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Bagel brouhaha: Across America, bagel makers are boiling before baking, the inimitable "New York" style

Boiling away in a latter-day cauldron, a gaggle of bagels will soon float to the surface, ready to move to a massive oven with shelves that rotate like a riverboat waterwheel. When finished, the bagels will have that trademark soft interior surrounded by a crispy, chewy shell. These are not what you will find on your average supermarket shelf; these are New York bagels.

And if the only bagels you have eaten came from the frozen food section and were merely steamed or baked, bagel artisans say you’ve never had the real thing.

“The mainstream bagel seems to be more bread like,” says Bryan Tempest, part-owner of Bigwood Bread in Ketchum, Idaho. “More dinner-roll like, with a hole in the middle.”

It takes more than bread with a hole in it to be an authentic bagel. All over the country, aficionados like Tempest have dedicated themselves to a higher standard from the Lower East Side, and are finding a share in the country’s $600 million bagel market.

Tempest’s wholesale bakery and cafe pays strict attention to the Big Apple's way of making bagels. The perennial refrain of New Yorkers is that there are no good bagels west of the Hudson River, and New York City water is often given the credit. Tempest says there is something to the water argument.

“The one thing we’re blessed with,” he says about his Idaho home, “is the quality of the water we have. It’s very mineral rich. It actually mimics the water quality of New York.”

The bagel began, however, in Europe, coming to New York as an immigrant. According to lore, the stirrup-shaped bread was created by a Viennese baker in the late 1600s in celebration of a horse-riding Polish king who was an ally in a war against the Turks.

Bagels entered the United States as early as the late 1800s with European Jewish immigrants. (The lesser-known but much-loved “Montreal style” bagel, also brought to that city by Jewish immigrants, is also boiled before being baked in a wood-fired oven.)

“It’s an Eastern European street food,” says Marda Stoliar, director of the International School of Baking in Bend, Ore. The hole in the middle, she says, was designed so vendors could thread the bagels onto a pole for selling in the streets.

What made the bagel distinct, however, was the texture that boiling and baking created.

“A bagel should have a pull,” says Stoliar, adding that the good ones have a thick edge that comes from boiling. Stoliar recently visited New York where getting a proper bagel was top priority.

“Your jaw should be tired when you finish a good bagel,” she says.

Copying the New York style is no easy thing, but that hasn’t stopped the bagel from becoming a booming business across the country.

Brands like Thomas’ are leading competitors in the supermarket bagel business, but a brand name doesn’t make a bagel, according to many independent bakers; many store brands are baked like any other bread, instead of being first treated to that hot bath.

Lender’s, which has been making bagels for more than 80 years, is a major supermarket brand that is frequently derided as a frozen poseur, but the company claims authenticity. “Every bagel that we sell in supermarkets,” says Lender’s vice president, Ray O’Brien, "is boiled before it’s baked.”

Lender’s says it is the top-selling frozen bagel in the United States, but it and the other big boys of bagels might now be looking over their shoulders as smaller bakeries, and some chains, are claiming their share of the bagel sale chart.

“Most of what you get are steamed bagels, or they’re not even steamed,” says Jim Greco, chief executive of Bruegger’s Enterprises, which owns 280 bagel cafes in 22 states and the District of Columbia. “Nothing more than rolls with a hole in the middle of them.”

Bruegger’s sells more than bagels, branching out into soups and salads, but the bagel is basic to the brand, and the New York method, said Greco, is crucial in the cooking. Every store has a boiling kettle where the dough must rise to the top before being baked.

“We plan to build over thirty units this year,” says Greco, who has overseen the building of 40 stores since his 2003 hiring as the top executive. The company even has a clandestine bagel project it plans to “roll out in the fall,” he says.

But not all bodes well for bagel makers. Rising flour costs are forcing some shops to raise the cost of a baker’s dozen.

Bagel prices top $9 a dozen at the Bagel Station in Winston-Salem, N.C. Yet customers keep coming back for more, says manager Michael Brown, who sometimes bakes the bagels himself. The reason, he says, is because the shop sticks to the New York standard. The owner, a doctor from New York who came to town with recipe in hand, is passionate about his bagels, says Brown, and customers place their trust in that passion.

“It depends on who’s baking the bagels,” says Brown.

Bigwood Bread’s Tempest knows community relations matter in the bagel business. The previous owner of his business’ bagel branch was closedy connected with the local Jewish community, he says. As a Roman Catholic, Tempest was concerned about maintaining that connection. Happily, he says, he has kept the Jewish community as a good customer, in addition to attracting tourists and other locals alike. For Jews the bagels have a certain meaning, says Tempest, but everybody loves the crispy, chewy New York style.

And though Tempest remains true to the New York boil-and-bake style, he’s introducing some novel bagels as well. The asiago cheese bagel, he says is a “very rich, savory-type bagel.” Still, the traditional bagels sell best. Asked about his top-seller, Tempest says his customers go back to the basics. “Plain is always a good standby,” he says.

But can you really get a New York-quality bagel outside the Big Apple? “I think it’s possible,” says Stoliar of the International School of Baking in Oregon. But it must be from the small artisan bakers who adhere to traditional ways of making their breads, she said.

"I know people in Brooklyn who think the local water makes their bagels the best," says Stoliar. But there’s more to it than just water. “I do it exactly the way they do,” she says. “I would put my bagels up against anybody’s in New York.”