As I described in Rise of the Bagel at Interesting Thing of the Day, I’m a big bagel fan from way back, but I can’t get over the way some people insist on treating a bagel like a piece of bread or a dinner roll. It’s a wonderful, unique food with a distinctively crunchewy texture, but if you don’t know how to enjoy it properly, you miss all the goodness that makes a bagel a bagel. Here are my rules for good bageling:
- Buy your bagels from experts. The best place to buy bagels, of course, is a Jewish bakery, preferably one that only sells bagels. Failing that, at least make sure your bagels are freshly baked, and don’t be embarrassed to ask if they were boiled first. It matters. A lot. All things being equal, I’d trust a mom-and-pop store to get my bagels right before I’d trust a chain, but there are a few exceptions.
- Always eat your bagels on the same day they were baked. You may be able to keep a loaf of store-bought bread around for a week and still find it edible, but bagels have an extremely short shelf life. With each passing hour they get drier and harder. If your bagel is more than 12 hours old, consider using it as a doorstop or a weapon, but not as food. For best results, eat bagels while they’re still warm from the oven.
- Test your bagel for freshness. A well-made bagel is shiny and hard (but not crispy) on the outside, very soft and chewy on the inside. Squeeze the bagel lightly but firmly between your fingertips. It should squish almost all the way through. If you meet a lot of resistance, you’ve got an old bagel.
- Do not eat bagels that have been frozen. If your bagel was frozen, chances are it was baked considerably longer ago than 12 hours. Even if it went straight from the oven to the freezer this morning, freezing has the remarkable tendency to dry out foods. And moisture, remember, is the main thing that makes a good bagel. Sorry, Lender’s fans, but frozen bagels just don’t taste like the real thing.
- Do not toast your bagels. I know a lot of people disagree with me here, but think about it: your bagel has already been boiled and baked. Do you really need to cook it a third time? Well, if it’s a day or two old (or if it was frozen), then of course you need to toast it, because that softens it on the inside even as it makes the outside crunchy. But it also dries it out further, and almost completely eliminates the chewy texture. Fresh bagels not only don’t need toasting, they suffer when toasted. If you’ve gotten into the toasting habit because all you ever ate were frozen bagels, see what a really fresh one tastes like without. You probably won’t want to go back.
- Adorn your bagel lovingly with cream cheese. Or don’t. Toppings are a personal matter, and with all these other rules to remember I don’t want to burden you further. But please consider: a bagel is not merely a vehicle for transporting cream cheese into your mouth. Too much of any topping and you miss experiencing the True Bagel Essence.