10 Gourmet Bagel Toppings You Should Consider, According To An Expert

How do you know when you've found a true bagel expert? How can you tell who is best to give you discerning guidance that will help unlock deliciously and perhaps new combinations that take everything crucial — flavor, texture, and eatability — into consideration? You know, when they speak about the topic, you like Dan Martensen, an ex-New Yorker and Vogue fashion photographer turned bagel proprietor and owner of It's Bagels in London.

"I love them all like children," says Martensen when pressed to name his favorite and least favorite bagel varieties. There is little on Martensen's menus that he wouldn't order himself, with the exception of a toasted bagel, which proved to be an operation in frustration, and why the It's Bagels toaster was officially moved into storage. "We don't need it here," Martensen reconfirms.

It's Bagels has taken London's bagel scene by storm, alongside other recently owned favorites like Papo's Bagels, just a few years prior. Since Martensen's bagel shop first opened last year, customers have willingly lined up in all kinds of soggy British weather to wait for the freshly baked bagels and expertly crafted sandwiches coming out of It's Bagel's ovens. While pouring over the menu, we asked Martensen for his advice on what makes the perfect bagel pairing.

Everything bagel with scallion cream cheese and the works

Can you get any more "New York bagel" than an everything bagel with scallion, cream cheese, lox, capers, red onion, and lemon? Even when served in London, the answer is a firm no. However, this combination also travels well, sliding in other cultures thanks to its winning flavor combinations. It pairs the tender bagel with a heady onion-scented cream cheese, salty, silky lox, and a splash of acidity.

This classic combination was non-negotiable in Dan Martensen's efforts to bring a slice of the Big Apple's bagel culture to his North London bagel shop. Known on the menu as "The Works," rather than listing each item individually, "The Works" just works. The combination also translates into British culture, which already had a bagel scene, albeit a slightly different one, and a cuisine ripe with smoked fish, cheeses, and baked goods.

About his go-to bagel order, Martensen says: "So, for me, The Works bagel is like the sort of the ultimate bagel combination, right? It's super New York; I personally like my with scallion cream cheese." 

Everything bagel with dill cream cheese, lox, tomato, red onion, capers, lemon

Like many foods of Eastern Europe, where Ashkenazi food and bagels originally stem, dill is often used more heavily, whether it's served with cured fish like herring or salmon, cold beets soups like borsch, potato salad, or in a classic kosher dill pickle or a comforting bowl of matzo ball soup. It makes good sense that dill-infused cream cheese would also find its way into bagel culture, especially when paired with flavors that pair so well, like salt-cured lox.

While the flavor might be less of a go-to cream cheese variety in London, Dan Martensen thinks it works really well, especially when paired with the savory, salty flavors of an everything bagel, accentuated by briney capers, the sharp bite of red onion and a good pile of lox. 

While many New Yorkers argue that a thick slice of fresh, sweet tomato is needed to complete this ultimate sandwich combination, Martensen pushes back a little due to his shop's location. "I say tomato is seasonal on there just because yes, absolutely, it is [served on the New York version], but the tomato season in London is about three weeks long, at least as far as British tomatoes go."

Everything bagel with spicy salmon

When it comes to ordering out, especially when it's a regular occurrence or a grab-and-go item, it can be all too easy to fall into a rut, ordering the same sandwich, smoothie, or bagel sandwich every time. Speaking with Dan Martensen, he suggested a number of ways to change things up ever so slightly enough to make an order feel fresh while still familiar. For him, it's a modification of The Works. Martensen pairs his everything bagel and lox with jalapeño cream cheese instead of the standard scallion, dill, or plain schmear.

"Sometimes I'll do a jalapeño [schmear]," he says. "I call it spicy salmon." This subtle, heat-packed flavored cream cheese variety can also be an enigma for some when figuring out how best to pair it. But, just like cheesy jalapeño poppers, once you land on a winning combination of spicy-meets-creamy, it can be hard to stop. Add lox, tomato (if in season), red onion, and capers, and you've got a sandwich that hits a little bit of everything: salty, creamy, chewy, savory, and spicy. Martensen laughs as he discusses changing up his standard everything bagel order.

Sesame bagel with bacon, egg, and cheese

True New Yorkers might consider a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel recommendation controversial — even Dan Martensen was initially skeptical. However, it must have its merits; Martensen reveals that this mash-up of two New York classics, a sesame bagel and the bodega classic bacon, egg, and cheese (with salt, pepper, and ketchup), has warmed its way into the hearts of Londoners.

Speaking with Martensen, you can almost hear his love for the combination in his voice. "Personally, I prefer bacon, egg, and cheese on a Kaiser roll, so it does that magical thing in the tin foil. That way, they'll just get, like, perfect. But surprisingly, the bacon, egg, and cheese with salt, pepper, and ketchup is the best seller in my shop."

If this sounds like your ideal breakfast, lunch, or any other food, Martensen recommends putting the breakfast sandwich favorite on a sesame or everything bagel for the ultimate savory experience. He offers the recommendation with a bit of a warning. As the bagel will have a slightly harder chew than a softer bread like a Kaiser roll, you definitely want to have a number of napkins handy; this isn't a dainty bagel experience.

Salt bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese

No, you haven't been transported back to the sun-dried tomato-loving '90s. Sun-dried tomato schmear, paired with a salt bagel, is what Dan Martensen calls a "sleeper" for its unexpected delight and flavor combination that packs a punch. 

