What exactly gives bagels their "bagel-ness"? What is the ideal bagel size? What about its height? Should it have a crunchy crust, or one that’s easy to bite into? And the size of the hole? Should it be nonexistent or wide enough to lose your cream cheese?
These are just some of the questions the Recipe Team at King Arthur has been mulling over the last few months. While all of you were baking up batches of Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls (our 2021 Recipe of the Year), we were busy crafting a brand new bagel recipe.
Admittedly, it didn’t come easily. We spent a good chunk of 2021 testing bagels, tweaking formulas, comparing water baths, and analyzing crumb structure, all in order to come up with a phenomenal bagel. Complicating matters is that we weren’t just creating the ultimate bagel — we were creating Ultimate Sandwich Bagels.
While all of you were baking up batches of Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls, we were busy crafting the Ultimate Sandwich Bagels.
Yes, I said “sandwich bagels,” not bagel sandwiches. The glory of this bagel recipe is that it’s designed specifically to work beautifully in a sandwich. Thus it isn't like most other bagels; it's not exactly New York-style, nor will you confuse it for one that came from Montreal. Instead, this recipe has a unique combination of ingredients, techniques, and tips that result in a truly distinct bagel — and one that’s perfect with egg and cheese.
What makes this recipe worthy of being crowned our Recipe of the Year? Here are 7 elements that make it the ideal bagel for building your ultimate sandwich and an overall winning recipe.
1) Bread flour creates the perfect amount of chewiness
Bread flour has a slightly higher protein content than all-purpose flour, which lends the dough more strength. Some bakers reach for high-gluten flour when making bagels to achieve a supremely chewy texture — but not in this recipe.
Why? We intentionally designed these bagels not to be challengingly chewy. When you bite into a loaded breakfast sandwich made on one of these bagels, you’ll crunch through the crispy crust and then sink into the slightly chewy inside. The fillings will stay safely inside the sandwich rather than squishing out the sides, which can be a bummer.
2) The pâte fermentée adds flavor
To enhance the bagels' flavor, this recipe uses a starter ... and not just any old starter. It’s pâte fermentée, a relatively stiff starter. During mixing, you may ask yourself, am I doing this right? Don’t fret — it's supposed to be stiff; you might need to knead the shaggy mixture on the surface to bring it all together.
The acids that form in a stiff, low-liquid starter taste yeasty, nutty, and well-rounded as opposed to the overly sour or tangy flavor notes you'd get from a more liquid starter. They give the bagel dough that definitive “yum” factor.
3) Barley malt syrup in the dough AND water bath
After countless attempts to find what gives bagels their “bagel-ness,” we determined that barley malt is definitely an important element. This natural sweetener is made from malted barley grains that have been sprouted. While it might sound unfamiliar, your taste buds would certainly recognize it as that slightly sweet flavor that's characteristic of bagels.
Early iterations of the dough were made without any sweetener and boiled in a water bath with honey. They just didn’t cut it — the bagels were missing something.
As soon as Molly Marzalek-Kelly, our senior recipe tester, put barley malt syrup in the dough, our taste testers started saying things like, “Aha! This is what a bagel should taste like.” Mystery solved.
And since the barley malt syrup was close at hand, we figured it might as well go in the water bath too. The resulting bagels have a nice shine, deep color, and a distinct bagel-y flavor.
Don’t worry: If you can’t find or don’t have barley malt syrup, you can swap in dark brown sugar and still get good results. (See the recipe page for exact measurements.)
4) The perfect size
Too often, we've heard people say, “I love bagels but avoid them for breakfast. I always need a nap after eating one.” Or “Bagels? They sit in my stomach like a rock.” Much of this carb-induced coma is due to the massive size of most bakery bagels, so we decided to make our bagels slightly smaller.
When you shrink down a bagel to a modest 3 1/2" diameter, you’re left with something that welcomes toppings (think all your favorite breakfast ingredients) without feeling skimpy. It’s the Goldilocks of bagels, and just right for building sandwiches.
5) Egg wash to ensure toppings stick
Surprised to see an egg wash in a bagel recipe? Us too. While few other bagel recipes call for applying this simple egg-and-water mixture before baking, it’s a step that’s now hard for us to skip.
The egg wash’s purpose is two-fold: first, it acts as an edible glue and makes additions like Everything Bagel Topping and sesame seeds stick.
Second, the egg wash gives the bagels additional color and shine. The deep brown, almost mahogany color of the crust is the definition of what chefs call “GBD”: golden brown and delicious.
6) The egg packet. Boom.
When it came time to nail down our sandwich filling, Molly had another genius idea. Instead of frying up an egg and putting a slice of cheese on top, the recipe includes a special element known affectionately as the egg packet.
Start by mixing milk with a bit of bread flour. (Yes! Flour in your eggs! The flour helps bind the ingredients and prevents the eggs from separating or becoming soggy.) The eggs are mixed in, seasoned to taste, and poured into a 9” x 13” baking pan. After a quick bake, a generous layer of cheese is sprinkled down the center and becomes melty, and then thin layer of baked eggs is sliced into quarters lengthwise and all folded up.
The result is a neat little square of seasoned eggs encasing melted cheese (or whatever you’d like to tuck inside). It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for classic breakfast ingredients.
7) All the fillings we have in store
While the egg packet alone is exciting, we know some of you are eager to add bacon or tomatoes to the packet, or maybe even some spicy greens or garlicky sauce drizzled over the top.
We’ve come up with a bundle of filling recipes to help guide you through building your ultimate bagel sandwich — some from our very own Recipe Team and some from outside bakers who know their way around bagels. The filling recipes range from super savory and salty to surprising (Spam! Charred broccoli rabe!) to downright lovable (that’d be the Vermonster). There’s something for everyone — and plenty of freedom to dream up your own ideal bagel experience.
So here’s to 2022 and our newest Recipe of the Year: Ultimate Sandwich Bagels. Let the baking begin!
Baking gluten-free? Check out our recipe for Gluten-Free Bagels, complete with a tip to make a gluten-free version of the egg packet filling, too.
Cover photo by Kristin Teig.