What Are Bagels? What Makes a Roll a Bagel?

How Are Bagels Made?

Close-up of bagels
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Bagels are one of those fun foods that are steeped in Americana. Known in some areas as cement doughnuts, bagels have long been a staple in New York delicatessens and a favorite of the Jewish community. It's said that bagels made their first appearance in New York in the late 19th century. Once relegated as a bland breakfast food given flavor by the addition of lox and cream cheese, there are now more bagel flavors than you can shake a stick at.

The bagel has also risen in up the culinary ladder to become a popular base for sandwiches.

But What Exactly Is a Bagel? 

From a purist and traditional standpoint, a bagel is a round yeast roll with a hole in the middle. The shape is important — the name translates to "bracelet" in German. There's no egg in the dough, and malt is used in place of sugar.

A bagel is made by first cooking it in water — very hot boiling water — for one or two minutes to lock in its flavor. Then it's browned in the oven to create that hard, delectable crust. This process produces a dense, chewy roll with a crisp exterior, no doubt giving rise to the name "cement doughnut." But boiling is mostly an American tradition. Bagels made in the Middle East sometimes skip this step. 

Some old-time bagel makers insist that the product should be allowed to sit for up to 24 hours before consumption to capture the full spectrum of its taste and flavors.

This can be a tricky process because bagels are at first delightfully spongy, but they can quickly turn tough and jaw-breaking chewy when they're exposed to air. 

Of course, bagels have evolved over the years to include not only egg to make the roll a bit lighter, but also spices, herbs and fruit to give added flavor.

Water Bagels 

A common misconception is that "water bagels" are all bagels that are cooked in water, but by definition, all American bagels are cooked in water then browned in the oven. Technically, water bagels are those made with water in the dough, specifically with no egg or flavoring additions. New York is said to be famous for its bagels because of the unique chemical composition of its water. This type of bagel is something of a throwback in this day and age. 

Nutritional Information 

Bagels are not ideal for those on low-carb diets — at least unless they've made a determined decision to cheat. The average bagel carries with it over 40 grams of carbohydrates. Bagels also tend to be high in salt. The good news? They're relatively low in calories when compared to other breakfast baked goods like pastries. Depending on the type of bagel you select, its sugar content may be minimal. Of course, those made with berries, fruits and nuts can up the sugar and/or calorie quotient considerably. 

More about Bagels and Bagel Recipes

Bagel Storage and Slicing Tips
Bagel History
Bagel Recipes