to be satisfied with just a half, not to mention that the larger and puffier the bagel, the worse the ratio of crust to innards is. A bagel should at most have the perimeter of, say, a softball, though hardball-sized bagels are even better when you can find them.