Sourdough Bagels

released into the wild

My new sourdough bagel recipe went out as a sneak preview to subscribers about a month ago, and it got universally positive reviews, so I think it’s now ready to share with the rest of you, despite the fact that there remain details I don’t consider 100% locked-down yet. Right now I am in the depths of a freelance writing/recipe developing pile-up, and haven’t had as much time lately to devote to newsletter projects. I expect this recipe to continue to evolve, but it’s definitely close enough to share without fear of disaster.

This recipe is not only really good, but it represents some of the most fun I've had since lockdown began. That's because it was developed in collaboration with my pal Jess Wagoner (aka the Grainiac), both to share here and for Jess to sell at her Ipswich bakery. Over the course of a few weeks we bounced ideas, formulas, and photos back and forth between one another until we both felt like we had something we liked. The best part of it was how easy it all was. We both wanted more or less the same thing: a sourdough bagel with a crisp, crackly crust, a chewy crumb, and most of all, little in the way of sourness, despite it being 100% naturally-leavened. We got there fairly quickly and had such a good time doing so that we've already moved on to our next few projects. (Sourdough brioche, anyone?) 

The trick we use to keep the sourness at bay is to use a 50% hydration (2:1 flour-to-water) levain with 22.5% sugar in it to suppress bacterial activity and minimize acid production. Using a so-called sweet starter—Jess calls it her "sweetie”—to tamp down sourdough sourness is not new; in fact, bakers in Italy have been doing just that for hundreds of years in order to make panettone, the eggy, lofty Milanese sweet bread that is most popular around the Christmas holidays. I recently got a copy of the book Sourdough Panettone and Viennoiserie, and we applied some of what I learned from it to this recipe. (I’ve also learned a ton from Ian Lowe of A Piece of Bread, who is digging deep into the science of sweet starters and sharing what he’s learning on his Instagram feed.)

This approach has benefits beyond minimizing sourness; most importantly, if used properly, it can give enriched sweet breads—which are often notoriously quick to turn stale—the excellent keeping qualities that panettone are known for. That’s less important for a bagel, which is meant to be eaten within a day of baking. So I’ll go into the science behind all this in more detail when I understand it better and have had time to apply it to an enriched bread like that sourdough brioche we are working on. 

In the meantime, I’ll just say that—as I currently understand it—the key details are that you need to use a precise amount—22.5%, relative to flour—of granulated sugar (i.e., sucrose; other sugars do not work as well here), in a stiff (50% hydration) levain. (The basic explanation is that the low hydration and high concentration of sugar combine to make life difficult for the bacteria in the levain, while the yeast continue to thrive.) The bagels are not sweet, since much of the sugar is consumed in the fermentation, and what remains is diluted in the final dough. (In fact, we add malt syrup for the appropriate amount of bagel sweetness and flavor.)  

Chances are you do not already have a stiff starter, so the first thing you’ll need to do is convert your 100% hydration liquid starter into one. You can either do this the day before you want to make bagels, or you can do it ahead of time and keep one in the fridge alongside your other one. (That’s what I do now, but I am using both fairly often these days.)

Here’s how to do the initial conversion: Combine 100g flour, 37g water, and 50g 100% hydration levain in a bowl, and then knead until uniform. (As always, aim for a DDT of 78˚F.) Transfer to a covered container and allow to proof at 78˚F until doubled, 4 to 6 hours, then use or refrigerate for up to 1 week.

Once you have your stiff starter, you can refresh it in the usual way, except using half as much water as you do in your liquid one, i.e., 2:1:1 flour/water/starter. (My usual mix is 150g flour, 75g water, and 75g stiff starter.)

Another salient feature of this recipe is that it’s proofed for just a couple of hours at room temperature, then moved to the fridge overnight in bulk, unlike other recipes that are shaped before going into the fridge, which takes up lots of precious fridge space. Because the dough is cold before shaping, it’s important to let it warm up to at least 60˚F before preshaping and shaping, or it will spring back a lot and the bagels will close up on you.

I’ll share the rest of the details about the bagel recipe on the recipe post itself, which you can find right here.

—Andrew