One of the defining features of a bagel is its chewy, shiny skin, which forms when the bagel is briefly boiled before it’s baked. In this post, we’re taking a closer look at the poaching step, its effect on the bagel’s crust, and how it gives a bagel its characteristic appearance and texture.
Goal: To see and taste differences in bagels poached for different amounts of time
Recipe: Adapted from How to Make Homemade Bagels by Baker Bettie
Method: Prepare bagels. Poach for 0–9 minutes. Bake, cool, and taste.
Results: After the poaching step, as the bagels were poached for longer, we noticed
– Taller dough
– Yellower dough
– More water absorption
After baking, as the bagels were poached for longer, we noticed
– Darker, shinier crust
– Even height
– Denser crumb and chewier texture
– Airier crust
– Chewier crust
Conclusions: The bagel absorbs water during the poaching step, gelatinizing starches and forming a skin. This skin can expand in the oven to create a beautifully browned, dense bagel with a chewy interior and shiny crust.
Ingredients and Equipment
- 60g + 360g Gold Medal bread flour, divided
- 76g + 227g water, divided
- 1 package Baker’s Corner instant yeast, divided
- 12g Baker’s Corner granulated sugar
- 2 tsp + 1 tsp Stonemill iodized salt, divided
- 1 Tbsp Arm & Hammer baking soda
- Large saucepan
- Parchment paper squares for individual bagels
- Baking sheet lined with parchment paper
Making the bagels
- The night before baking, combine 60g bread flour, 76g room-temperature water, and 1 pinch instant yeast. Cover the preferment and let it sit at room temperature overnight. Fold the yeast packet closed and refrigerate the remainder in an airtight plastic bag.
- The next day, combine the remaining 360g bread flour, 227g lukewarm water, and yeast along with the preferment. Knead by hand until smooth, then add the sugar and 2 tsp salt. Knead until no longer sticky. Cover and rise for 1 hour.
- Split the dough into 8 pieces (84–85g each). Cover and rest for 10 minutes. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 425°F and fill the saucepan with water. Add the remaining 1 tsp salt and 1 Tbsp baking soda to the water and bring to a simmer.
- Shape each piece of dough into a bagel, place on individual squares of parchment, and let rise for 10 more minutes.
- When the bagels are ready, lower three at a time into the saucepan and simmer for 3, 6, or 9 minutes, flipping every 90 seconds. As each bagel finishes poaching, weigh it and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with three more bagels. The remaining two bagels are not poached (0 min).
- Bake the bagels in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Weigh each bagel, cool, slice, and taste.
To better understand some of these results, I suggest reading through the last few posts about starch, especially the introduction and the one specifically about starch in flour. Toward the end of the flour post, we discuss the effects of boiling dough before baking it.
After poaching, before baking
As you can see, the longer the bagels boiled, the taller they became. This makes sense because the water heats the dough and cooks it. Just as gases expand to raise our baked goods in the heat of the oven, gases expand in the heat of the boiling water to give the bagels greater rise. The longer the bagels poach, the warmer they get, the more the gases expand, the taller they get.
The bagels also darkened in color the longer they cooked. At high temperatures, browning reactions begin to take place, and the longer the bagels boiled, the more time they had to brown. Also, notice that the poaching liquid contains baking soda, and remember that baking soda helps baked goods darken by encouraging the Maillard browning reaction. As the bagels boiled for longer, they absorbed more baking soda, which helped them brown more.
More water absorption
How did the bagels absorb baking soda? The baking soda dissolves into the poaching water, and as the bagels cook, starch in the dough absorbs the boiling water along with the baking soda. And the longer the bagels boil, the more water they absorb. After poaching, the bagels gained an average of 10 to 23 grams depending on how long they were boiled. For a bagel that was originally 84 grams, that’s about a 12 to 27 percent increase in weight just from water absorption!
Not only do the starches at the surface of the bagel absorb water, but they also undergo a process called gelatinization. Gelatinized starches thicken liquids, which is why you might find a goopy substance under your bagels. They’re also sticky, so the poached bagels will stick even to parchment paper. Finally, gelatinized starches develop a thin film, like what you’d find dried to the sides of a pot of pasta water. These properties of gelatinized starch contribute to the texture and appearance of the baked bagels.
Darker, shinier crust
As you can see, after baking, the contrast between the poached bagels and the 0-minute bagels was stark. The 0-minute bagels did not brown, and they were not shiny like the poached bagels. Because the 0-minute bagels were not poached, they did not absorb any baking soda. Without it, the 0-minute bagels browned much more slowly than the poached bagels, and they look pale in comparison.
Furthermore, the poached bagels were shiny, but the 0-minute bagels were not. The shine comes from the gelatinized starches on the surface of the poached bagels. The smooth film they create reflects light to give the bagels a shiny finish. (Steamed breads are shiny for the same reason.)
Interestingly, although the bagels were different heights when they entered the oven, they ended up similarly sized. This suggests that their crusts had different degrees of flexibility after poaching.
Since the boiling water essentially cooks the bagel, the longer the bagels are cooked, the more rigid their outer crust. The crusts of the 3-minute bagels remain flexible, so as the insides of the bagels heat up and expand in the oven, the crust accommodates the growing volume. On the other hand, the crusts of the 9-minute bagels are too solid to expand much. So even though the insides of the bagel try to expand as they get hotter, they’re contained by the outer crust.
Denser crumb and chewier texture
You can see this trend of increased rigidity and decreased expansion in the crumb of the bagels. If we focus on the crumb of the bagels between the outer crust and the center hole, we see that it becomes denser as the bagels were poached for longer. The crumb also reflects the texture of the bagels. The longer they were boiled, the less they expanded, the denser the crumb and the chewier the texture. Although none of the bagels were unpleasantly tough, there was a range of chewiness.
The textures of the bagels may also have reflected their differences in moisture content. Moister breads often taste chewier. The bagels lost water as they baked, but the amount they lost also varied with their poaching time. Relative to their original, unpoached weight, the 0-minute bagels lost the most moisture. And since the poaching step added water to the bagels as they cooked, the 9-minute bagels actually ended up heavier than they started, with an average 6 percent increase in weight. So because the bagels absorb water when they’re poached, their final baked texture may be moister and chewier.
If we look at the crumb at the surface of the bagels where they touched the water, we see that the crumb becomes more open the longer the bagels were poached. In fact, the 9-minute bagels have air pockets along the crust. I could feel the air—those bagels felt squishier than the others as I picked them up and sliced them. They didn’t feel like bagels. They also looked lumpy.
Why did this happen? As the bagels boiled, they also cooked. The 9-minute bagels were poached for so long that the dough near the surface cooked completely, solidifying the dough around large, expanded air bubbles. This structure persisted through the oven and became squishy bagel crusts. In the other poached bagels, the dough at the surface didn’t completely cook through. (We also know this because those bagels expanded in the oven.) The dough around the bubbles collapsed when we moved the bagels out of the hot water. When we put the bagels into the oven, the bubbles began to expand again. But since the dough closer to the crust was already partially cooked, it wasn’t as malleable, so the bubbles couldn’t expand as much as they did in the 0-minute bagels. As a result, in the 3- and 6-minute bagels, the crumb near the crust is denser than both the 0- and 9-minute bagels.
The poaching time also affected the texture of the crust. The crusts of the boiled bagels were chewier than the crust of the 0-minute bagel, but poaching time did not directly correlate with the chewiness. For example, because the 9-minute bagel crusts were airier, they did not taste tougher than the other crusts. However, the crusts of the 6-minute bagels were marginally chewier than the crusts of the 3-minute bagels.
More flavorful taste
Lastly, because the poaching liquid contained salt and baking soda, the poached bagels were more flavorful than the 0-minute bagels. As they absorbed water during the poaching step, they also absorbed the dissolved salt and baking soda in the liquid. Salt is a flavor enhancer, and baking soda has a taste of its own. The poached bagels all had similar intensities of flavor regardless of poach time.
By gelatinizing the starch on the outer surface of the dough, poaching transforms typical bread dough into delicious bagels. The crust holds down the dough as it bakes and forms a distinctive crust. Although all four bagels in this experiment were delicious, the 3- and 6-minute bagels looked, felt, and tasted the most like bagels: tough, chewy crusts with dense, flavorful insides, ready to slather with cream cheese.
Corriher, S. O. Bakewise; Scribner: New York, 2008.
Corriher, S. O. Cookwise, 1st ed.; William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1997.
Figoni, P. How Baking Works, 3rd ed.; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, 2011.