It’s nice to know that some questions have answers. David Boyum handles my “why-can’t-you-get-a-real-bagel-outside-New York” question deftly, offering a mix of supply-side and demand-side answers:
From a baking perspective, three things distinguish a dense, chewy, and flavorful bagel from soft and bland impostors.
1. Authentic bagels are made with the stiffest of bread doughs. The wate-to-flour ratio is normally 50 – 55%, about 10 percentage points less than for ordinary bread dough. Also, the bagels are formed after a minimum of proofing. By contrast, faux bagels are made with ordinary dough after a significant rise.
2. True bagels are retarded overnight before cooking. The long, slow, cold fermentation dramatically heightens and improves flavor. Legendary baker Peter Reinhart says that making a bagel without overnight retarding is like drinking a fine wine before it has aged.
3. Real bagels are boiled before baking. Counterfeit bagels are simply baked in a steam-injection oven. Boiling kills the yeast and cooks the dough on a bagel’s exterior, which prevents the dough from plumping up during subsequent baking.
Now why is it so hard to find a proper bagel outside of New York? I assume it’s the joint influence of mass production and lowbrow tastes.
Bagels are, in a sense, a victim of their own success. Efforts to mass produce bagels undermined the costly traditions of hand forming, overnight retarding, and kettle boiling. Bagel forming machines, the elimination of retarding, and the introduction of steam-injection ovens greatly reduced production costs. Moreover, Reinhart suggests, authentic bagels are something of an acquired taste, and most people who didn’t grow up on the real thing prefer softer, easier-to-chew bagels.
Julia (of Sisyphus Shrugged) suggests that the main demand-side reason is that many Americans are averse to chewing their food, but adds another I hadn’t thought of: real bagels go stale almost at once, and a stale real bagel is completely inedible.
Knowing why I can’t get a real bagel isn’t an adequate substitute for being able to get a real bagel (nor is Jacob Levy’s report that getting a real bagel is increasingly hard even in New York), but it’s at least a consolation.