H&H Bagels closes: What makes New York City bagels so superior?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 24 2011 5:07 PM

Why Is It So Hard To Get a Good Bagel Outside of New York City?

Hint: It's not the water.

H&H Bagels. Click image to expand.
Why does New York City produce superior bagels?

H&H Bagels, the most famous of New York's many legendary bagel establishments, will close its doors on Sunday after 39 years in business. Some enthusiasts credit the city's unique water chemistry with making Gotham's bagels seemingly irreproducible in other locales. Does water chemistry really explain why it's difficult to get a good bagel outside of New York?

No. Water chemistry influences baking, and New York's somewhat unique water probably plays a minor role in making tender and chewy bagels. New York City has very soft water—meaning it has low concentrations of calcium and magnesium. The concentration of calcium carbonate, for example, is 19 milligrams per liter (PDF) in New York water. By comparison, it's 55 in San Francisco (PDF), 136 in Washington, D.C. (PDF), 149 in Chicago (PDF), and more than 200 in parts of Los Angeles (PDF). Hardness enhances the strength of gluten, the protein-containing compound that toughens baked goods. So differences in water hardness are a convenient explanation for the tooth-rattling bagels you get in many cities.


But New York's bagel supremacy has far more to do with production practices than water quality. Gotham's bagelries typically poach the bagels prior to baking them—the bagels spend a few minutes simmering in a pot of water before entering the dry heat of an oven. That pre-gelatinization process produces a chewy interior, and slightly changes the flavor of the finished product.

Many bagel makers skip the poaching step, because the boiling equipment is expensive and takes up space in the kitchen. Instead, they brush their bagels with a little water and baking soda in the style of soft pretzels, then blast them with steam once they're in the oven. You can usually identify these impostors by checking out their undersides, since steam can't get to the bottom of a bagel when it's already in the oven. If the bottom is significantly darker and harder than the rest of the surface, you're eating a roll with a hole, not a bagel.

Similarly, whereas New York's venerable bagel establishments tend to ferment their dough slowly in wooden containers, fly-by-night operations abbreviate this process. The longer method employed by traditionalists allows the yeast to produce more than 50 flavor compounds. These chemicals not only permeate the dough; they also seep into the pores of the wood over the years, giving the final product a flavor that can be hard to replicate in newer bakeries. (Wooden bowls are, however, not preferred by government health departments, and old-school bagel shops tend to perform poorly in inspections. The Explainer confirmed this by checking the report for his favorite bagel shop. Not good.)

While water chemistry plays a bit part in bagels, it is enormously important in brewing, and some beer styles are nearly impossible to replicate outside of their native watershed. Pilsener comes from the Czech city of Pilsen, where the water's mineral concentration is extremely low. Brewers wishing to re-create the crisp, clean pilsener style have to start with distilled water and add tiny amounts of minerals. By contrast, the English city of Burton-upon-Trent, which invented the hoppy India Pale Ale now popular among American brewers, has very hard water. The concentration of calcium in Burton is about 35 times that of Pilsen. The concentration of sulfate, which accentuates the bite of hops, is more than 200 times higher.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Richard J. Coppedge Jr. of the Culinary Institute of America, Kirk O'Donnell and Debi Rogers of the American Institute of Baking, and Susan Reid of King Arthur Flour.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?