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My goal was as grandiose as it was laughable. I was determined to make the best bagel in D.C. I even convinced myself it would be a snap since I’d resolved to use only the finest ingredients: unbleached bread flour, real malt syrup, obscenely priced sea salt, whites from an egg laid by a happy, cage-free hen. I’d sprinkle each bagel with a thick layer of poppy seeds or garlic or salt and spring these babies on the City Paper staff as the product of a new bagelry in town. They’d go insane for the rounds and beg me for the address. Then I’d tell them the truth: You can make ’em yourself!
It didn’t quite work out that way. My first batch of burned, chewy rounds reminded me of the line that Calvin Trillin delivers to his daughter in his New Yorker essay, “The Magic Bagel”: “If a person prefers to live in California, which happens to be thousands of miles from her very own parents [in New York].…it seems to me appropriate that such a person eat California bagels.” Washingtonians, I was beginning to fear, sadly deserve our own sweet, soft, super-airy D.C. bagels—karmic punishment for something we’ve done, like welcoming back pro baseball.
I got this whole harebrained bagel idea after reading “How to Make the Ultimate Bagel” on Chow.com, whose lead sentences made me ache for the real New York deal: “The quintessential—and elusive—bagel has a crackly exterior and a chewy interior,” writes Melissa Wagenberg Lasher. “Shiny and caramel-colored, it tastes yeasty, the tiniest bit sour, and an even tinier bit sweet. The contrast in texture and the subtle sweet-sour flavor, when combined, define what it is to be a bagel.”
The Chow author argues that one of the keys to a classic bagel is malt syrup, an earthy, barley-based sweetener that has been jettisoned in favor of cheaper (and sweeter) agents like sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. She also reports that many bagelries, in the name of convenience, have turned to steaming, rather than boiling, their raw dough coils, which provides neither the sheen nor the crackly coating that makes bagel eating so pleasurable. I accepted these facts as gospel as I prepared to dig into Chow’s recipe.
But here’s what I learned about producing these ultimate bagels: Make sure your ancient oven isn’t 75 degrees hotter than the temperature dial claims. I was halfway into baking my bagels, and they had already turned to coal on the bottom. I cursed the engineers of the Amana Radarange—most of whom, I figured, were already choking on their pocket protectors in hell—and debated with myself over whether I should even bring these crisped specimens to the paper for taste-testing. No one would believe that they’re from a real bagelry, I thought.
As it turned out, no one at the paper doubted the source of these rounds, which I think tells you something about the state of the bagel in the District. We’ve grown accustomed to mediocrity. But even if the editorial team’s normally reliable crap detector was off, its ability to discern crap was still finely tuned. “Stale and chewy,” commented one editor. “It doesn’t eat like a normal bagel,” moaned another. The staff photographer thought his was too flat and dense. A writer thought her bagel tasted eggy. Only two editors thought the bagels were worth stuffing down their gullets.
The fact is, they were all correct. The bagels were indeed too chewy and flat, but they were also more flavorful than just about any other round in town. The lone detail that really bugged me, though, was one that would no doubt drive Chowhounds crazy: I thought the overly salty bagels weren’t sweet enough. Call me a bastard child of our fast-food nation, but that malt syrup, two heaping tablespoons of it, tasted too dark and muddy to my buds. I wanted a tad more sweetness to elevate my bagel beyond its earthly, wheat-and-barley bonds. I also wanted to borrow a technique from Peter Pastan at 2Amys and give the dough a long, slow rise to help develop even more flavor. (Chow’s original recipe called for a mere 20-minute rise at room temperature.)
For the second batch of bagels, I cut the malt syrup content in half and replaced the missing half with honey. After working and shaping the dough, I put the rounded mass directly into an oiled bowl and refrigerated it for almost 12 hours. Just as important, I bought an oven thermometer (yes, the wife and I had been baking for years with a vague understanding that the damn range was “too hot”) to prevent another carpet-bombing. Then I monitored the oven like a crazy ANC commissioner, obsessively opening and shutting the door to check on my constituents’ well-being.
The results were both striking and depressing: Some of the bagels were golden, chewy, and puffy; others were golden, chewy, and almost as flat as when I placed them in the oven. They all were wickedly flavorful—sweet and slightly sour and salty and yeasty all at once. Even better, they cracked between your teeth like the first bite of a crème brûlée. But I couldn’t understand why some bagels plumped beautifully into these rounded coils while others barely budged. Nor could I understand why the quality of my bagels deteriorated so quickly; they should remain airy and chewy and crackly for at least a day or two.
I turned to two of my favorite bagelries for answers (neither of which are in the District, mind you). The manager at Bagel City (“Best Salt Bagel,” Best of D.C., 4/14) refused to answer any questions about bagels—even mine—since she’s bound to a confidentiality agreement that prevents employees from spilling the secrets of Irv Zlotnick’s 150-year-old recipe, which was handed down to this Rockville shop. However, Larry Coleman, owner of the criminally underrated Olney Bagel Bakery, spoke to me just long enough to explain my proofing problem—and just quick enough to avoid any niggling questions about his own product.
The problem, as Coleman saw it, was that my freshly made dough went straight to the fridge for a long, cool rise without pausing for a room-temperature proofing, which is necessary to aerate your dough to the right, light consistency. Coleman says he tends to proof his dough from 30 to 60 minutes depending on the room temperature (it proofs faster at warmer temps) before placing it in the refrigerator overnight. And with that bit of bagelry insight, Coleman said he needed to hang up; he was busy.
I’ve since adjusted my bagel recipe—based on Chow’s original—to include Coleman’s tip. I haven’t had time yet to test the revised version, but I’m hoping it solves the rising problem. I also hope it means my bagels will retain their shape and crackle for more than an hour or so. But until I perfect this recipe, I can tell you this much with certainty: I will continue to stop at the Port of Piraeus Market on 12th and I Streets NW, which sells the District’s best rounds. They’re H&H bagels from New York.
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