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Bagels: A Brief History

By 17th September 2016Advice

A little while back, we went on a bit of a food-related bender. There was a time the article section of this site was full of pieces on food, and the history of it therein. Not too surprising; occasionally, you need to spice up all this talk of worktops and dishwashers with something a little more mouth watering. Today, we’d like to briefly revisit that theme by talking about a favourite foodstuff of the staff at Silke; why it’s bagels of course!

Something may surprise a few of you is that the bagel is actually Polish in origin, and has an incredibly expansive history. Though it’s exact origin is unknown, the first use of the word bagel is dated to around 1610, within the Jewish community ordinances in Kraków. Indeed, they were widely consumed within Polish Jewish communities, from around the 17th century onwards, in addition to becoming a staple of the Slavic diet as well. bagels are formed using yeasted wheat dough, which traditionally is first boiled before being baked, and is then shaped by hand into the form of a ring. The result is a baked treat with a firm and sometimes crisp outer layer, and a soft doughy interior. The ring-based shape is theorised to have been designed to resemble a stirrup, commemorating the victory of Poland’s King John III Sobieski over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. This theory has largely been discredited in recent times, however. The shape does serve a purpose besides allowing for more thorough baking during the cooking process; the hole allows for several bagels to be threaded on string or dowels, allowing for easier transportation. Bagels are also traditionally topped with something on occasion, typically either Sesame Seeds, Poppy Seeds, or Sunflower Seeds.

The heavy association bagels have with the United States- New York City in particular- is largely down to Polish immigrants settling in the region, allowing for business to thrive shortly thereafter. Indeed, bagel bakeries thrived to such a degree in New York City that a trade union named bagel Bakers Local 338 came to fruition in the early 1900s. Almost all the local bagel bakeries in the area worked with or through Bagel Bakers Local 338, and their craftsmen and associates made them all by hand, daily. The union thrived for decades, until Harry Lender and his wife and son- Florence and Murray- pioneered a means of automated bagel production and distribution.

This process significantly lessened the amount of labour and time needed to make bagels, primarily by removing the “boiling” part of the traditional recipe. Instead, the bagels are baked in an oven with Steam Injection technology from the get go, creating what is often referred to as a Steam Bagel. All commercially available bagels are produced using this method.

Despite the heavy association with New York, one of the other prominent forms of bagel is the Montreal style bagel. The difference between the two comes down to the preparation of the dough, water, and kind of oven used to prepare them. New York style bagels have dough comprised of wheat, yeast leavening, water, salt, and malt, is boiled in straight water, and baked in a standard oven. By contrast, a Montreal style bagel has dough comprised of wheat, yeast leavening, water, malt and sugar, is boiled in honey-sweetened water, and is baked in a woodchip oven specifically. The former often have moister crusts and a fluffier texture, whilst the latter are crunchier, sweeter, and are smaller (although they have a larger hole). The distinction between the two isn’t quite as rigid as maintained, and even the long-standing belief that New York style is better due to local water quality has been thoroughly disputed.

An often forgotten fact is that bagels have been available in the United Kingdom since at least the 19th century. Bakeries in Brick Lane and the surrounding districts sold “Beigels” (the local spelling at the time), usually displayed on metre-long wooden dowels.

Today, bagels are available in a variety of forms and styles, some based on local tradition and others evolving with the tastes and trends favoured by the masses. Notably, a number of companies or bakeries off bagels with sweeter flavourings or toppings then what tradition dictates; one of the most notable instance being BagelK’s (ベーグルK) line of bagels, which included green tea, chocolate, maple-nut, and banana-nut flavours.