The Role of the Bagel

There are precious few Jewish delis in Portland. That’s not surprising, as we only make up about .7% of the population. There ARE, however, at least five or six bagel makers in the city.

Everyone has an opinion about whose bagels are the best- the best price, the best flavor, the best texture, the closest to the “New York City” ideal.

They are all right, they are also all wrong, they are going to argue about it, and that is possibly the most Jewish thing I’ve seen in this city outside of actually going to a synagogue.

Yiddish is a remarkably poetic language. A mix of German, Slavic languages, and Hebrew, the Yiddish language carries the diaspora history of the Ashkenazi Jewish people. Like most languages, the poetry of it comes through to non-Jews most clearly (or with equal obscurity) in maxims and idioms.

My favorite of these idioms is, when asked how one is doing, “Lign in drerd un bakn baygl” – “I’m lying in the ground and baking bagels.”

That doesn’t sound so bad? Take it apart for a moment-

Why are you lying in the ground? Because you are dead.
You are dead and making bagels- meaning you are in your grave, next to a boiling kettle of water and a fiery bread oven. Meanwhile, you must mix dough, shape it, and bake bagels that you cannot eat (remember, you’re dead,) sell or give away (because everyone around you is also dead.)

So with one phrase, Yiddish gives us an efficient way to say “I feel ground under by endless, pointless, miserable labor and not even death can save me.”

Animated GIF of a  crying man in a hoodie with the word “Mood” superimposed ove r it

I get the feeling that the idea of making bagels being an infernal punishment came from non-bakers (though wasting them certainly merits one,) because like most breadbaking, making bagels is a soothing experience for me. Not just the handling of dough, but the handling of the past, and a “hole” lot of stories.

Stories Full of Holes

Like most typically “Jewish” food in America, bagels were brought to North America by Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants arriving from Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Russia. (This is distinct from the Sephardic Jews, who trace themselves back to North Africa, Spain, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.)

The word itself originates from Middle High German beygl, meaning “ring.” There are plenty of theories and stories about why bagels are made with a hole in the middle and why they involve the significantly unusual step of boiling just prior to the bake, but what we know for sure is that both characteristics don’t just bake bagels characteristic.

They make them POSSIBLE.

Bagel dough is dense and thick. To make a bagel of an enjoyable size, that involves a lot of dough to push through the Ten Steps from flour to finished product- and dense doughs aren’t easy to bake completely. The outside may be perfect, but the middle still raw. If you left your bagels in the oven long enough for the middle to be done, the outside would be hard as a cracker or burned.

So… you get rid of the middle. By making a hole in the center, the surface area of the bagel increases. That means more of the bagel is exposed to the hot oven, and the heat doesn’t have to pass through (a.k.a. bake) quite so much dense dough.

Why the extra step of boiling? That gives the bagel is signature crisp crust and soft inside.

Boiling the bagels does two things:

1. The outside of the bagel gelatinizes in the hot water, giving the crust a “head start” in the Maillard browning that will happen in the oven. That means the outermost shell of the bagel is a little more crisp than it might otherwise be.

2. The boiling water often has something added to t facilitate that crust formation. It used to be lye (such was with classic pretzels) but now it’s usually barley malt syrup, maple syrup, or honey. The debate over which is best makes the argument over “what style barbecue is best” sound like a tea social.

That’s the science of it… the stories about the hole and the boil include theories that

  • The hole was put in so the finished bagels could have a string run through them and be suspended from the rafters, out of the reach of mice and rats.
  • The boil qualifies bagels as a pasta, and therefore not subject to the Jewish custom of ritually washing ones hands before eating bread- great for saving clean water when on the move.

Possibly the most important story bagels tell, however, is the one they symbolize in themselves; a story of assimilation and adoption.

Coming Back Around

“Music is the space between the notes.”

– Claude Debussy

There is a similar, half-joking observation that the flavor of a bagel comes from its center- the nothing inside.

Bagels were brought to America by Jewish immigrants, and quickly became everyones. Styles vary from city to city, dubbing New York City as the Best and Original. Montreal boasts a thinner, honey-water boiled variety ideal for ripping apart and toasting. Other bakeries (like those here in Portland) offer a bagel where the hole is nearly closed- ideal for bagel sandwiches and shmeers, (that is, spreads- usually cream cheese or fish-based.) New York City generally offers a structure that can go either way.

Unless you happen to get them from a Jewish Deli, though- or you get them as part of a lox platter, or with kippered salmon or whitefish salad- you are not likely to pick up your bagel and think “This is Jewish food.”

I’ve mentioned in other blog posts that “Jewish” isn’t really it’s own cuisine- it’s a compilation of dishes from other groups and nations that have been altered over time to be made kosher, cheaper, or both. For much of their history, Jews in diaspora walked a tight rope between assimilating into their new homes while maintaining their own identity as a people. Too often- even in the United States- others have been very willing to remind them of their “otherness.”

Even so, “Jewish” food and the Yiddish language were partially absorbed into American culture. While occasionally declaring the USA a “Christian nation,” that people should “go back where they came from,” and nonsense about “globalists” and international banking conspiracies- proud Americans will happily get an egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich while calling someone a “shmuck.”

It’s hypocritical and ironic… and we don’t care. Bagels are delicious. We brought them here for us, and are happy to share. As we have for millennia, we’re pleased to share our works- and more pleased to be left alone to make them.

Stay Classy,

Since I’m in a sharing mood, here’s the bagel recipe I use at home.
This recipe skips the cold, 18-hour bulk fermentation that happens after mixing- so while you won’t get quite the flavor you expect, you’ll get still-tasty bagels much more quickly.

Bagels (makes 8)

4 cups bread flour
1 Tbls sugar
1 1/2 tsps salt
1 Tbls vegetable oil
2 tsps instant yeast
3/4 – 1-1/2 cups of warm water.

Pot of water for boiling
Boiling additive (barley malt syrup is ideal, but you can use maple syrup or honey


Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. The dough should feel stiff, but add the extra water if it’s really stiff, or you can’t get all the dry flour incorporated.

Plop the dough down onto the counter, and knead for about ten minutes, or until the dough is uniform and smooth.

Cut the dough into 8 equal sized balls, and let rest for 10-20 minutes under greased plastic.

Pre heat your oven to 425 F.

Take each of the dough balls and, using two hands, roll it into a little snake on the counter. When the snake is longer than the width of your two hands, wrap it around your dominant roiling hand. The dough rope should be wrapped so the overlapping ends are together at your palm, near the start of your fingers. Now take the two overlapping ends, and use your palm to squish/roll these two ends together.

Let your bagels rest on the counter under the greased plastic for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil, and grease a large baking tray lightly. You can just rub a splash of vegetable oil and rub it around. Add your syrup or honey to the water- roughly 2 fl.oz. per quart of water. You want enough water for the bagels to float free and flip easily.

After the 20 minute wait, your bagels will start to look puffy, and it’s time to get them boiling Add as many at a time as you can to your boiling water without crowding them. Boil for about a minute, turn them over, and boil for another minute. Take them out a let dry for a minute and then place them on your oiled baking tray. Repeat until all the bagels are boiled. If you wish to top them with poppyseeds, sesame seeds, etc, now is the them to dip each side in a plate or tray of your desired topping.

Put the tray in the oven, and after 10 minutes, flip the bagels over, bake for another ten minutes; and they’re done!

Let them cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing.

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