Anytime people gather to discuss one of the most pressing issues of the day—what is the most proper and delicious way to eat a bagel—heated (pun intended) arguments ensue. So I have decided that we are going to settle it once and for all, right here on Serious Eats, with the first and probably last Serious Eats Bagel Debate. As you are about to hear, there are many subtle nuances to this freighted issue.
First let's define our terms.
In the New York Times I wrote:
A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast, and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed.
A few more bagel stipulations from my Times story:
Bagels do not need six ounces of cream cheese on them. They only need a schmear. Cream cheese made without guar gum is optimal, but it is hard to find. (You can still find fine natural cream cheese at the Fairway markets and Russ & Daughters in New York, and Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., makes a great, larger curd cream cheese that is available by mail.) On the subject of salmon, it should be Nova, and it should be sliced to order. A good bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon does not have to be toasted, as contrast with the fat and salt will be provided by the crunchy crust of a properly made bagel exterior.
But a buttered bagel should almost always be toasted, so that you get that great, rich melted butter taste. Better yet, you can achieve the same effect if you buy your bagels fresh, still warm from the oven. No toasting needed!
I wrote this a few years ago, but I feel compelled to update and expand my bagel findings.
A bagel that is not fresh out of the oven, that is at least six hours old, does need to be toasted, whether it is going to be buttered or topped with cream cheese, nova or both. Otherwise it will be too hard. A bagel that has been sliced and frozen obviously needs to be toasted when brought back to life.
Badly made bagels that have not been boiled and baked, like those awful rolls with holes they incorrectly call bagels at places like Dunkin' Donuts, Au Bon Pain, Panera, and McDonald's, must be toasted to have even a remote chance at being tasty and satisfying. A Starbucks bagel also needs to be toasted.
Outside New York City, where I have eaten bagels in at least 25 states and six countries, it can be difficult to find bagels that do not have to be toasted. Montreal has a fascinating bagel tradition. Its very small bagels are made in a wood-burning oven and sweetened with honey. They do not need to be toasted if they are eaten within four hours of being purchased (why anyone would wait that long is beyond me). After four hours, Montreal bagels join the ranks of need-to-be-toasted bagels.
I have made many pronouncements here. But as Serious Eats is an eatocracy, I would like to hear others weigh in on this important topic.