Coffee and a Bagel
Science has finally figured out why New York bagels are better. Contrary to popular belief, it has (almost) nothing to do with the water.
If you commute and you're not exactly a morning person -- that is, you're not the type who's awake before the alarm clock, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to greet the morning with a broad smile and a song on your lips -- chances are you grab breakfast on the run, if you're the type who even bothers with breakfast. For lots of us, a quick coffee and a bagel is just the thing to get started. You get your morning dose of caffeine (yay!), some carbs for even more energy, and a bit of fat and protein to keep you satisfied. Best of all, it's easily portable, and if you're creative, you can even finish breakfast standing up in a subway car.
So far, nothing controversial. If you're spoiling for an argument, ask who's got the best bagels. New Yorkers will tell you that theirs are the best (with a subset of competition between Manhattan and Brooklyn). And to be honest, if you've had a bagel outside the New York metro area (some places in Jersey and Connecticut also make respectable bagels and flagels*). They'll also tell you that "it's the water," since a proper bagel is proofed and then boiled before baking. If it's not, it's not a bagel. A bialy with a hole in it, maybe. Or just a funny-looking roll. But it's not a bagel.
We wanted to know why some bagels are better than others. As we so often do in this space, we turned to science for the answer. The water does play a part, albeit a minor one. Hard water, which contains more minerals, interacts with wheat gluten to create a dough with a slightly tougher consistency. Softer water, with less minerals, results in a dough that's significantly softer. As it happens, however, the unique texture of a good bagel -- a shell that's crusty and shiny with a bit of crunch surrounding a firm, chewy interior -- has a lot more to do with what happens before boiling. When the bagel is left to sit in the fridge for a few hours before baking, it changes the activity of the yeast in the dough, leading to more flavor and a better texture.
You may be wondering, "Why doesn't my bagel look or taste anything like that?" The "bagels" bought at your supermarket or bakery typically aren't proofed or boiled. Since cooking and baking -- as we've already seen with coffee roasting and brewing -- have so much to do with chemistry, that means you're taking two of the most important steps out of the process and short-circuiting both the chemistry and the flavor in the process. Your bagels are, therefore, inferior. Getting a good bagel is like getting a good cup of coffee; both take knowledge, care, and -- most importantly -- time. No shortcuts. *Behold the flagel.
Learn More: Gizmodo: Why Are New York Bagels the Greatest? It's Not the Water Can't find a good bagel? Make your own with this bagel recipe from epicurious.com (which, unlike several of the other recipes you'll find, includes the crucial refrigeration step) And of course, if you're going to make your own bagels, you'd might as well make a pot of our Madison Ave medium roast coffee while you're at it. Video: PBS on why New York has the best bagels: