The bagel is a dense ring of bread, often rather bland, raised with yeast and containing almost no fat. In fact, the average bagel is about 4 oz (113.4 g) and 200 calories and contains no cholesterol (unless it is an egg bagel) and no fat (unless it is a specialty bagel such as cheese). The bagel's peculiar crustiness and density results from regulating the amount the yeast is allowed to rise so the bagel does not become too bready (not a desirable trait in a bagel). Whether handmade at home or with the aid of machinery in a bagel bakery, bagel dough is always boiled in water then baked until it is golden brown.

The popularity of the bagel is staggering. The appetite for bagels has increased 37% since 1994, and it is estimated that in the near future sales may increase as much as 7% over the previous year's figures to reach $840 million by the year 2000. Bagels are purchased by 46% of all consumers—and most purchase frozen bagels from their local supermarket. However, the fresh bagel market is expanding and the bagel bakery is visible in most communities. Once the product of small specialty bakeries in ethnic communities, the bagel is now seen on the menus of donut and cake bakeries and baked by restaurants all over the country.

Bagels are made in three different places. These include the large commercial bakery that bakes bagels then freezes them for transport across the region or country in plastic bags, the local bagel bakery that bakes fresh bagels for immediate consumption (from dough made there or made else-where), and at home. The fresh bagel bakery's traditional flavors-salt, egg, poppy seed, onion, plain, and rye-are now sold alongside new flavors like chocolate chip, spinach and cheese, cinnamon raisin, dried tomato and herb, and maple walnut. The cream cheese (the schmear in Yiddish), which often imparted the bagel with some pizzazz, now comes in many new varieties, including jalapeno and vegetable.


The history of the bagel is not clear. Bagel folklore tells us that the roll was devised as a tribute to Jan Sobieski, a Polish general, who saved Vienna from the invading Turks in 1683. As the triumphant hero rode through town, the grateful townspeople clung to his stirrups—called breugels. The king had a baker fashion bread in the shape of Sobieski's stirrups as a tribute. Eventually the stirrup-shaped breugel became round and was known as a bagel. Other stories indicate that the name comes from beigen, the German word for to bend, and could be a descendant of the pretzel. Still others believe the round hole was perfect for Russian and Polish bakers to skewer them on a long pole and walk the streets hawking their fresh bread.

Eastern European immigrants brought their skills as bagel bakers to the New World—by 1915 a bagel bakers union #338 had formed in New York City. Some of these bagel bakers and their apprentices began baking bagels in parts of the country—particularly the East Coast—when they moved out of the city. Harry Lender, a Polish immigrant, saw interest in the bagel and he and his son Murray baked bagels in quantity and packaged them for sale to supermarkets. In 1960 Dan Thompson invented the first machine for making bagels. Until that time, all bagels were hand rolled. By 1962 the Lenders were baking and freezing their bagels and distributing their goods nationally. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, bagels made a slow trek across the country via bagel entrepreneurs.

Now bagel bakery chains ranging from New York state to Colorado have sprung up to accommodate the needs of bagel connoisseurs. There are cookbooks devoted to making homemade bagels, including recipes for making bagels in bread makers.

Raw Materials

Ingredients for bagels vary tremendously according to who makes the bagel, whether it is made at home or in a commercial bakery, and the flavor of the bagel. Generally, all bagels must contain at least the following: water, salt, flour, and yeast. Water is needed to both soften the dry yeast and add moisture to the batter. Salt must be present to slightly inhibit the action of the yeast-without salt, yeast can rise too much. The flour the bagel baker uses matters little-various recipes call for bread flour, regular flour, bromated flour, whole wheat flour, and rye flour. Some call for a pinch of sugar to assist the yeast in rising.

Of course, the flavor of the bagel determines the remainder of the ingredients. This can vary from maple syrup, to jalapenos, to walnuts. The flavors are only as limited as one's imagination.


The design and marketing of commercial bagel bakeries is extensive. Many bagel bakeries bring in competitors' bagels for blind survey by the general populous. These guests are served a variety of bagels and asked as series of questions regarding important characteristics of bagels including texture, chewiness (density), flavor, value, and fat and nutritional content. Answers to these questions help the bagel bakery determine the direction of product development. These bakeries cannot produce an infinite number of flavors within their facilities. Thus, these taste surveys help the bakeries determine the bagel flavors they will offer to the public. Customer surveys and continual blind tastings insure that the companies can offer the consumer what he or she is looking for in a bagel.

The Manufacturing

The bagel franchises prepare bagel dough and bake them in a variety of ways. Essentially, the dough must be created with the raw ingredients, the yeast must rise, the bagels likely stored for some period of time before baking (as it is unlikely a new batch is made each time bagels are baked), and the then the bagels boiled and baked.

Some bagel bakery chains make the dough in regional commissaries in very large quantities-they mix the ingredients, form the bagels, activate the yeast, then cool it for storage until it is ready to be transported to small bakeries which produce the fresh, hot bagels. Thus, all but the baking of the bagels occurs at the regional commissaries. Here we'll look at this method of fresh bagel baking in which bagels are mixed and formed in one place and then sent to the store for baking.

