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The Fight to Return Bagels to Their Chewy, Delicious Roots

100 years into business, Orwashers bakery in NYC takes on the bagel
Where to Find Real New York Bagels
Photo: Michelle Sun/Tasting Table

In June 2011, New York lost a culinary staple. H&H, one of the city's most beloved bagel shops famous for its long hours and fresh-out-of-the-oven bagels, closed the doors to its Upper West Side store. In the years since, the cultural bagel, er, hole hasn't been filled by any one shop, but rather by several talented bakers who have taken on the bagel and worked to roll it back to its original state.

Bagels first arrived in New York along with the eastern European Jewish immigrants around the turn of the 19th century, smaller than the ones we know today and much chewier. Longtime New Yorker and bagel maven Mimi Sheraton once explained to the New York Times, “You used to be able to eat a bagel that would give your facial muscles a workout."

Over the decades, bagels became puffed-up versions of themselves, increasing in size, losing their signature snappy crusts and their depth of flavor that comes from fermenting dough properly. When H&H closed, it forced bagel lovers, particularly those who had grown up with the older-style bagels, to reassess and demand a change.

Bakers like Melissa Weller, an alum of NYC's Per Se and Roberta's, who now oversees the bagel program at breakfast favorite Sadelle's, has risen to the occasion. And at Fred's, the restaurant at famed NYC department store Barney's, chef Mark Strausman has taken on the challenge of returning bagels to their former more svelte selves.

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Then there's Orwashers, which for 100 years has turned out destination-worthy rye loaves on the Upper East Side. In September of last year, the team dispatched an outpost across town and with it came bagels made with a sourdough starter. "I decided on making a sourdough-based bagel, because it was that style of bagel I ate as a child growing up in Queens," owner Keith Cohen explains. "I want to elevate it to the proper status I think it deserves."

To do that, he's fermenting dough with everything seasoning rolled right into it. He's also breaking a historical bagel law by injecting steam into his oven while baking instead of boiling the bagels before popping them in the oven. "I know some people think that not boiling your bagel is a sacrilege, but I have to tell you, I think I could change your mind," he says.

If you swing by either location, Cohen says, "You're going to get that real New York bagel."

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