Bagels supposedly originated in Vienna, during the period (late seventeenth century) when the city was fighting off the Turks. Jan Sobieski, the king of Poland and a famous horseman, was a major factor in the defeat of the Turks, and a hard roll in the shape of a stirrup (bugel in German), immersed briefly in a boiling-water bath before being baked to preserve the shape, was developed in his honor. In later times the shape was simplified and the name corrupted to bagel, but the same production procedures are still followed.

Bagels traditionally are made from a lean, low-absorption straight dough, using a high-protein (ca 13.514%), clear, hard-red spring-wheat flour. In recent years numerous adjustments have been made to the basic formula, in the direction of making the bagel richer (eg, adding whole eggs), softer (by the addition of shortening or enzymes for longer shelf life), or sweeter (by adding honey and/or raisins). The main feature that separates bagels from other bakery items (besides the short boiling-water treatment) is the type of fermentation schedule used.

A combination of proofing (35-40°C, 95-105°F) and retarding (5-10°C, 40-50°F) is used to obtain the desired product volume as well as the internal and external characteristics. If the bagels are overproofed, they collapse in the oven; if they are underretarded, they tend to ball, that is, expand and close the center hole. Also, tiny blisters on the surface of the finished bagel are considered desirable. These blisters are due to the presence of lactic acid formed during retarding, and if they are absent (but the bagels are otherwise acceptable), 0.1 to 0.5% lactic acid may be added to the dough.

The sequence and timing of the fermentation steps is open to experimentation. Proofing may be done before retarding, after retarding, or both. Retarding times may be as short as 8 h or as long as 24 h. Specific process parameters must be worked out by the baker, depending on the formula and equipment being used, to make the product that is most acceptable to customers.

Just before baking, the proofed bagels are placed in a boiling-water bath; they float on the top of the bath and are boiled for about 1 min, being flipped halfway through. This treatment gelatinizes the starch on the surface of the bagel and causes the formation of a hard, shiny crust when the bagel is baked. The usual baking procedure is directly in a hearth oven, although they also may be baked on sheet pans. Various toppings (poppy seed, sesame seed) are applied to the boiled (and still moist) bagel; other flavorings such as dried onion are mixed in with the dough.

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