It's easy to dismiss bagels as a why-bother sort of baking project.
After all, it has been many years since the best bagel outside New York was frozen and bagged. The proliferation of excellent bagel shops has left few corners of this country starved for quality specimens.
But exceptionally good bagels are so easy to make. With just a bit of planning and a stand mixer (or some particularly muscular arms) fresh bagels can be on the breakfast table in about 20 minutes.
Mind you, that 20 minutes comes after about an hour of mostly painless effort the night before. But what a small price for deli-style bagels hot from the oven without having to schlep to the bagel shop.
While recipes for bagels abound, Johnson & Wales University baking instructor Peter Reinhart perfected the technique for getting that deli taste and texture at home in his book, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice."
Don't be daunted by the 15-hour start-to-finish time. You do nothing for nearly 14 hours of that.
Here's what you need to know:
The chewy nature of bagels means they need a flour with a high gluten (protein) content. The best are special flours milled for bagel shops. Reinhart suggests asking to buy several pounds from your local shop.
Failing that, unbleached white bread flour works just fine. No bread flour? Testing of Reinhart's recipe with regular all-purpose flour produced wonderful bagels. Whole-wheat flour (including white whole-wheat flour) did not work well. Reinhart says he is working on a recipe specifically for whole-wheat bagels.
New Yorkers will argue that real bagels are made with real New York water.
"That's the myth they've spun really well," Reinhart says. "New York just happens to have really good water. But I don't think that's the difference" between an acceptable bagel and an exceptional one.
He does suggest using bottled spring water if your water is heavily chlorinated or particularly hard.
Bagel shops add barley malt syrup to the dough because it adds a subtle - but important - flavor. The syrup, which resembles molasses, is widely available at natural foods grocers, many supermarkets and online.
Honey is an acceptable substitute (and testing of numerous batches with honey produced great bagels). Reinhart advises against using malt powder. The powder is more powerful than the syrup and can weaken the gluten in the dough.
Bagel dough is tough stuff. You will want an oomphy stand mixer to do the kneading. Reinhart suggests checking your mixer's manual for directions on handling stiff doughs. Some machines will say to use it only on low, or let it rest every few minutes.
Reinhart says he uses the machine for the first four minutes, then finishes the dough by hand so he can get a feel for the dough.
Once the bagels are shaped, they are allowed to rise, or proof, at room temperature for 20 minutes. This generally is enough time and the bagels then can be refrigerated overnight for slow fermentation before cooking.
If you'd like to test the bagels to be sure they have proofed long enough, drop one in a bowl of cool water. If the bagels are ready, it should float within 10 seconds. If it doesn't, dry the bagel and return it to the pan for another 10 to 20 minutes.
Reinhart says it's impossible to get authentic bagel flavor without refrigerating the dough overnight. This allows the bagels to slowly ferment, which gives the natural enzymes in the dough time to release flavors.
The bagels also can be kept at this stage for two days. Consider prepping the dough Friday, then baking it in two batches, one each morning of the weekend. During testing, batches allowed to refrigerate up to four days were not significantly affected.
The first step of cooking is a boiling water bath for two minutes. Baking soda is added to the water. This alkalizes the water, which helps the bagels brown during baking. Shops use food-grade lye, but baking soda is much easier (and safer) for home use.
Once boiled, the bagels are baked in two steps. First, for five minutes at 500 F, then for a second five minutes at 450 F.
Start to finish: 15 hours (1 hour 15 minutes active)
Servings: 12 large bagels or 24 small bagels
For the sponge:
1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups unbleached white bread flour
21Ú2 cups water, room temperature
For the dough:
1Ú2 teaspoon instant yeast
33Ú4 cups unbleached white bread flour
23Ú4 teaspoons salt
1 T. barley malt syrup or honey
1 T. baking soda
Cornmeal or semolina flour, for dusting
Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher salt or other toppings
To make the sponge, in the bowl of a stand mixer combine the yeast and flour. Add the water and mix together with a spoon until it forms a sticky batter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature about 2 hours, or until foamy and bubbly. The mixture should nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is tapped on the counter.
To make the dough, set the bowl with the sponge in the mixer with the dough hook attachment. With the mixer on low, add the yeast, then 3 cups of the flour and all of the salt and malt syrup or honey. Mix on low speed until the ingredients form a ball, slowly adding remaining 3Ú4 cup flour.
Let the mixer knead the dough 6 minutes. The dough should be pliable and smooth, and feel satiny but not tacky. Add a few drops of water or a bit of flour as needed to get desired texture.
Wipe down a clean work surface with a damp cloth. Transfer the dough to the work surface, then divide into 12 pieces (for large bagels) or 24 pieces (for mini bagels).
One at a time, cup each piece in your hand and firmly press it into the counter. Move your hand in a circular fashion while pressing the dough against the table. In a short time, the dough should form a tight ball.
Cover the dough balls with a damp towel and let them rest 20 minutes. Meanwhile, line two baking pans with parchment paper. Lightly mist the parchment with cooking spray.
To shape the bagels, pick the dough pieces up one at a time and push your thumb through the center. Gently rotate your thumb around the hole to stretch it to about 21Ú2 inches wide (slightly less for smaller bagels). Try to keep the bagel evenly shaped (no thick or thin parts).
Arrange the bagels on the prepared baking sheets 2 inches apart. Mist them lightly with cooking spray, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and let them sit at room temperature another 20 minutes.
Refrigerate the bagels overnight (or up to two days).
When ready to bake the bagels, arrange the oven racks in the middle of the oven and preheat to 500 F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the baking soda. Have a slotted spoon ready.
Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently place two or three (or as many as will comfortably fit) into the boiling water. After 1 minute, flip the bagels and boil another minute. If you prefer chewy bagels, extend boiling to 2 minutes per side.
While the bagels boil, sprinkle the same parchment-lined pans with cornmeal or semolina flour. As the bagels finish boiling, return them to the baking sheets. If you want to top the bagels, do it as soon as they come out of the water.
When all the bagels have been boiled, place the pans in the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Rotate the pans 180 degrees, switching shelves, lower heat to 450 F and bake an additional 5 minutes, or until they are a light golden brown.
Let the bagels cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.
• Recipe from Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice," Ten Speed Press, 2001.