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BAGELS | Jewish Soul Food

The majority of my entries are inspired by a single moment in time…one experience, good or bad, compels me to expand upon a thought. In most cases I quickly jot down some 500-word antidote, some snarky some schmaltzy, and then labor for weeks substantiating my hypothesis with fact.

Today is the polar opposite. The factual foundation for this post has been written in my head for over two years. I’ve delayed drafting the full script because I lack a compelling piece of context. I had no hook, or something the ad agencies refers to as a RTB (reason to believe). 

Then Memorial Day arrived. As is tradition, the Gastro-Family was loading up the truckster to head north.  You see, not only did I marry into the tribe, I was also lucky enough to marry into JEFOWL…the Jewish Fishermen (and women) of Walloon Lake.

At this point in the story it’s key to know that travel day makes GastroBoy antsy. Every incremental moment spent in Ann Arbor is once moment less spent on the lake. It’s not uncommon for me to anxiously pace the house waiting for Mrs. GastroBoy to get ready. This year was no exception. 90 minutes beyond our original departure time, I was beyond anxious. The tank was full, the sun was out and my playlist was loaded. LET’S GO ALREADY!

That’s when I got the news.  Like a sucker punch to the head Mrs. GastrBoy casually shares,  ”um…we need to make a stop before we get on the road.” WHAT! What the HELL do we need to do NOW and why the HELL am I just hearing about it?!

“Mom wants us to pick up Bagels.”


In an instant I understood. More than that, I agreed. I was dis-armed. I was on-board. Stopping for bagels became a moral imperative. For I understand something critical about the world…you simply can’t get a good bagel in Petoskey.


So what’s a Good bagel, and where can I find one?

Bagel’s Defined      There are two defining attributes that make bagels special, something more than a bread roll with a hole in the middle.

Ingredients: The fundaments of dough science are pretty basic – water and flour create the structure, yeast is the leavening agent and finally salt and sugar work in competing harmony to feed and retard the yeast. It’s simple in theory. Still, like an internal combustion engine, there are endless ways to modify the formula.

Bagel dough modifies the basic bread recipe by replacing sugar with malt syrup. The distinct flavor is less sweet than refined sugar. Many bagel recipes further customize the dough by adding milk, egg or butter. These ingredients can add to the rich, density of the dough.

Cooking Trechnique: While ingredients are important, I would argue the most impactful distinction in bagel identity is created through baking technique. Bagels, unlike any other bread that I’m aware of, are “Kettled” or boiled prior to baking. This process gelatinizes the gluten creating a shiny, chewy crust and tight or “dense” inner dough. Purists will argue that after kettling a bagel should be baked directly on a Stone Hearth. That understood, the majority of all modern day bagels, including H&H in New York, are baked on a metal sheet tray in commercial deck ovens.

 WARNING: “Chicago Style” Bagels are Bullshit Hyperbole       Perhaps you’ve been to a chain bakery and found stale lumps of bread sold as bagels (Panera!). These bread circles have the character of sandwich bread with the crust of a dinner roll. This is a “Chicago Style” bagel. At some point during the twentieth century exploitive capitalists started short-cutting the bagel making process. To avoid the equipment cost and labor involved in kettling they devised a method for introducing steam in to standard commercial oven cavities.

This “steaming” process can at times accomplish the goal of a shiny bagel crust but fails miserably at reproducing the dense, chewy inner texture. To help justify this subpar imposter some wizard, no doubt a Sara Lee Ad Agency writer, stated referring to these bread rolls as “Chicago Style” bagels. My guess is that the “Chicago” moniker was an effort to defend against the “New York” standard of identity. Chicago, as apposed to “St. Louis” or “San Francisco” was likely a nod to the commercial food manufacturers based in Chicago. Don’t believe the hype. Chicago-Style Bagels are shit.

New York Bagels       Speaking of New York, here’s a little history lesson. Bagels pre-date New York. Most historians agree that bagels were first made in Poland.  New York, the site of Ellis Island, was a natural place for bagels to take root in America. It was there that the Bagel Baker’s Local Union formed. This union is responsible for establishing strict standards that define our modern bagel. I encourage the more interested readers to do some research on these important Jewish immigrants.

Today, the most famous New York bagel is H&H at Broadway and 80th, across the street from Zabar’s.  I try to make a stop whenever I’m in town. I was surprised to learn that H&H is fairly young, having not been established until 1972.

Matters of Distinction        Once you debunk all of the short-cuts and imposters, there are only a few way in which different bagel bakeries distinguish them selves.

Size: The most obvious difference among bagels is size. It’s also an area of tremendous debate. Guidelines defined by the New York Bagel Bakers Union specify bagel dough be cut to 3 oz (assumed to be pre-cooked weight). That’s about the size of a Lenders frozen grocery store bagel. Today, in our Super-Sized America, almost all bagels are cut to 4 oz. Even Zingerman’s, who by the way has taken a stand against over-weight bagels, weigh in at 3.5 - 3.75 on my kitchen scale.

