Why Is It So Hard To Get a Good Bagel Outside of New York City?

Hint: It’s not the water.

By Brian Palmer

H&H Bagels. Click image to expand.Why does New York City produce superior bagels?

H&H Bagels, the most famous of New York’s many legendary bagel establishments, will close its doors on Sunday after 39 years in business. Some enthusiasts credit the city’s unique water chemistry with making Gotham’s bagels seemingly irreproducible in other locales. Does water chemistry really explain why it’s difficult to get a good bagel outside of New York?

No. Water chemistry influences baking, and New York’s somewhat unique water probably plays a minor role in making tender and chewy bagels. New York City has very soft water—meaning it has low concentrations of calcium and magnesium. The concentration of calcium carbonate, for example, is 19 milligrams per liter (PDF) in New York water. By comparison, it’s 55 in San Francisco (PDF), 136 in Washington, D.C. (PDF), 149 in Chicago (PDF), and more than 200 in parts of Los Angeles (PDF). Hardness enhances the strength of gluten, the protein-containing compound that toughens baked goods. So differences in water hardness are a convenient explanation for the tooth-rattling bagels you get in many cities.

But New York’s bagel supremacy has far more to do with production practices than water quality. Gotham’s bagelries typically poach the bagels prior to baking them—the bagels spend a few minutes simmering in a pot of water before entering the dry heat of an oven. That pre-gelatinization process produces a chewy interior, and slightly changes the flavor of the finished product.

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