A lot of recipes claim to be foolproof, but when it comes to bread, that's a particularly bold claim. From rogue ovens to weak flour, plus fluctuating temperatures when proofing, a yeasted dough involves a lot of moving parts. My bagel recipe goes a long way toward controlling these variables, and is as close to foolproof as they come, as I found out while intentionally trying to ruin the dough to illustrate a few key points.
Despite my best efforts, most of the bagels turned out better than what I can buy at the store. Even so, to one degree or another, I was able to re-create the most common problems you might encounter with homemade bagels, and offer some simple solutions.
Bagels With Belly Buttons
When stretching bagels into a ring, it's vital to remember that the dough is going to shrink a little as the gluten pulls it back, then expand when the bagels are boiled and baked. If the dough isn't stretched into a fairly wide ring, the effects of shrinking and expansion will do a double whammy on it, producing some unfortunate bagel balls.
Bagel balls can also result from under-proofing the dough, which can translate into a too-vigorous oven spring, or from mismeasuring the yeast—a more likely scenario when you're using a regular kitchen scale, rather than a micro scale, to measure something as tiny as four grams. (Incidentally, this is why I prefer teaspoons to grams for measuring yeast and other ultra-powerful but lightweight ingredients.)
Experienced bakers can loop ropes of dough into rings without any trouble, but for beginners, this technique can make it a bit trickier to get the sort of skin that really highlights the air bubbles trapped just beneath the surface. To that end, I've found it's easier to first shape the dough into a tight ball, then poke a hole in the middle and stretch it into a ring.
With this method, you just need to make sure the dough is bouled up until the seam on the bottom all but disappears.
With a messy seam, as in the dough on the right, the bagel will split as it rises, relieving a bit of the pressure. That means that instead of pressing up against the tight skin, those air bubbles will seem to disappear.
They're still there, of course—just not as prominent along the surface of the dough, which means you get fewer of those crispy, crackly micro-bubbles that give great bagels such a unique and delightful crust. The problem of a weak seam can also be compounded by mix-ins like raisins, leading to hideously massive blowouts, so if you want to get fancy with your bagels, properly shaping the dough is an important technique to master.
Poor gluten development is another reason bagels may not form the blisters that they should. While this can stem from using a flour that's too weak for the job (i.e., low-protein flours, such as all-purpose), it's more often the result of under-mixing the dough.
If you've got a food processor, there's little chance of that—in just 90 seconds, its powerful motor and blade will whip the dough into shape. The problem is much more likely when you're kneading the dough by hand, or even with a stand mixer, as achieving proper gluten development will take much, much longer than you may think. (So long that I don't recommend either method: over 20 minutes on a stand mixer, or up to 30 minutes by hand if you're built like The Rock, and closer to 45 for those with more of a Steve Urkel physique.)
An underdeveloped dough will produce bagels with a poor rise, fewer blisters, and a rougher sort of topography that may look like webbing, or like fingers stretching across the crust. In extreme cases, the dough will have a cottage cheese–like texture, while the finished bagels will be lumpy and pale. Without proper gluten development, these bagels will be doughy rather than chewy.
Big Blisters, Small Rings
When boiling bagels, it's important that the water be bubbling-hot, which may require a bit of patience, as the water will cool in between batches. When that happens, you can actually get some pretty epic blisters along the surface as those air bubbles gently swell in the warm water, but, since the heat will fail to penetrate the dough, you're in for a poor rise overall, making the bagel small and dense.
Dense and Heavy
Given how difficult it is to mix bagels properly by hand, or even with a stand mixer, overworking the dough is a rare occurrence. But if you're making a half batch or using a particularly high-powered food processor (or if fears of under-mixing have led to an overzealous approach), problems can occasionally crop up.
Despite getting some nice blistering, overworked doughs don't retain gas well and resist expansion, leading to a dense ring with a tight crumb.
Tough and Matte
While my recipe aims for 24 to 36 hours of proofing in the fridge, I've successfully gone up to 40 hours. Any longer than that, though, and the entrapped gases beneath the surface of the crust will start to slip away, creating a slightly porous/matte crust with fewer blisters. The loss of air and super-long fermentation can also make bagels seem tough rather than chewy, so be careful when pushing the upper limits of the proof time.