There are a lot of “feuds” in the food world. Like Texas vs Kansas City Barbecue. New York vs Chicago Pizza. And New York vs Montreal bagels. My own view is, I’ll enjoy whatever I’m lucky enough to have in front of me. It’s not REALLY a matter of life or death. Sacred honor is not involved.
Still, in the case of the bagels, what’s the difference?
Montreal bagels are small, made with somewhat dryer dough, made by hand, have sugar in them, have no salt in them, are risen for a short period of time, are boiled in honey water, have a larger hole making the cross section of the bagel thinner, and are baked in a wood fired oven. People swoon at the very mention of those bagels!
Most of this was true of New York City bagels until the late 1960’s. The New York Bagel maker’s union controlled the manufacture of bagels in New York City and they controlled the very definition of what a bagel was. The rundown for a New York City Bagels is they were small, made with a somewhat wetter (but still very dry) dough, made by hand, had a bit of malt extract in them, had salt in them, were allowed to rise overnight to develop a fuller flavor, were boiled in malted water, have a smaller hole which allows the bagel to be taller, and were baked in a deck oven which may or may not have been wood fired. My understanding is that fire and pollution restrictions made it hard to have a wood fired oven in New York City. People still swoon at the very mention of the classic, but darned near unavailable, New York Bagel.
Yeah, you can still get bagels in New York City, but, by and large, they just aren’t the same. What happened to the classic New York City bagel?
New Yorkers wanted larger bagels. The union said, “so, have two! You can have different toppings on each!” The reason was that larger bagels don’t fare well when boiled. The dough gets gross, the bagel too puffy and fluffy. Bagels should be crisp and chewy. When we were running the Colorado High Attitude Bakery in Gunnison, Co, we wasted several weeks trying to make larger bagels.
New Yorkers wanted crazier flavors, like blueberry. The union said no. In the mid 1960’s a New York City bagel maker could earn $60,000 a year, which is decent money today but was what many highly paid professionals earned at the time. Between the intransigence of the union and the cost of making bagels, bagel shop owners felt something had to be done!
Enter Daniel Thompson, the inventor of the first viable bagel making machine. With the machine, untrained staff could make four times as many bagels per hour as the hand made bagels from the union members. And the untrained staff were cheaper! They could make bigger bagels (which were still too puffy and fluffy for a purist), bagels could be made sweeter (here’s looking at you H&H bagels, gone but still reviled by bagel purists), new flavors could be introduced.
And the cost question pretty much put paid to the classic New York City bagel. There are a few holdouts who hew to the old ways. You’ll need to use Google to find them. The last time I looked, Absolute Bagels is one of the companies that still does it right.
Comparing Montreal bagels to Classic New York City bagels is hard since classic New York City bagels are so hard to find. As a bagel purist, I’m not interested in machine made mass market bagels. So, here’s what I hear from true believers –
Many New York City bagel purists find Montreal bagels to be too sweet, too hard, too bland and having too large a hole.
Montreal bagel enthusiasts find Classic New York bagels to be too tall, too soft, and not sweet enough.
We have recipes for both! First our Montreal Bagel style recipe.
And here’s our recipe for a classic New York style sourdough bagel.
We think you’ll enjoy either!