A Baking Soda Bath Is The Key To Perfectly Golden Homemade Bagels

Bagels are beautiful. Round and robust with a lightly crisp crust, they're delectable when slathered with butter and divine when topped with cream cheese and smoked salmon. They're also a bit of a hybrid animal: Bagels are baked like bread, but only after being boiled, like gnocchi. This is because boiling is the secret to that wonderful brown crust and chewy density — it's what separates the bagel from bread. Adding a little baking soda to the water boil perfects this process.

What exactly does boiling unbaked bagels accomplish? Several things, actually: First, it gelatinizes the starch in the dough — starch loves to absorb water, which it will do until its molecules burst, resulting in a similar texture to boiled potatoes (because the same process is at work). Second, the high heat of boiling water deactivates much of the yeast by killing it, basically. The yeast in the center will still rise, but this is the secret to the bagel's density. Lastly, boiling changes the pH value of the bagel's exterior, making it more alkaline. This leads to a beautifully-brown crust. This is where a little bit of baking soda comes in very handy.

The secret to a perfectly-browned bagel crust

Some people like to add sugar to their bagel boiling water, whether in the form of brown sugar, honey, or malt syrup. While this adds a slight sweetness, it doesn't appear to contribute to the browning process very much. Baking soda, on the other hand, works like a charm. (This, by the way, is the same treatment given to pretzels — leading us to caution you that putting too much baking soda in your boil will basically give you bagel-shaped pretzels!)

Baking soda, otherwise known as sodium bicarbonate, is an alkaline compound often used as a leavening agent. Because bagel dough contains yeast, its primary function is to alter the pH of the boiling water and produce an ideal brown crust. When it's time to boil your bagels, use one teaspoon of baking soda for every liter of water. Boil the bagels for no more than one minute a side (the length of the boil will alter the rise of the dough in the oven). After that, there's nothing left to do but put together your own everything bagel seasoning mix.