Crust Texture: Clearly crust is important. That said, there is dramatically varying opinion on how tough and crunchy the crust should be. In Ann Arbor, Barry’s Bagels is by far the softest bagel. Zingerman’s takes credit for having the toughest armor.

The HoleHere’s a curious one. Tradition dictates a clear and present hole. Pragmatic bagel-sandwich makers have come to prefer a “closed” hole (“that’s what she said!” Sorry, I couldn’t resist).  Local bagel bakeries have very distinct styles as it relates to holes size. Once again Zingerman’s defines the extreme in this category (big ‘ol holes – and again, “that’s what she said”) while Elaine’s Bagels take the award for least traditional. It is rare to see the light of day through an Elaine’s bagel.

Flavor Variety: Offering variety has long been a feature among bagels bakers though the majority of these varieties simply involve rolling a plain bagel in seeds or savory ingredients prior to baking. Variations to the actual dough are limited to adding egg and cream (softer bagels) or select grains (rye or pumpernickel). There seems to be some unofficially snobbery around what modern flavors are acceptable. While I love cheddar-jalapeno bagels I think blueberry bagels are an abomination. Go figure. 

  • Author’s Soapbox: As with all grain foods, there’s a move afoot to create “whole wheat” or “multi-grain” bagels. While I respect the intention, I hate the result. When will we as community ever learn to moderate? Instead of destroying a culinary masterpiece in the spirit of good nutrition perhaps these well-intended folks should direct their energy towards portion size. According to USDA dietary guidelines, a common bagel is equal to four bread servings. Put down the bread fatty.



Good Bagel’s in Ann Arbor         Unlike to poor folks in Petoskey, Ann Arbor has host of great options for good bagels. Here are some highlights.

Barry’s: Technically a small Toledo chain (damn Buckeyes), Barry’s has been in Ann Arbor for years. It’s a west-side institution. As mentioned earlier, the bagels tend toward the softer side of life. They have tremendously chewy texture and for the most part, authentically representative flavor varieties. Side note, standing in line at Barry’s is one of the top five gossip spots in Ann Arbor.   


Zingerman’s: In some ways I’m shocked it took so long. Regardless, 2001 marks the year Zingerman’s said good-bye to Elaine and embarked on their journey to create exceptionally-Zingy bagels. Like all things Zing, opinions can be polarizing. Zingerman’s has an almost severely tough crust. If you can tolerate the crunch, the flavor will impress.

 TRY THIS: I was psyched when I learned that Zingerman’s bagelized a signature bread flavor. The Parmesan-Peppercorn bagel is epic – and available daily at Plums as well as all other Zingy locations. 

MD’s Bagel Fragel: MD stands for Michael and Dylan. These two hard working brothers are the latest to captain Ann Arbor’s Bagel Fragel. The business has changed hands a number of times. I’m rooting for that trend to end.  MD’s is a solid bagel and a fine bunch of folks. It’s also the only place in town to get a cheddar bagel. Be warned though, it’s not as good as the cheese bagel at Elaine’s. Unfortunately neither of the Ann Arbor retailers selling Elaine’s regularly stock cheese.

FRAGEL: While the bagels are solid, the real story here is the Fragel. For those who are fragel virgins, imagine this…. A sweet raisin bagel, deep-fried and rolled in sugar. A hot fragel is one of life’s most decadent pleasures.  Take that Paczkis!

Elaine’s (Morgan & York, Produce Station):  Technically these bagels are commuters. Folks from the Detroit suburbs are familiar with Elaine’s, the go-to bagel shops in 248. Ten years ago when Zingerman’s began making their own bagels it got difficult to get an Elaine’s bagel without commuting to the burbs. Today I’m pleased to report that both the Produce Station and Morgan & York sell Elaine’s bagels. For those not familiar, know that these are the biggest, baddest bagels in town. If we could get our hands on them while they were still warm they’d be in contention for best of Ann Arbor.


Bruggers: I thought long and hard about including a major chain bagel shop in this piece. Ultimately I decided it important to include. I do not begrudge chains en mass. What I take issue with are chains that dilute and exploit culinary standards. Brugger’s is the only bagel chain of size that stays true to bagel technique. After doing some research on Brugger’s I’ve come to respect the fella’s from Burlington, VT for creating a respectable product and a fabulous business. (Die Einstein’s!)


Honorable Mention Detroit Institute of Bagels          In 2011 two brothers set out to attack the bagel dessert of Detroit. After a small “proof of concept” experience they began building what will soon be the Corktown beacon of bagels. Checkout the amazing story here: http://www.detroitinstituteofbagels.com/savethebagels/


Honorable Mention Squid Ink          I, like Don Draper, believe advertising done correctly is an art form.  Below is a successful example of this theory. Bravo to Elaine’s and the folks at Squid Ink for a brilliant campaign. 

Elaine’s Posters: Dan Councilor/David Harpster, art directors; Matt Sicko, writer; Squid Ink, agency.

Reader Comments (1)

FYI, Johan's bakery in Petoskey have awesome bagels; check 'em out when you're up there next time. Take it from an original Petoskey-ite.

January 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

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