Bagels (Chemistry 101)


If there’s one thing I’ve been wanting to make for some time now, it’s bagels. The problem is, I couldn’t just look up a recipe, and make it, I had to understand what I was doing.

You see, my passion addiction for cooking really hit full throttle when I picked up Harold McGee’s book On food and Cooking. This behemoth of a book (which I’m already on round 2 by the way) is incredible, and un paralleled in food science. There’s like a billion pages, and it’s full of really useful information, which you’d probably think is more boring than watching paint dry, and that’s where I come in. I do the reading so you don’t have to, and you can go back to watching Toddlers and Tiaras! Your welcome. I’m such an altruist.

Ok so bagels, what can be so complicated about it right? Well if you ever ask someone about bagels and where they originated, or where the best place to get one is, they would probably answer you the best bagels are from New York, and because the “water is different there.” Has anyone stopped for a second and thought about that? Well let’s go through it together (I hope you brought your thinking hats on today).

First, what makes a bagel a bagel – Bagels are rounds of dough, that generally shaped in the shape of a …bagel (really? you’re not sure what shape it is?), they are then boiled in water for a short period of time, and then baked in the oven. Ok, so maybe the “water being different” makes a difference.

Now here’s the part where we take a detour into chemistry land for a bit. I’m sure you’ve all heard of acids and bases, but for all of those who never took chemistry, here’s a quick run-down.

Disclaimer – I’m a firm believer of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle, so worry not.

Acids are those things that donate a positive charge (a proton, H+), and bases are those things that accept positive charges (-OH). Simple enough right? Ok if you look at water, which we all know is H20, it’s amazingly compromised of one H+ part and another OH- part (that’s the base part). Now whenever people talk of pH we’re measuring acidity (it’s a measure of the “H+”, hence the pH and yeah, there’s something called a pOH also, which would measure the basicness). This is why pure water is neither acidic nor basic, it’s neutral (which on the pH scale is a 7).

Do you remember the Maillard reaction? We actually spoke about it a loooong time ago, and quick review – the Maillard reaction for all intents and purposes is responsible for any browning that goes on in the kitchen.

Yeah, it’s thanks to that guy.

Searing meat? Boom – Maillard.

Making Toast? Kapow – Maillard.

Baking bread? Shazimzam – Senor Chieftain Maillard once again.

(FYI – This isn’t the same as caramelizing, like we do with onions. That’s exclusively a sugar reaction, as if you were making caramel with sugar and water (hence the name). The Maillard reaction includes proteins, which break down into it’s building blocks (amino acids) and react with sugar, and voila you got some tasty morsels. But more on this another time.)

Ok where am I going with this? And why were you talking about acidity? Well for reasons outside of the scope of this blog (read – I have no idea), the Maillard reaction happens faster in a basic environment.

So we’re trying to make bread, and specifically bagels, which are traditionally dark and hard on the outside, so it would make sense to somehow incorporate a basic substance in it so it browns better. Awesome…ok wait, what exactly is a basic material?

Well happens to be we really don’t cook a lot with bases. The only readily available base in your kitchen is baking soda. Which happens to not be such a strong base. In fact traditional bagels and pretzels are made with a compound called lye (NaOH), which is a very strong base, and has to be handled with gloves, because it is corrosive.

Baking Soda is Sodium BiCarbonate, which in chemistary-ese is – Na-HCO3. With out getting too much into it, it looks something like this:

Side point – this is me keeping it simple…yeah I have a problem

Aaaaaaaaanyway – remember how we said that bases accept positive charges? Well as we know, charges that are alike will repel each other, so the only place a positive charge can go to, is a negative spot. Now if you look at the above picture, forget the Na+, and you’ll see there are three Os (which have negative charges), but one has an H on it already. So just trust me on this one, that means, that only the other 2 Os can accept positive charges.

Now as I said baking soda is not really a strong base, but the alternative to making good bagels at home is using lye, which as I said before is very caustic, and you’d have to order it online. However, what if we can get rid of that stupid pesky H that’s clinging for dear life to that O? It would open up another spot to accept that positive charge, and make it a stronger base (It still won’t be as strong as lye, but it’s a start). Well it turns out you can do that, and pretty easily. Just take the baking soda and bake it.

I saw this in an article by Harold McGee, where he discusses how to make pretzels at home, and I figured I’d give it a try for bagels as well.

Anyway, all you have to do is take the baking soda and spread it on an even layer on a baking sheet, and bake for an hour at about 250 degrees. It’s not as strong as lye, but it is somewhat of an irritant, so I wouldn’t handle with bare hands, but you can just pour the baked baking soda directly into the simmering water.IMG_4294

In answer to the question we said above about water being different. The only thing I can come up with is, when people say that the water is different, they mean the water is “harder.” Hard water is water that has more dissolved minerals in it, specifically calcium and magnesium, which readily make calcium carbonate scales (hence the build up that comes with hard water), and that “carbonate” part is very similar to the “bi-carbonate” part of our sodium bicarbonate.

So it’s possible that in harder waters, it’s more basic, and therefore bagels boiled in that water, would then take a faster ride on the Maillard roller coaster, and give us bagels that are browned really nice.

Just a hypothesis.

Ok so now that we have a stronger base, we can go on to making our bagels…but it’ll have to wait. Considering the length of this post, I’m gonna stop here and continue with the actual making and baking of the bagels, hopefully tomorrow.