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The New York Bagel: A myth or reality

The New York Bagel: a myth or reality

Bagels seem to have become synonymous with New York with several food writers hypothesising about what makes this bread special. Nishita Rai of London Southbank University traces the history of the bagel, identifies popular recipes and techniques and tries to determine what makes New York Bagels unique.

History of the bagel

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary[1], the bagel can be defined as ‘a firm doughnut-shaped roll traditionally made by boiling and then baking’. The word itself is described as steming from the Yiddish word beygl, from Middle High German böugel ring; akin to Old English bēag ring or būgan meaning ‘to bend’. That said, the origins of this bread seem nebulous. One popular fable attributes its origins to an offering made to a Polish King - Jan Sobieski, who saved Vienna from Turkish Invaders in 1683. Local bakers produced a bread in the shape of a stirrup to honour the king after battle[2],[3]. Balinska2 refutes this legend and highlights the mention of this bread 70 years before the Battle of Vienna. She describes the first written account of a bagel in regulations issued by the Jewish Council of Krakow back in 1610; this body was responsible for overseeing all aspects of community life in the region. Bagel regulations were issued at that time and provided guidance around who may consume bagels and on what occasion. Circumcision of a baby boy, successful birthing by midwives and mothers were some occasions considered significant enough to gift bagels made from wheat – a more expensive grain compared to rye2,[4]. The glory of the 1600s faded and gave way to tougher times in Poland but the bagel continued to enjoy a central place in Jewish parables and traditions serving as an object of value, luck and comfort in the community2.

The bagel came to New York sometime between 1881 and 1914, when Jews migrated in large numbers from Eastern Europe to America and the community wanted kosher food. By 1900, the lower east side of Manhattan was flooded with several bakeries that had sprung up and produced the popular bagel. However, the appalling working conditions in these bakeries in the early 1900s led to the formation of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers International Union, with the Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 chapter being formed in 1937. Members of this union dominated bagel production in America until the 1960s, with bagel making passed on to those who were especially trained in the art of making this bread2,[5],[6]. The next few years saw a dramatic transformation in bagel making with automation being introduced to the production process. The popularity of this bread in America is attributed to the Lender family, who in the 1950s started freezing bagels baked in their New Haven bagel bakery and supplying to supermarkets2,[7]. Coupled with this, Daniel Thompson’s invention - the Thompson Bagel Machine - in 1958, transformed the ability of bakers to produce bagels. Automation made it possible for bakers to mass produce this bread5,[8].

The recipe and technique

What once was a carefully guarded recipe passed on by those who were apprenticed to members of the Bagel Bakers Union is now easily available online and in cookbooks. The basic ingredients remain the same the world over – bread flour, water, malt and yeast. On examining bagel recipes from New York, Poland and the UK, one comes across a few differences in procedure followed and additional ingredients3,[9]. The first difference is the use of malt barley in the bagel dough and in the water used to boil bagels; this approach seems to be popular in America, especially New York, versus other parts of the world, such as Poland or the UK. Malt syrup is known to aid yeast fermentation and bread texture. When added to bread dough, malt syrup, which is high in maltose, ferments slowly compared to other sugars and ensures that gases are produced through final proofing of the dough[10]. When added to boiling water, malt lends a golden brown colour to the bagel.

The other major difference seems to be the absence of egg wash after boiling in New York recipes compared to bagel recipes in the UK. Egg wash is typically brushed on products such as breads and pies to provide shine[11]. Another recipe departure seems to be the use of baking soda to replace lye - a chemical used to make commercial soaps - as a common addition to the water in which bagels are boiled. Baking soda found in most New York recipes, is said to increase alkalinity of the water and impact the overall browning and crust texture of bagels during baking10,[12],[13].

Finally, the fourth and most significant difference observed between recipes seems to be duration of fermentation practiced by bakers in New York and other parts of America versus the rest of the world. Fermentation of dough begins once it has been mixed and kneaded and allows the dough to strengthen while the added yeast convert sugars available - glucose, fructose and maltose - to carbon dioxide and other gases10,[14]. Slow, cold fermentation and dough retardation help to build significant flavour profile of the dough13. The cooler temperatures slow down yeast activity and activate heterofermentative bacteria resulting in enhanced flavour compounds that might be the secret to the New York bagel9,[15].

