Bagel recipe

Homemade Bagels/Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Here is a bagel recipe worthy of the best New York or Jersey deli from a baker in Boone, North Carolina. Bruce Ezzell commented on this blog ages ago and elicited a discussion about bagels, which led to his inspiring journey from being laid off to opening his own bakery. professional baker. I’ll let Bruce, @thebreadlist on Twitter, tell the story.—M.R.

by Bruce Ezzell

I’ve been baking for 20 years now. Five years professionally from 1989-1994, then what I called ‘sanity baking’ after that. Newly married, kids on the way, I had to find work that gave me a steady paycheck so I left baking for new careers. The ‘economic downturn’ changed things for me. I lost my job as the office manager of a high-end construction company in January 2009.  Boone, NC, where I live, is a small university town and in the winter of 2009 there were no jobs. Family friends who knew I baked and had eaten my bread before suggested I pick up some extra work baking. I thought, what the heck, I’ve got nothing else to do. That February I was asked if I made bagels. I hadn’t, but I’ll learn anything. Approximately 20,000 hand-formed and hand-boiled bagels later, Owl Creek Breadworks (on Facebook) takes all my time and I’m having more fun working than I’ve had in years.

And I’ve learned a little bit about bagels. Best compliment I’ve had was from a retired guy who was given one of my bagels by a friend. The message he left on my friend’s phone was this “I grew up in Jersey, in a neighborhood with a green grocer, a meat market, and a Jewish bakery. I haven’t had a bagel like this since I was a kid, chewy and dense, not bready like these things you find in the store. Where can I get more?” I figured if I could make a retired businessman remember his childhood with a simple thing like a bagel, I was on the right track.

Anyway, how do I do bagels? I did my research first. I also keep bees, and one of the first things you learn when you meet other beekeepers is that if you ask 10 beekeepers how to ‘do’ bees, you’ll get 15 answers. The same thing applies with making bagels. The true bagel is boiled in sugar water. No, the true bagel is boiled in lye. You have to have a strict 4 hour sponge, followed by an 8 hour retarding period. No sponge, make a regular dough with regular rises. Etc., etc.

In the end the recipe I use is one cobbled up from various sources through trial and error. I bake by weight, not volume, for issues of price control and quality control. Very quickly, bakers math is based on the total weight of flour in a recipe. Flour weight is always 100%. If you are baking a 2 pound loaf of bread it typically contains approximately 17.5 ounces, or 500 grams, of flour. A bread dough at 60% hydration contains about 10.5 ounces, or 300 grams, of water. 500 grams*60% = 300 grams. [Editorial intrusion: notice the ratio!—m.r.] I measure in grams for accuracy. Bagel dough is much denser than bread dough, with a much lower hydration percentage, approximately 52%. This would mean that 500 grams of flour would only get 260 grams, or slightly over 9 ounces of water.

I start with a sponge at 100% hydration, meaning an equal weight of flour and water and 1% yeast. This would equate to 500 grams of water plus 500 grams of flour and 5 grams of yeast. I let the sponge rest anywhere from 4-10 hours. Much more than that and I feel it affects the end product adversely. The gluten structure in the sponge begins to break down and the dough becomes slack. After the sponge has risen sufficiently, 4-12 hours, I mix the dough with enough additional flour to bring it down to a 52-53% hydration, adding salt, honey, and malt, each at about 2% of the total flour weight. A simple breakdown for the home baker follows:

Bruce Ezzell’s Bagels

Sponge (4 to 12 hours before baking; do this before you go to bed if you want fresh bagels for breakfast or brunch, only takes a minute)

  • 500 grams flour/18 ounces/ 3.5 cups
  • 500 grams water/18 ounces/ 2 1/4 cups
  • 3 grams active dry yeast/3/4 teaspoon
  1. Combine the ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix with a spoon till the ingredients are combined. Set aside at room temperature for at least 4 hours. Do this before going to bed if you want fresh bagels in the morning.

To Make the Bagels

  • 18 grams kosher salt/.6 ounces/1 tablespoon
  • 18 grams honey/1 scant tablespoon
  • 18 grams malt syrup/1 tablespoon (you can substitute molasses if you wish)
  • 446 grams flour/16 ounces/ 3 cups
  • Baking Soda (1/2 tablespoon for every 2 liters/1/2 gallon water)
  • Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, coarse salt or other garnish (optional but recommended
  1. Add salt, honey, malt syrup, and flour to the sponge, the flour last. Attach dough hooks to your mixer and mix at low speed for 8-10 minutes. This is a stiff, bucky dough so don’t walk away from the mixer if it has a tendency to walk across your counter top. I’ve had more than one mixer hit the floor and it is distressing. (This can also be mixed by hand.)
  2. Once the dough is mixed remove it to your counter and cover with a cloth to let it rest for 5-10 minutes. While the dough is resting place a wide, fairly deep pot filled with water on the stove to heat (measure the water so you know how much baking soda to use). When I boil I typically use a pan like a wok filled with water. Once the water comes to a simmer add the baking soda. Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees.
  3. Divide the dough into 12-13 (4 oz) pieces. Round each piece and set aside to rest for a few more minutes, covered.
  4. To shape take each ball of dough and flatten out slightly using the palm of the hand, making a disc approximately 3.5 inches wide. Make a hole in each using your thumb and place back on the counter, covered, to rise.
  5. After 10 minutes flip each bagel over so the bottom is now facing up. When this side begins to get slightly puffy and rounded it is time to boil. This may take as little as 5 minutes, but depending on the temperature of your kitchen, how cold your countertop is, etc., it might take longer. When the bagel looks and feels a bit puffy, it’s ready to boil.
  6. While your bagels are in their final rise bring your water to a simmer, then add the baking soda.
  7. Drop the bagels 3-4 at a time into the simmering water (depending on how large your pot is). They should float immediately or within a few seconds. Let them simmer for one minute, then flip them over using a chopstick or spoon and let the other side simmer for one minute. Remove from the water using a skimmer or large spoon. I like to bake them on a half-sheet pan lined with parchment paper. They can also be baked on a pizza stone.
  8. Sprinkle them with sesame, poppy seeds, salt or whatever you prefer immediately after removing them from the water, or alternately, brush with an egg wash and sprinkle after that.
  9. Bake at 450 degrees F for 12-13 minutes or until golden brown.

On occasions that I have run out of malt I have substituted molasses and received excellent reviews. Some might consider it blasphemy, but really, who cares? My customers are much more pleased with overall flavor when I boil in an alkaline (water with baking soda) solution than when I boil in a sugar water solution.

Really pretty simple. There’s a guy in Florida I recently read about who spent thousands on a water system in his shop to convert his water into the chemical/mineral equivalent of Brooklyn tap water, because he swears the water is the key to the perfect tasting bagel. I don’t know but it seems like North Carolina, Appalachian Mountain well water does a pretty good job. Like Joe Ortiz says in The Village Baker, “baking great bread requires an attitude of faith and a willingness to let nature take its course. It has to do with knowing that the process, once set in motion, has a way of determining its own destiny. All the baker does is to become a guide, leading the fermentation of the bread through its natural cycles.”

Although appropriate ingredients are certainly paramount, I think that process is key.
Yield: 13 bagels at 114 grams (4 ounces) each
Note from M.R.: These really are easy.  If you don’t have a strong mixer, knead the dough by hand for the same time you’d have done so in the mixer. Note the darker color of one of the bagels in the photo. This was cooked in water with food grade lye replacing the baking soda. It resulted in the expected darker color and pretzel-like flavor.
Update 2/1: Our new Bread Baking Basics app for iPad now available!