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Now reading How to Make a Better Bagel

How to Make a Better Bagel

From Melissa Weller of Sadelle's.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #17: The Breakfast Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

Sadelle’s—part bagel shop, part appetizing restaurant, a sesame-seed hurricane of New York City hype—is chaos: towers of smoked fish whiz by, a hungry line snakes onto the street, an armada of servers and bussers attempts to subdue the crowds but do not always succeed. In the eye of the storm is Melissa Weller, Manhattan’s newest bagel sensei. She is calm and professorial as she explains her path to creating the bagel that inspired the crush surrounding her.Ryan Healey

thought I wanted to be a pastry chef until one of my first restaurant jobs at Babbo, where I realized I just wanted to bake bread. I bought a copy of Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery and I made every single bread in it. The bagel recipe turned out especially well and it was easy, which surprised me. I would make bagels for friends, but didn’t really do anything with them professionally until I got to Per Se.

At Per Se I was responsible for family meal on Fridays. It was incredibly stressful—everything at Per Se was stressful. But when I put out the bagels, everyone went berserk. Bagels for family meal? No way! It took off. Jonathan Benno, who was the chef there at the time, decided to get involved. He made matzo-ball soup and egg salad, and Per Se on Fridays turned into a big Jewish deli. Word got around that Friday family meal was special, so Thomas Keller stopped by. I remember watching in fear as he picked up one of my bagels, squeezed it, and put it down without saying anything. It was such a relief: he found nothing to criticize. When I first started making family meal, forty people would show up. By the time I left, it was more like eighty. That was the first sign that I was onto something.

In the spring of 2013, I got an email from an acquaintance who thought Jeff Zalaznick (one of the partners, along with chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, in Major Food Group) would like my bagels. I dropped some off at his apartment in SoHo. By the end of the summer, we hatched the plan to open Sadelle’s.

Two years later, we’re finally open. In the interim, I had ample time to finally master the bagel process. I begged my way into bakeries across the city to test out different types of ovens (and settled on an American-made revolving-tray Fish model); experimented with salts and peppers and seed mixtures; and finally realized that controlling for time and temperature throughout the bagel-making process is the key to a great bagel. This is what I’ve learned.

1.  At 3:30 a.m., our delivery driver picks up the uncooked bagels from our commissary in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and drives them over to our store in SoHo. Temperature is the most important factor here: the bagels have to stay at 40 degrees or colder the entire way. The dough will start to proof if it gets any warmer. Over–proofing makes for fluffy, doughy bagels, which is not what we’re going for here.

2. The first baker gets here at 4 a.m., turns on our oven, and fills the kettle with twenty-five gallons of water and eight ounces of malt syrup. We tried buying malt syrup in bulk, because we use so much of it, but nothing matched the Eden Organic Barley Malt Syrup we had used during recipe testing. Everything else turned out to be corn syrup with a bit of malt in it. Buying twenty-ounce bottles of malt syrup is expensive but we don’t have a choice. The malt gives our bagels their color and shine.

3. I get in an hour later to start boiling and baking the bagels. Temperature and time are the most important factors in this whole process. To control for both, we take the bagels out of the walk-in fridge one tray at a time. If we let them sit out, they begin to proof.

4. As soon as they come from the walk-in, we slide them into the kettle to boil for thirty seconds. Boiling is really what makes a bagel a bagel—they develop their crust from the process.

5. These are salt-and-pepper bagels, so I sprinkle salt on top as soon as they come out of the kettle. Then I line them up on burlap-covered wooden boards, four to a board. We put them on the boards top-side-down so we can dry out the bottoms before flipping them directly onto the oven racks. If we didn’t, they’d stick to the oven and we’d have to scrape them off.

We use an Icelandic salt for the topping. I wanted a salt with a higher mineral content than Maldon. If we were making the poppy, everything, or sesame bagels, we’d put them into a container of toppings so they get fully covered. It’s a technique I borrowed from Sullivan Street Bakery.

We slide the boards into the oven, and after three minutes, we pause the rotation of the oven to see if the bagels have dried out. We go by touch—if they feel sticky, they’re not ready. If they’re dry, we flip the bagels off the burlap directly onto the oven racks where they bake for about twenty minutes at 450 degrees.

6. I know the bagels are ready when they’re bulbous and golden brown. I like them to have a nice crust—enough so you can feel it when you bite in, but not enough that it shatters. We let them cool for a few minutes on wooden racks and then stack them on a dowel before bringing them up front.

I supervise the process for a few hours, then head to our commissary where work for tomorrow’s bagels is underway.

7. The ingredient list for the salt-and-pepper bagel is very simple: Sir Lancelot high-gluten flour from King Arthur, yeast, barley malt syrup, our twelve-hour sourdough starter, and butcher’s pepper. It’s the only bagel we make without sugar in the dough. The others have just a bit for sweetness but we left it out by accident when we were testing the salt-and-pepper. By the time we realized our mistake, we were used to the taste without it, so we kept it that way. We use high-gluten flour because we want chewy bagels. The butcher’s pepper came from a brioche I tested at Per Se. It was too spicy to make it on the menu there, but here it’s perfect: coarse enough so you get the nuance of black pepper without overpowering whatever toppings people add.

8. Nancy Silverton’s bagels in Breads from the La Brea -Bakery have a sourdough base and I’ve never made bagels any other way. Our bagels aren’t overly sour—the starter just adds another dimension of flavor to the overall package. Plus it forms little bubbles on the surface when it bakes, which gives the bagels more character than perfectly smooth and shiny ones.

Our wild-yeast starter takes twelve hours to ripen, for the yeast to be fully active and ready to make bagels. Once it’s at that stage, we mix a portion of it with water and fresh flour, and twelve hours later, that batch will be ready to bake with—and seed the next batch of starter.

We add the dry ingredients, sourdough starter, and 50-degree water to the mixer and beat it for three minutes on second speed and three minutes on third speed. Again, temperature—even of the water—is of critical importance: any colder and the dough won’t be fermented enough, any warmer and it will be over-proofed. We want the dough to come up to 76 degrees by the time it’s done mixing. Finding the mixing time was a result of trial and error—if you undermix the dough then the bagels won’t have chew, but if you overmix, they become impossible to eat.

9. When the bagels come out of the mixer, it’s a race against the clock. We have twenty minutes to portion them, roll them, and get them into the walk-in before they proof too much.

Most of our bagels have a weight of 110 grams; our onion, cinnamon raisin, and pumpernickel raisin are all 125 grams to account for the mix-ins. This gives us a bagel that can accommodate toppings without being overwhelming.

10. I use my fingertips to flatten the dough into a square and then roll it up into a very tight log. It’s important to get a lot of tension in the roll—that’s the secret to why our bagels are so round. If you roll it without getting the right tension, the bagels will be flat when they bake.

Making sure to keep tension in the dough, I use my palms to roll the dough into an 8-inch log.

11. I wrap the log around my hand, and squeeze the ends together in my palm, then roll the crease against the work surface to make sure it’s sealed.

12. The bagels get loaded onto baker’s boards dusted with rye flour, and whisked into the walk-in where they chill at 40 degrees until the delivery driver picks them up at 3:30 a.m., and the process begins again.