Mixing the ingredients at the regional commissary

  • 1 Many, but not all, bagel bakeries use fresh ingredients and fresh dough as opposed to frozen dough to make bagels. All ingredients, flour, salt, yeast, water, and various flavorings, are mixed together in a batch. The definition of a batch is determined by the amount of flour included. At one national bakery chain, a batch is defined as using 200 lb (90.8 kg) of flour, which makes 316 lb (143.5 kg) of dough.
  • 2 Once the ingredients are mixed in a batch it must be closely monitored for temperature—too hot and the dough will rise too high too quickly or even be killed off because of the heat, too cool and it won't rise sufficiently. Since yeast is a living organism, it also has a limited life span as the yeast dough must be used within about 48 hours after mixing for the best bagel product.

    The mixing can occur with a machine purchased for mixing bagel dough, such

    as a
    Once the ingredients are mixed into a dough, the dough is separated into predetermined portions.
    Once the ingredients are mixed into a dough, the dough is separated into predetermined portions.
    spiral mixer. Mixing takes about 10-12 minutes and is carefully timed.

Dividing the dough

  • 3 When the mixing is finished, the dough is taken from the mixer, put on a table and laid in strips. The large strips are fed into a divider, which perfectly portions out the amount of dough required to make an individual bagel, either 3-5 oz (85-113 g) of dough. The bagel is just a clump of dough at this point.

Forming the bagel shape

  • 4 Next, the dough rolls under a pressure plate, which rolls the dough into a cigarlike form. This cigar shape drops onto the former, a round forming tube, which rolls it around and meshes the ends together to form the bagel shape. The forming machine shapes one bagel per every second.
  • 5 A person picks the bagels off of the belt (coming at a fast and furious pace) and puts them onto a cornmeal-coated board. Those bagels deemed irregular or too small are rejected and remade. When the wooden board, which accommodates 25 bagels, is full, the bagels undergo a proofing process in order to get the yeast to rise.

Proofing the yeast and stopping the proofing

  • 6 The boards are put into a proofer and subjected to heat (so the yeast will activate) and humidity (so the bagels won't dry out) for about 20 minutes. The bagels are then taken out of the proofer and subjected to a quick chill to about 20-25° F (-6.7--3.9° C) for about 15 minutes in order to stop the yeast from activating too much and rising too much. Note that all bagel bakeries do not subject their bagels to this chilling process. Without this chill, the product is bready rather than chewy.

Ready for transport to the stores

  • 7 The product is taken from the chilling process and placed in a holding cooler adjusted to just under 40° F (4.4° C) where it waits to be transported to smaller branches in the bakery system. There it is baked fresh on premises. The bagels are not permitted to rise in the holding cooler as they cannot rise under 40°. The boards (with 25 bagels each) are tagged as to their age, shrink-wrapped and when ready for shipment are placed in a transport rack (there are 30 boards on a transport rack) and put on refrigerated trucks destined for a bakery.

An automatic stomper forms the raw bagel. After kettling, the bagels are baked.
An automatic stomper forms the raw bagel. After kettling, the bagels are baked.

Distribution to the store

  • 8 Once the transport racks come into the store, they are ready to be baked. Their tag, which indicates flavor and age, tells the bagel bakers how much time they have before the life span of the yeast is over and that the dough is not usable.


  • 9 Each bakery has at least one huge kettle filled with boiling water and malt for reactivating the bagels. Water in these kettles must be at a rolling boil. The bagels (usually one board or 25 bagels at a time) are dropped into the kettle. In this hot kettle, the dormant yeast is reactivated. After about 90 seconds, the bagel comes up to the surface of the water in a "float." Kettling with malt in the water helps put on a hard crust and retards drying.


  • 10 These floating bagels are scooped out and laid out onto sticks, which are burlap-covered aluminum. The toppings (poppy seeds, sesame seeds, salt, etc.) are sprinkled on the top of the bagel, which is face up on the sticks. The sticks are then flipped out onto the shelves of the bagel oven; thus, the bottom of the bagel (the side without topping) is face up in the oven. The bagels take about 20 minutes to dry out and cook. The bagel cook generally eyes the bagels and decides when they are finished. Huge wooden paddles called peels then lift the baked bagels off the shelves into the wire bins for purchase.

Quality Control

Perhaps most important for quality control is that all ingredients are up to the minimum standards required by the franchise or bakery. Good quality flour and yeast are of the utmost importance. Second, temperatures for water, for the proofer, the cooler, and even the temperature of the flour before mixing must be precisely monitored or yeast will not activate properly. Third, the life span of the yeast must dictate handling priorities. As one baker put it, bagels just mixed and proofed are like "teenagers" with robust yeast waiting to rise; however, bagels that were proofed nearly 48 hours prior are like "90-year old grandpas"—they have little "zing" in them and may not make the best bagels. Thus, it is imperative to know the age of the raw product as indicated on the tags attached to the boards. Lastly, the bagels are only as good as the experienced bagel baker who must pull inferior or malformed bagels off moving belts or who monitors baking regardless of what the timer reads.

Where to Learn More


Bagel, Marilyn and Tom. The Bagel Bible. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1992.

Mellach, Dona Z. The Best Bagels are Made at Home. San Leandro, CA: Bristol Publishing Enterprises, 1995.

Nancy EVBryk

User Contributions:

bill reyer
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May 22, 2007 @ 1:13 pm
I read the article with great interest. I learned some interesting things since I bake my own bagels and am always interested in solving problems that arise from time to time. I used sugar in the kettling process along with bicarbonate but use malt as a sweetener in the dough.

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