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You Can Take the Bagel Out of New York, But You Can’t Take the New York Out of the Bagel

... and bagel makers from Washington, D.C. to Austin wouldn’t want to anyway

Bagels at Call Your Mother in Washington D.C.
Bagels at Call Your Mother in Washington D.C.
Rey Lopez/Eater DC

A good bagel should have a dark crust with a dense, chewy interior. It shouldn’t be too bready or too flat, and the hole in the middle of the bagel should be small, not much larger than the width of a couple fingers. That is, if we’re talking about New York bagels, and it seems that for many chefs in the U.S., “good bagels” and New York-style bagels are one in the same.

The New York bagel has transcended New York City and the Jewish appetizing shops where it originated. It’s the style favored by bagel shops all over the Northeast, and given the bagel’s ubiquity in this region, it’s become the archetype of what a bagel is “supposed” to be, even for non-New Yorkers.

“We knew D.C. wanted bagels, but I don’t think we knew how bad D.C. wanted bagels,” says Andrew Dana, co-owner of Washington, D.C.’s Call Your Mother. He and Eater Young Gun Daniela Moreira (‘17) opened their “Jew-ish” deli in October to immediate lines for its NYC-style bagels and playful bagel sandwiches. “We’ve had to figure out how to make way more bagels than we ever thought we would.”

Bagel making is an involved, multistage process. The dough is mixed with a sweetener like malt syrup and formed into the standard bagel shape. The bagels are left to ferment and rise overnight, boiled (in water with some of that malt syrup), and then baked. Elsewhere in the world, bagel makers stick to other steps — Montreal bagels are smaller, denser, and boiled in honey water, while Jerusalem bagels are baked, but not boiled — but in New York, these are the rules. And in recent years, chefs and bakers have taken studied approaches to recreating the ideal New York bagel in other locales.

Mashama Bailey, chef of Savannah, Georgia, restaurant the Grey, is a New Yorker first, so when she and business partner John O. Morisano were thinking up plans for the Grey Market, their Southern take on a New York corner store, bagels were going to be a part of it. They hired a New York City baker, Matt Molinari, to ensure the bagels had the characteristic crust and chew. And after doing the requisite research at New York bagel shops, Molinari landed on a method that works for him in the Grey Market’s kitchen. Molinari agrees that cooking the dough with water before baking is essential, but he opts to steam his bagels instead of boiling them. “It’s just more of a consistent process for me,” he says. “[The dough is] getting the water so you’re getting that nice chewy crust with the dense inside.”

Most important to Molinari is producing a consistent product, especially as the six-month-old market moves into the humid “hotter” season of Savannah’s two seasons, as Bailey puts it. Molinari says he’s “adapting every day” to Savannah’s weather fluctuations and “using my baker skills really to figure out when [the dough] needs to go in the fridge.”

Like Bailey, chef Katie Button, who’s best known for Asheville tapas restaurant Cúrate, missed “good,” New York-style bagels when she moved to North Carolina. At her newest Asheville restaurant, Button & Co. Bagels, the bagels start with a naturally leavened sourdough. As is traditional of New York-style bagels, it’s then hand-rolled into bagel shapes and left to ferment overnight before being boiled and baked. “It’s definitely a process and system and labor of love,” she says.

A bagel sandwich at the Grey Market
A bagel sandwich at the Grey Market
The Grey [Official]

Tom Rosen, of Austin’s Rosen’s Bagel Co., says the key to a New York-style bagel is in the water. A couple of years ago, he was “shocked” to find that Austin didn’t have great bagels, given its vibrant food scene, and so he opened his own bagel shop in March 2017. “The theory [is] that New York water is exceptional [for bagel-making], and a lot of people think that’s because of the water in the dough,” he says. He tested different water in his bagel dough and found that it didn’t make a difference, but “what did make a difference was changing the water we boil our bagels in.” Rosen’s alkalizes the boiling water to approximate New York City’s soft tap water. Others take a more direct approach to guarantee the “New York” bagel dough: For his seven-month-old bagel shop Nervous Charlie’s, fellow Austin bagel shop owner Chris Cunningham buys the dough frozen from a New York City dough purveyor he’d rather not name.

But even though these bagel makers did their research at New York City bagel institutions like Ess-a Bagel, and at newer entrants into New York’s bagel canon like Black Seed and Sadelle’s, they want their to bagels reflect their cities, too. “I grew up in New Jersey, and that’s where my love of bagels came from,” says Button. “But if we’re going to do bagels in Appalachia, I really wanted them to have a sense of place. It’s not just about bringing New York to Asheville.” Button & Co. uses flour and rye that’s grown and ground locally, mixed with an organic flour from the North. Malt syrup is traditional in New York-style bagel dough, but Button opted for malt flour along with sorghum syrup, a sweetener common to Appalachia.

Bagel flavors and toppings also stray from New York norms. Instead of a cinnamon raisin bagel, Button & Co. does a sorghum and fig variety. Smoked fish was a must on the menu, but the fish is cured or smoked in house and often caught nearby. Even the cream cheese makes use of local ingredients. Button & Co. offers a ginger rosemary cream cheese and one with pickled ramps. Similarly, on one of its bagels, the Grey Market swaps sesame seeds for benne seeds, an heirloom seed brought to the South on slave ships from West Africa. And in Austin, Cunningham nods to his local customers at Nervous Charlie’s with a sandwich called “the Longhorn,” while Rosen’s serves a brisket schmear and a cream cheese with caramelized onions and bacon. “It’s sacrilege to Jewish roots but needed in Texas,” Rosen says.

Dana of Call Your Mother has also found that adhering to the traditional bagel flavors and deli sandwiches isn’t as important to his customers. “[We] cut a lot of the classics and just did stuff with twists that we really dug, and I think that’s turned out A-OK so far,” Dana says. He and Moreira are currently working on a South American version of the everything bagel with chimichurri, cilantro, parsley, paprika, and black sesame seeds.

There’s an audience for each approach. The Grey Market team has noticed that Savannah has a contingent of Northeast transplants, including students at the Savannah College of Art and Design and their parents, who were craving bagels as much as Bailey and Morisano. It’s not that there aren’t other options for bagels in Savannah, Morisano says, but “getting that New York-style bagel here was a really welcome addition to the food scene.” They even have one customer who comes in for a bagel and New York-style egg cream almost every day.

Since Rosen’s opened in 2017, the Austin bagel scene has gotten a bit more crowded, with the addition of Nervous Charlie’s in September included. “Coming from New York I don’t necessarily worry about the competition, because there are 400 bagel shops and they’re all chilling,” Nervous Charlie’s owner Cunningham says. “Our bagel shop is an authentic, true New York bagel shop. We try to keep it within that spectrum. We try to stay in our lane.”

According to Dana, the long lines at Call Your Mother have actually inspired other bagel shops. “There are two new bagel shops opening not that far from us,” Dana says. Pearl’s Bagels, coming soon to D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square, cites New Jersey’s bagels as its particular inspiration. Dana, too, welcomes the newcomers. “It’s all good,” he says. “There’s enough bagels for everyone.”

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