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A Gentile Bagel

“Bricks.” That was the 1930s lunch counter slang for bagels. Personally, I used to think of bagels as more like rope, but the idea is the same: something flavorless and sadistically chewy. Bagels’ saving grace, of course, is that they have the perfect texture for shmearing with cream cheese.

I’ve had a change of heart. Bagels are the bomb! And they’re actually a kind of bread! (Who knew?)

Only they’re faster to make than bread, and you get to throw onions, sesame seeds or poppy seeds on top. Or whatever you want, though I don’t hold with jalapenos, sun-dried tomatoes, seaweed chips or the like.

On top of everything else, people are always amazed when you show up with homemade bagels.

I think my bagel problem was that I’d had a lot of stale ones. People don’t seem to think of a bagel as something that can get stale. Maybe it’s the hard surface that commercial bagels have–they seem hermetically sealed. The fact is, with their high surface-to-interior ratio, bagels dry out faster than, say, French bread.

A certain chewiness is built into the bagel because of the way it’s baked. Before being put in the oven, the doughnut-shaped loaves are poached in boiling water, which stiffens the surface and keeps the bagels from rising further in the oven. It’s the same principle as making pretzels. In fact, the bagel is a sort of soft pretzel.

With a fresh bagel, the texture is more enjoyable, and so is the flavor. You can make the flavor even better by allowing more rising time. A number of bagel recipes call for only 15 or 20 minutes of rising, which is enough for the bagels to reach their minimum height, but a longer rise will give a more developed bread flavor.

To me, a lot of bagels taste under-salted. Maybe the bakers are reducing the salt to compensate for the short rising time, because salt slows down yeast activity, but I suspect it’s really because the most traditional coating for bagels is not poppy seeds or onions but salt crystals (just as for pretzels). Who needs salt in the dough if it’s in the topping? But you might feel like increasing the salt in the dough.

Anyway, the following bagels may not come out as regular in shape as commercial bagels, but they’re very tasty. If you grew up on harder bagels, they may seem like a cross between a bagel and a bialy. And, hey, how bad could that be?

Anyway, I’ve never claimed these are anything but gentile bagels. Give them a try. Trust me, you can still shmear.



4 cups bread flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated salt

1 tablespoon oil

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups warm water

2 teaspoons yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water for 2 minutes

Topping: 1/2 cup sesame seeds, 1/2 cup poppy seeds or 1/2 cup onion sliced into the thinnest slivers possible

2 teaspoons kosher or other coarse salt

1. Place the flour, sugar, salt and oil in a mixing bowl. Add 1 1/4 cups warm water and the dissolved yeast and knead until the dough picks up all the flour and forms a workable mass. Work in more water if needed.

2. Dump the dough onto a working surface and knead, leaning hard into it, until it forms a springy, elastic mass, working in more flour or water as needed. This will take 10 minutes. The dough will firm up a little for the first two minutes as the water works its way into the flour.

3. Lightly oil a large mixing bowl and transfer the dough to it. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise for any period from 20 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on your schedule and taste.

4. Cut the dough into 8 equal pieces and roll into balls. One at a time, roll each ball into a cylinder twice as long as the width of your hand. Pick up the end of one cylinder in the crook of your thumb, leaving the remainder hanging in back of your hand. With your other hand, pick up the other end and bring it around to touch the first end. (This is easier done than said. Basically you’re forming the dough into a ring with the ends in the palm of your hand.) Pinch the ends together firmly to form the bagel and roll the join between your palms to cement it. Squeeze and stretch to make the bagel as evenly thick as possible.

5. Set the bagel on a greased baking sheet and repeat with the remaining balls of dough. Let the bagels rise for 20 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and bring a 2-quart saucepan of water to the boil. Mix the sesame or poppy seeds or onion with the salt and pour onto a plate.

7. Boil the bagels, two at a time, for 1 minute. Turn over with a skimmer or slotted spoon and boil for another minute. They will swell a little, and if you didn’t pinch the ends together firmly enough, they may become slightly uncoiled. Remove the boiled bagels with the skimmer and set them to cool on a rack.

8. While the next two bagels are boiling, pick up the first two and dip one side into the topping. Set them, topped side up, on the greased baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the bagels.

9. When all the bagels are topped, put them in the oven and bake 10 minutes. Then remove the baking sheet, turn the bagels over with a spatula and return to the oven until they’re golden brown, about 20 minutes more.

10. Remove the baking sheet and transfer the bagels to a rack. Let them cool for about 20 minutes before serving.



The longer you let the dough rise, the larger the bagels end up.

Poppy seeds are sold in small amounts because they turn rancid. If you buy a larger quantity, keep it in the freezer.

Onion shreds do not stick to bagels very abundantly. Even if you sprinkle some shreds onto the bagels after they’re on the baking sheet, most will fall off in the oven. Commercial dried onion sticks better, but it smells like dried onion soup mix and turns excessively brown.

Photo credit: Charles Perry

Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock 'n' roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times' award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.