The Best Seasoning for Bagels, According to Scientists – Serious Eats

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There are many opinions on what the best bagel seasoning is. Do you like salt or sugar on your bagel? The debate has raged for years in New York City, and no one has come to a consensus as of yet. But now, thanks to scientists at the Center for Advanced Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, we finally have some answers.

The answer? Everything. No matter how you like your bagels, it turns out that any combination of toppings is better than plain.

Seasoning a bagel is as essential as it is divisive. There are many schools of thought on the perfect way to do it, but one thing everyone can agree on is that the optimal bagel seasoning is all about balance.

The basic formula for bagel spice is this: 1 part onion powder + 2 parts garlic powder + 1 part salt + 1 part everything else. What does “everything else” entail? It’s up to you. You can add in your favorite blend of herbs and spices or keep it simple with a touch of sugar. But if you want to maximize the deliciousness factor, there’s one ingredient that needs to be included in your mix regardless:

What makes a bagel good? When it comes to science, all roads lead to water. No matter how you slice it, the best bagels are made with high-protein bread flour, salt, and malt, according to this Serious Eats article by Kenji Lopez-Alt.

He explains that the classic New York City bagel contains a lot of malt syrup. Malt provides the sugar for fermentation and gives the bagels their flavor and chewiness. The malt syrup is boiled with baking soda before it is added to the dough to give the bagels their shiny brown crust.

Spices are also essential. Salt helps the yeast grow, while onion and garlic powder add flavor. To get the perfect seasoning on your bagel, apply the onion and garlic powder before you boil the bagels in water and then bake them at a very high temperature. Add poppy seeds after you bake them so they stick better to your bagel’s surface (a trick López-Alt learned from a French chef).

To make your own flavored salt for your homemade bagels, combine 1/4 cup coarse salt with 2 tablespoons of chopped rosemary and 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper in a spice grinder or food processor before sprinkling it on your dough.*

I’ve long been a purist when it comes to my bagels. I like them plain and simple: untoasted, with a thin, glossy coating of cream cheese. That’s what I expect when I order a bagel—a chewy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside, doughy delight.

Taste matters, of course; but texture is equally important. A bagel must be dense enough to prevent the soft interior from turning into a soggy mess. This is why I was skeptical about all the toppings that have been popping up in bakeries lately: rainbow bagels with candy sprinkles, “everything”-seasoned treats with poppy seeds and sesame seeds and dried onion flakes, and an array of flavored cream cheeses.

Bagels already have so many toppings baked right into them—what makes these new ones any better? Well, after some experimentation at home, I can tell you that these new additions are indeed better than the old standards. But they’re not necessarily better than no topping at all. Here’s why.

The bagel is a staple food of the New York metropolitan area (and, by extension, much of the U.S.). It is also a sort of benchmark for fast food quality. A bagel that tastes like a bagel is something we can all agree upon. A bad bagel, on the other hand, can be so offensive as to cause an existential crisis.

The problem with bagels is that they are very hard to make well. And once you’ve made one perfectly, it’s hard to remember how you did it. We started experimenting with different recipes and techniques to figure out how to consistently make great bagels at home.

The best technique turned out to be surprisingly simple: boiling them in honey water before baking. The honey water both adds flavor and gives the crust a subtle sweetness that complements the savory flavors of the dough. Boiling also helps the crust set slightly before baking, resulting in a chewier texture that’s especially good for sandwiches.

The top-rated comment is a lengthy discussion of the chemistry involved, but the simplest answer is: no one knows.

Even the most basic bagel ingredients are not very well understood. For example, salt and sugar are added to enhance flavor, but no one knows exactly how these ingredients work. To explain how an ingredient affects a food, you need to know what it does in the food—and that requires knowing the food’s composition to begin with. For example, you might think that salt enhances sweetness because it makes the sweet taste stronger; but if you don’t know that the sweet taste comes from sugar in the first place, then you don’t know why adding salt makes things sweeter.

This problem is even worse for bagels, which tend to have more than 20 ingredients including artificial flavorings such as baking soda and natural flavorings such as malt. In fact, one of the reasons that no one has been able to figure out what makes a good bagel is that there seem to be so many good ones—the standard cookbook definition of a great food is something that everyone agrees on, but some people like cinnamon raisin bagels while others prefer onion—so it’s hard to compare them scientifically.

The saltiness, the creaminess, the sweetness—there’s no denying that bagels are delicious. And there’s no denying that they’re so much more flavorful than, say, a piece of toast. But why?

To find out just what makes a bagel taste so good, we had to go straight to the source: bagel makers. We spoke with baking expert Flo Braker (author of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking) and Mario Pei, author of The Story of Language. They explained that before being baked into a bagel, dough goes through an extensive mixing process. “The dough is supposed to ferment for an hour or two,” Braker says. “It gives it a lot of flavor.”

Pei adds: “In [the] Middle Ages, when they were not sure if the bread was going to rise, they used ashes from the firewood in it to make the bread lighter.” That’s right—the word bagel comes from the Yiddish word beygel , which means “ring” and refers to its shape. The ring shape was created by boiling or baking them on rods in ovens or over fires as early as the 13th century.

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