Beliefs surrounding the New York Bagel

There have been a number of quests in the media to discover the secret of the New York bagel. Balinksa2 highlights the return of the bagel to Poland as a result of its popularity in North America and compares it to the journey of a successful immigrant who returns home. The role of New York water in producing the perfect chewy and dense bagel seems to be the most popular and widespread belief among bagel purists. The mineral content of water has been shown to impact fermentation and strength of dough. Ideally water should be neither too soft nor too hard as hard water can make the dough too strong and elastic, whereas soft water makes dough slack and sticky 9,10. New York water is considered to be soft with lower levels of calcium and magnesium but there is not sufficient evidence to prove that this is what separates the pride of New York from the others15,[16]. According to the American Chemical Society[17], while New York water does have an impact on bagels produced in the city, it is not as significant as other differentiating practices, such as long fermentation times, which enable the development of significant flavour profile, and boiling the bread before baking, which pre-gelatinises the starch expanding the crumb and creating a crust on the bread17.

Another reason cited in the literature that might differentiate the New York bagel from other bagels is flash boiling. While boiling bagels is not unique to the American or New York recipe, it does seem to be an important step that is skipped and replaced with steam13. Boiling bagels gelatinises the starch in the dough, which results in swelling of the starch molecules, breaking down the intermolecular bonds and allowing hydrogen bonds to form with all the available water[18],[19]. However, because this is done for a brief time (typically 30 seconds to 2 minutes) only a thin crust forms adding to the chewiness of bread, yet still allowing the bagels to rise later on in the oven heat12.


It is difficult to say whether the New York bagel is truly a unique bread. While there do seem to be a few differences in the recipes used in New York and elsewhere, it is not clear whether these make the New York version of the bread distinct from bagels from other parts of the world. Slow and cold fermentation of the dough is certainly a distinct feature of the American recipes as are some other additions, such as malt and baking soda.

Dr Nishita Rai, Student, National Bakery School, School of Applied Sciences, London South Bank University, 103 Borough Road, London, SE1 0AA

Tel: +44 (0)20 7815 8131



1. (2018) Bagel. Available from: https://www.merriam- [Accessed 15 December 2017].

2. Balinska, M. (2008) The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. Yale University Press.

3. Meilach, D. (1995) The Best Bagels Are Made at Home. Bristol Publishing Enterprises.

4. Rosten, L. (1983) The New Joys of Yiddish. 2nd edition, Penguin: New York.

5. Alexander, S. (2017) National Bagel Day: Eight things you didn't know about Bagels. Available from: things-didnt-know-bagels/ [Accessed 8 January 2018].

6. O’Connor, B. (2016) Why you can’t find a decent bagel outside New York City [in 5 steps]. Crain's New York Business, Regional Business News, 32: 16.

7. Rothman, L. (2012) Murray Lender, the man who brought bagels to the masses. Available from: brought-bagels-to-the- masses/2012/03/23/gIQACt47VS_story.html?utm_term=.7ce250517d6c [Accessed 20 December 2017].

8. Harris, J. (2016) Always Bagels. Food and Drink Magazine. Chicago: Illinois.

9. DiMuzio, D. T (2010) Bread Baking: An Artisan's Perspective. Hoboken: Wiley, 2010.

10. Figoni, P. (2004) How Baking Works. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

11. Cloake, F. (2014) How to make the perfect bagels. Available from [Accessed 8 January 2018]. 

12. Christensen E. (2009) Food Science: Why Bagels are Boiled. Available from: [Accessed 8 January 2018].

13. Reinhart, P. (2006 ) Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers. Ten speed press. Berkeley: California 

14. Prost, C., Poinot, P., Rannou, C., Arvisenet, G. (2012) Bread aroma. In: Cauvain, S.P ed. Breadmaking. Second Edition. Woodhead Publishing Limited. doi:10.1533/9780857095695.3.523.

15. Godoy, M. (2015). Chew On This: The Science Of Great NYC Bagels (It's Not The Water). Available from: ggbon-this-the-science-of-great-nyc-bagels-its-not-the-water [Accessed 5 January 2018].

16. Thomson, J. (2017) Debunking The Myth That NYC Water Is What Makes New York Bagels So Damn Good. Available from: york-water-bagels-so-good-nom_n_7242452.html [Accessed 20 December 2017].

17. American chemical society (2015) Why New York has the best bagels in the world. Available from: [Accessed 8 January 2018].

18. Cauvain, S.P and Young, L.S (2012) Water control in breadmaking. In: Cauvain, S.P ed. Breadmaking. 2nd Edition. Woodhead Publishing Limited.

19. Rouillé, J. et al. (2010) Dough/crumb transition during French bread baking, Journal of Cereal Science. Elsevier Ltd, 52(2), pp. 161–169.


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