Here’s everything you need to know about the Polish treat that took New York by storm.
1. New York and Montreal Have a Delicious Rivalry.
When most Americans think of bagels, they envision the New York delicacy. New York bagels are big with small holes. They’re boiled briefly before they're baked—this step helps them emerge from the oven chewy beneath their firm exteriors.
But New York isn’t the only North American bagel hotbed. Montreal-style bagels are delicious in their own right. Canada’s competing bagels are smaller and denser than their New York counterparts. They pack in extra eggs while swapping out salt for honey in both the boiling water and (usually) the dough itself, which leads to bagels that are more sweet than savory. Montreal bagels are baked in wood-fired ovens that lend the finished product a distinct crunch and char—but don’t even think about asking anyone in Montreal to toast your bagel.
2. They’re the Perfect Push Present.
The earliest mention of bagels comes in the 1610 Community Regulations of Krakow, Poland, which indicated that women who had recently given birth should be presented with bagels as a suitable gift.
3. If it’s not round, it’s not a bagel ...
The word “bagel” is derived from the German word “bougel,” meaning “bracelet,” by way of the Yiddish “beygl”—so while innovative bakers can let their imaginations run wild when it comes to flavors, the shape isn’t negotiable. “Round with a hole” is an integral part of a bagel’s identity.
4. ... but as long as it’s round, anything goes.
Because there’s no legal “standard of identity” that dictates what a so-called bagel must contain in order to be called a “bagel,” bakers who lack the proper respect for the bagel-making tradition can call any old bit of ring-shaped bread a bagel. Watch out for those imposters.
5. Under no circumstances should bagels be confused with bialys.
Bagels and bialys are both yeasty, circular breads of Polish origin, but bialys omit the all-important boiling step necessary to produce a true bagel. Moreover, in place of a bagel’s hole, a bialy instead has a slight depression filled with a mixture of onions, garlic, or poppy seeds. It’s delicious, but it’s no bagel.
6. Bagels’ quick preparation is a virtue.
Bagels have been closely tied to the Jewish community since Polish and Russian immigrants brought the Eastern European staple to the New World. The bagel’s quick baking time made it a favorite in Jewish households on Saturday night after the Sabbath and its ban on cooking ended. With minimal baking time standing between the observant and hot, fresh bagels, choosing a post-Sabbath meal was easy.
7. Their recipe was once a trade secret.
To protect immigrant workers attempting to meet New York’s growing demand for bagels, an International Beigel Bakers' Union emerged in the early 1900s. Beigel Bakers' Local 338 was a particularly notable chapter—its 300 Manhattan bagel-makers banded together to keep their tradition to themselves. Only sons of current members could be offered spots in the union, and the group conducted its meetings almost entirely in Yiddish. The union’s monopoly on bagel baking ended only in the 1960s, with the invention of the automated bagel machine.
8. Old-fashioned bagel baking was a four-man job.
Due to the bagel’s unique multi-step cooking process, bagel bakeries usually employed men to produce the goods assembly line-style: Two men rolled and shaped the dough, a “kettleman” boiled the bagels, and an “oven man” ensured they were baked to perfection.
9. Bagels have made it to space.
In June 2008, Canadian-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff blasted off on a voyage to the International Space Station with 18 sesame bagels as part of his personal cargo allowance. The bagels came from his cousin’s bakery in Montreal—which means there’s still a chance for someone to bring the first New York-style bagels into space. Get on it, astronauts!
10. Americans warmed up to the frozen version.
While there’s almost no occasion on which fresh-baked isn’t preferable to store-bought, sometimes a bag of bagels from the supermarket’s freezer aisle is the only available option. For that particular convenience, thank Harry and Murray Lender and Florence Sender, who together pioneered mass production and freezer storage of the doughy foodstuff in the 1960s. Even more ingenious was their decision to pre-slice the bagels for easy preparation. Smart marketing introduced the previously “ethnic” food to a wider American consumer base, and bagel-eaters have never looked back.
11. You may not need to order a separate coffee.
Coffee and bagels are a classic combo, but if one inventor gets his way, your morning bagel will also give you your jolt of caffeine. In 2007 Durham, N.C. molecular scientist and coffee shop owner Robert Bohannon debuted the Buzzed Bagel, a creation that can pack as much caffeine as a five-ounce cup of drip coffee.