"It's so good," Martensen says, despite never really ordering it whenever he got the chance in New York. It was all thanks to his neighbor Stephanie (also a former New Yorker) and a convincing argument that put the combination on Martensen's radar. When the shop was first testing out the market, like many other businesses, it began as a pop-up. Requests and suggestions started to roll in, including Stephanie's requests for salt bagels and sun-dried-tomato varieties, which Martensen decided to do as a schmear.

Sprinkling a pinch of flaky salt on a fresh tomato helps to bring out the sweetness and depth of flavor, as does spreading a sun-dried tomato schmear on a crusty, chewy salt bagel. "Salt and sun-dried tomato [cream cheese] is a good combo. It really brings out that sort of tart, sort of the funky cream cheese flavor." New Yorkers, take note; this might be a pairing you've been overlooking with your regular bagel order.

Pumpernickel bagel with tuna salad

Pumpernickel deserves far more fanfare when it comes to bagel flavors than it currently receives. Notably, there are two distinctive versions of pumpernickel. German-style pumpernickel is denser, darker, generally sliced thinner, and often less sweet than its American counterpart. American-style pumpernickel is known for its slightly malty, sweet, earthy taste, which usually comes from a mixture of wheat and rye flours, brightened by a smattering of caraway seeds. 

This almost nutty-like bagel makes it an exceptional base for a number of toppings, including creamy tuna salad peppered with vegetal bursts of celery. Martensen agreed, saying, "I love a pumpernickel bagel, especially when it's done right."

About his favorite pumpernickel pairings, Martensen says, "I mean honestly, almost anything, but all the salads really go well with the pumpernickel because it's got that rye flavor." Along with tuna, It's Bagels' salad menu includes a whitefish salad, egg salad, and chicken salad, too. Alternatively, we could see serving pumpernickel with vegetable cream cheese and a thick slice of tomato (when in season).

Pumpernickel bagel with whitefish salad

Ashkenazi Jewish culture has a long history of what has come to be known as "appetizing." While for many, this term might mean stocking up on little snacks during a canapé pass, in this context, it refers to the use of freshwater fish or "whitefish," which are then cured, ground, smoked, or pickled and show up in a variety of ways on the dinner table.

Born initially from Eastern European customs, appetizing menus are popular for many reasons; not only are the varieties of salads delicious, but the fish used to make them is often less expensive and can be eaten with many ingredients and dishes within Kosher laws, including bagels and cream cheese. 

You might recognize this term from the Russ and Daughters in New York, famous for their appetizing menu devoid of cured meats like pastrami or corned beef. Pumpernickel was basically born for appetizing. According to Dan Martensen, it's an ideal pairing for a strongly flavored bagel.

"Pumpernickel is exactly what I would put whitefish salad on," he affirms. "With lettuce and tomatoes, when they're in season, it's such a great sandwich. And with the caraway flavor, it's so good."

Poppyseed bagel with egg salad

Much like a cupcake, bagels, especially bagel sandwiches, can be hard to eat in any kind of neat and tidy way unless you can unhook your jaw like a snake. Though this shouldn't keep you from ordering whatever your heart wants on your freshly made bagel, it is something to keep in mind, as it may prove to be a bit more challenging depending on the environment (like a standing-room-only eatery) or what you're wearing. "Egg salad is a little unruly," Dan Martensen admits. But that doesn't stop Londoners from loving it, so it shouldn't stop you either.

In this instance, it wasn't New York that Martensen was taking cues from, but London when adding it to the menu. He says, "We sell a good deal of the egg salad ... one thing that I've honestly felt like in the shop that I took cues from the British recipe for the egg and mayo thing." He notes a quintessential English sandwich combo of egg, mayo, and watercress as being a choice that inspires this pairing. Unruly or not, Martensen reveals the shop sells a number of egg salad bagels and suggests pairing it on a poppy seed bagel with a side of napkins for good measure.

Onion bagel with vegetable cream cheese

The onion bagel often falls into what Martensen calls the "Marmite category." Marmite, for those who have yet to experience it firsthand, is a dark spread made from yeast extract, barley, wheat, oats, rye, and salt. It has a honey-like consistency and a very specific, savory taste.

Marmite was also made memorable by an incredibly honest marketing slogan, "Love it or hate it," in the 1990s. The slogan has since been incorporated into popular culture alongside the divisive spread. So, too, the onion bagel could land in this category, with its unapologetically caramelized onion crust, which Dan Martensen says many customers mistake for being burnt.

When asked what bagel he'd choose to pair with the shop's vegetable cream cheese, his reply lets you know he's firmly in the "love it" camp when it comes to all things onion. "[I'd] Probably [choose] onion to get the raw onion and the cooked onion in the same sandwich," he reveals.

Garlic bagel with vegetable cream cheese

Anyone who feels weak in the knees at the smell of roasted garlic should make the garlic bagel your next pick at your local deli or bagel shop. Sweet, smoky, and bursting with garlicky goodness, this bagel flies its garlic flag at full mast, so be prepared. Though it often goes under the radar, garlic makes a great bagel to pair with all sorts of things due to its sweet-meets-savory flavor. Try a garlic bagel topped with vegetable cream cheese, a recommended choice of Dan Martensen, or browse the menu for other possible combinations.

A garlic bagel would make an excellent base for an egg and cheese bagel sandwich with ketchup or the sun-dried-tomato schmear for those looking to evoke some Italian-style flavors. You could even pair the garlic bagel with a classic scallion cream cheese to lean into all your allium cravings and taste preferences.