Magic Bagels: They Stay Fresh for Days

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Video.]

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Forget space: As far as I'm concerned, homemade bagels are the final frontier. From the mythos surrounding New York water to the fact that my boss is the guy who wrote a 2,500 word bagel manifesto with a comments thread some 200 entries deep, there are times I've felt a jaunt to the rings of Saturn would be a less intimidating goal.

But, they don't call me BraveTart for nothing, so here I am, a Kentucky native with a bagel recipe that hinges on a decidedly Japanese technique. Yeah, I know—it's an affront to everything we know about bagels, but hear me out. Because—I swear—these bagels are worth it. And not only are these bagels all golden and blistery and crisp and chewy and tender when they're fresh out of the oven (like any good bagel should be), but they're still crisp and chewy and tender half a day later, or the next morning, or two days later, or even on the third day. That's right: They break the fundamental rule of good bagels.

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That's because these bagels use a Japanese technique called yukone. The basics of yukone are simple: combine flour and water and cook them on the stovetop into a thick paste of gelatinized starch before incorporating that paste into a dough. That paste magically* helps breads retain their moisture and achieve a super tender crumb. Both factors are key when it comes to avoiding bagels that are tough or hard, but any good recipe should do that. What makes yukone particularly awesome is that it extends the shelf-life of the dough.

*Not really magic.

Typically, bagels are only worth eating when they're ultra fresh, no more than an hour old. Toasting stale bagels can help, but only if you like 'em crisp, which obliterates the tender/chewy dichotomy that makes a fresh bagel so grand. The importance of freshness is what keeps bagel shops in business, because who wants to invest 24 to 36 hours just to enjoy a single bagel at home? With a yukone in the dough, however, the dough retains its moisture so you can count on bagels and lox all weekend long. The briefest toasting before slicing will restore their crispy crust, while keeping their insides chewy and soft, not crusty or dry.

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Sounds like a tall order, but it's easily fulfilled. The yukone's a two-minute project on the stovetop, a 1:2 blend of flour and water by weight, cooked until it forms a thick, mashed potato-like paste. Of course, that paste is hot enough to kill the yeast in the dough outright, or else raise the dough temperature far too high, so it does need to be spread out on a plate and given a chance to cool.

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When the yukone's room-ish temperature (say, around 75°F), it's blitzed with flour, salt, yeast, and water in a food processor to form a satiny dough. This is a 90-second affair in a food processor, but with patience it can be done on a stand mixer if you know your stand mixer is built with metal gears. Some machines have plastic gears that simply won't survive a fight with a Big Boss dough. Rather than strip those plastic gears, find a friend with a food processor and team up for a batch of bagels.

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Once the dough is silky smooth, turn it out onto a clean surface and divide it into eight, roughly three ounce portions. That yield reflects the capacity of my food processor more than my desire for bagels; would that I could make many more. As it stands, I think a three-ounce bagel is just the right size for a hearty breakfast, but not so monstrous I can't function for the rest of the day. It also provides my favorite ratio of crust-to-interior, but your mileage may vary, so feel free to make larger or smaller portions as you prefer.

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With the palm of your hand, roll each portion into a tight ball. Keep rolling until it's virtually seamless along the bottom, like the one on the left.

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This goes a long way in promoting a smooth, tight skin for the bagels. Loosely gathered dough is more likely to deform as it grows, giving the bagels a lumpy finish.

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After rounding up the portions, cover with plastic to prevent the dough from drying out, and let the gluten relax for about 15 minutes. This prevents the bagels from shrinking after they're shaped, ensuring each has a nice hole. To that end, I prefer the "poke" method rather than the "snake" method—two highly technical terms I picked up from my friend Michael Madigan of Bowery Bagels.

The poke method is pretty dang simple. Poke a hole in the center of each rounded ball, then gently stretch the dough into a ring. Not only is this less taxing on the dough's underlying gluten structure, it makes it super easy for beginners to achieve a uniformly thickness for bagels that bake at an even rate.

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The "snake" method involves pre-shaping the dough into a rope that's looped and rolled into a ring. While it can be a thing of beauty in the hands of a seasoned pro, beginners are more likely to end up with unevenly shaped bagels that bake up rock hard where the dough is too thin and a touch raw where the dough is too thick. Unless it's a technique you've already mastered, I recommend the poke method for shaping bagels at home.

Transfer the bagels to a baking sheet lined with a greased sheet of parchment, then cover and let them rise for 24 to 36 hours. The exact length of time depends on your schedule, but do stay within that range; under-proofed bagels will be too dense, while over-proofed bagels won't rise as they're baked. But within that 24- to 36-hour window, the bagels will rise and entrap enough air to create that beautifully blistery skin.

Once they've proofed, bagels are briefly boiled before baking. This gelatinizes the starches along the surface of the dough, creating a thin and shiny crust. Before boiling, I doctor the water with a glug of barley malt—about an ounce for every three quarts of water, though you don't need to be particular exact. Barley malt gives bagels their distinctive aroma, and it's well worth picking up a jar at the supermarket, as I'm not keen on the pretzel-like flavor and aroma of substitutes like baking soda or lye.

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Contrary to what you might expect, malt syrup doesn't enhance browning in bagels at all. The proof is in my crusty dinner rolls, which are boiled in plain water but brown up just as well. Instead, malt syrup gives the bagels a, well, malty aroma, while also promoting a more delicate texture in the crust, one that's chewy and crisp rather than crunchy and hard.

After boiling, briefly drain the bagels on a paper towel, then arrange on a parchment lined half-sheet pan (if you like, the freshly boiled bagels can be sprinkled or dredged in some sort of topping). At this point, the the bagels may look a bit lumpy and deflated, but they'll undergo a miraculous transformation in the oven.

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As they bake, the bagels will swell and plump until their skins are shiny and tight, then they'll slowly start to blister and brown. If you plan to enjoy your bagels as a sandwich, bake them just 18 minutes at 425°F to keep them on the pale and tender side, but for crispier bottoms let them go just a few minutes longer.

Regardless of how you prefer to bake them, do let the bagels cool at least 15 minutes to avoid mangling their crumb. Slightly cooled, however, they'll hold up to a serrated blade just fine—revealing a perfectly tender and chewy interior surrounded by a thin but crispy crust.

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I've been known to eat these bagels all on their own, savoring nothing more than the flavor of their slow rise and malty crust, but they're extraordinary with cream cheese and lox.

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However you plan to enjoy them, this recipe is just begging for your personal touch. Whether that's a generous sprinkle of caraway, garlic, poppy seeds, and everything else that goes into an "everything" bagel, or a pinch of sesame and nothing more. You may find you like them boiled a touch longer, or perhaps a little less. Or maybe you like them baked even lighter, or (like me) fairly dark. Whatever your preference, the yukone makes a forgiving dough that responds well regardless of how you tinker with the results.