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Making bagels in the dawn kitchen

Bagels going into boiling water
Elspeth Hay
Bagels going into boiling water

There aren’t many things that will get me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning. But bagels—or really just the prospect of learning how to make them from Ellery Althaus of Wellfleet’s Bagel Hound—is one. Recently, I stood in his shop while the windows were still dark, staring a pile of dough.

“The day before, we will mix a dough of essentially flour, water, yeast, a couple of special ingredients,” Althaus said. “We’ll let it rest overnight.”

And then, normally, someone comes in at one in the morning to start shaping it! But thankfully we’re here late just to do a small batch.

“This is a very casual bagel baking time,” Althaus said. “Six o’clock is too late to make bagels really.”

All right. Well, let’s do it anyways.

Our first job was to break the dough into pieces.

“We weigh them into portions of about four and a half to five ounces,” Althaus explained.

“And that's ideal bagel size?” I ask.

“You know, there’s controversy about what the perfect size is. People will tell you that the New York Bagel has gotten heavier by at least an ounce. They are like everything else in America, getting bigger as they go.”

Elspeth Hay

Ellery likes a bagel that fits in the palm of his hand as he rolls the dough. He makes each piece into a ball, pokes his thumb through the center, and then sets them aside to rise a little more. Then, it’s time to boil the bagels.

It’s such an unusual step for a baked good.

“It is,” Althaus said. “And it’s what really makes a bagel a bagel.”

The science of this is kind of tricky, but basically boiling the bagels makes the starch on the outside of the dough gel and form a barrier, creating something like crust before they ever even go into the oven. And the bagels also get some flavor from this step, depending on what you boil them in.

“It’s one of the differentiations of different bagel shops, is what they boil their bagels in,” Althaus said. “Some use baking soda, some use salt, some use sugar, some use barley malt syrup that New York bagels are famous for, and that gives them that sweetness. If you get a Montreal-style bagel, they’re usually boiled in honey. We use molasses.”

I always thought boiling bagels was key to why they’re so chewy, but Ellery says this has to do with the dough itself.

“What gives it the chewiness really is the high gluten flour,” Althaus said. “It is the opposite of a low-gluten item. Some places use high gluten flour and then add pure gluten to it. We have a sign on the window that says, ‘warning high gluten zone,’ because there’s no part of this operation that isn’t gluten intensive.”

Ellery Althaus at Wellfleet’s Bagel Hound
Elspeth Hay
Ellery Althaus at Wellfleet’s Bagel Hound

Each high gluten bagel gets about a minute in boiling water, and then, as they come out…

“So now, now I’ll drench these bagels, which is basically a matter of taking the wet bagel and throwing them into a pile of seeds,” Althaus said as he demonstrated.

We’re making everything bagels—the best—which means they’re coated in the usual mix of poppyseeds, sesame seeds, caraway, little onion and garlic bits and also in Ellery’s kitchen, pepitas, or pumpkin seeds.

“Some places, in order to try to get their seeds to stick more, which is the bagel-makers’ hill to die on, they will use egg wash. But we always wanted to keep them vegan—and I didn’t find that it made any difference in keeping the seeds on. So now, now these are going into the oven for about 15 minutes at about 500 degrees.”

Even though we were done with the dough and the boiling, the waiting was the hardest part. The kitchen filled with the amazing yeasty smell of dough baking and the nutty scent of seeds toasting until finally the bagels came out of the oven golden brown chewy and still hot—just as the sun came up.

This is Ellery Althaus' favorite bagel recipe for home cooks. It comes from the cookbook Modern Jewish Baker by Shannon Sarna. Yields 8 to 10 bagels.


2 tsp dry yeast

½ tsp sugar

1 ½ cups lukewarm water

4 cups unbleached bread flour

2 tsp + pinch of salt

1 heaping tbs + 2 tsp malt barley


Place the yeast and sugar in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. Add the lukewarm water and stir gently to mix. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, add flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 heaping tablespoons malt barley in a stand mixer fitted with a hook attachment.

Once the yeast-water mixture has started bubbling on top, add to mixer bowl and start mixing on low speed. When the dough begins to come together, 3 to 4 minutes, raise speed to medium-low.

Keep mixing for another 5 to 7 minutes, until dough is elastic, shiny and dense. Remove from bowl and allow to rest 1 minute.

Divide the dough into 8 to 10 small sections. Each section should measure 3 to 4 ounces (use a food scale for precision), depending on how large you want your bagels.

Roll each section into a ball and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicone baking mat. Cover for 10 to 15 minutes.

Shape your bagels: Roll each piece of dough into a 3- to 4-inch rope, tapering ends just slightly.

One at a time, take the ends of the rope and overlap them just slightly, pinch and then roll with the palm of your hands. If your shape isn’t quite uniform, roll the other side of the bagel by placing your palm inside the middle and roll gently until desired shape.

Place rolled bagels back on the baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat and cover with plastic wrap. Place in the fridge 12 to 18 hours.

When ready to boil and bake, place a pizza stone on the top rack of your oven. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Allow pizza stone to sit in heated oven for 30 minutes.

Bring a wide pot of water to a low boil over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons malt barley and a pinch of salt to the pot.

Do not start boiling your bagels until your oven has completely preheated because once the bagels boil for 1 to 2 minutes, you want to get the bagels into the oven immediately. Also do not take the bagels out of the fridge too soon, or they may spread and lose their shape.

Once the water is boiling, reduce heat just slightly so it’s a robust simmer. Add the puffed side of the bagel into the water first (flatter side should be up). After 30 to 60 seconds, flip the bagel using a spider kitchen tool, and let sit another 30 to 60 seconds.

Using your spider once again, remove bagel from water, allow excess water to drip back into the pot, and place the bagel flatter side down into the oven directly onto the heated pizza stone. If you are going to add toppings, add them quickly as you put the bagel into the oven.

After 10 minutes, flip the bagels onto the other side.

Bake another 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how crispy you want the outside of your bagel. Allow to cool and serve immediately.




An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.