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.

Pesto, and a failed experiment


All rite, I’m going to level with you, I’m going through some serious writer’s block over here. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the summer. I’m going to blame everything on the summer. Don’t get me wrong, the summer is great, but it should be renamed the season of endless possibilities, none of which you will fulfill, unless one of those possibilities is sitting on your rumpus in front of the tv.

I guess the moral of this little story, is to be a slacker, and strive for not achieving anything, that way by not achieving anything, you will have accomplished what you set out for! Perfect.

Or you can go out and make pesto. Lemme explain.

Pesto is one of those things that are just plain ole stupid easy to make, and for some reason, if you make it you’re like the biggest superstar ever (Hummus is the same thing…that’s another post). So this goes perfectly with our new found understanding of the summer. Aim to do as little as possible, and glean as much as you can from it.

Pesto is as simple as throwing things into a food processor and turning it on (assuming you can figure out how to put it all together and figure out how to turn it on, however, from what I hear there are some people out there who still have a hard time with their food processor). Ok you also have to toast the pine nuts, and chop the garlic up, but there’s really not that much work for this whole thing.

Start by going to your backyard and picking some basil. A good 4-5 cups of leaves should do the trick.


Toast the pine nuts until they are fragrant, about 4-5 minutes, making sure to stir them the whole time, so they don’t burn.


Just as a side, don’t get pine nuts that are from China, seriously. It’s the weirdest thing. There’s this phenomenon known to happen when eating certain types of pine nuts, that it will basically cause you to taste metal in your mouth, no matter what you’re eating. Sounds too crazy to be true? Well it’s not, and I should know. I’ve personally suffered from this ordeal…twice. Not pleasant. And apparently it’s more common to with pine nuts that are from China. Why this all happens? I’m not sure, and I don’t know if they, whoever they are, know themselves.

Throw the pine nuts, basil, and roughly chopped garlic in the food processor, along with salt and pepper, and give it a few pulses. Like so.


Then, with the processor running, and the feed tube on the food processor (that’s the little do-hickey on the top of the food processor, Goldie), pour your olive oil in there, and that will allow the oil to pour out really slowly, and incorporate into the pest.

The reason for the slow addition of oil is because we’re making an emulsion, and with any emulsion, the oil has to be coaxed to want to stick around with whatever water you’re coaxing it onto.

And there you have it, home made pesto.

The options are limitless, well almost limitless. I’m not suggesting to eat it with cereal, but you can do a lot with pesto, and for some reason, the one thing I wanted to make was a bread pudding with it. Some sort of savory bread pudding.

So I had the old and dried out challah, I cut it into cubes, and set it on the counter for 2 days to dry out. (This allows whatever liquid you’re using for the bread pudding, to be absorbed by the bread).


I then took some eggs, milk, mozzarella and pecorino cheese, pesto, and salt and pepper, and mixed it all together. And poured it over the bread.

IMG_4163 Then I topped that with some more cheese, and some basil leaves, and baked it until it was set.


So since you read this far, I’m going to let you in on a secret. The “and a failed experiment” part of the title was referring to this little concoction. It was just plain ole weird. You know it’s not good when something other than hot dogs, tastes like hot dogs. I have no idea why it did, but it just tasted weird. Oh well, you live and learn right?

The pesto was still awesome, and yeah I know traditional pesto has parmesan in it, but I usually keep it out when I make it so I can serve it with meat.

Because you’ve been extra awesome today, and you’ve put up with my mediocre post, and a lot of blabbering, I’m going to give you another thing you can do with pesto, make pizza with it, but not just any pizza, potato-pesto pizza. You might think it sounds horrific, but trust me, it’s awesome. Just roll out your pizza dough, spread some pesto on top, then spread some cooked potato over top (cooked in the microwave is the fastest way to do that), top with red onions, and whatever cheese you want (I like it with some goat cheese), and bake. As my mom always says: “Don’t knock it, ‘till you try it”



  • 4-5 cups of basil leaves
  • 4 medium cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/3-1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper


  1. Put the basil leaves, roughly chopped garlic, toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper in your food processor, and pulse a few times to chop it all up. You may have to scrape down the sides, to chop it evenly.
  2. With the processor running, add the oil through the feed tube, so it pours it in slowly, until the pesto comes to the consistency you want it to be. It can range from thicker to more runny, it’s up to you. I like mine on the thicker side. (If your fancy food processor doesn’t have a feed tube, you can just pour it in yourself, in a thin trickle.)



So the other week I decided to try my hand at making some challah. I had a recipe saved that I wanted to try from Peter Reinhart (which I got from Michael Ruhlman’s website), who is a famous bread man, which is actually the scientific term for a man of the bread. Look it up.

Here’s the thing about challah. Challah, much like it’s Russian cousin brioche, is traditionally made with a lot of added fat, and some sugar which gives it it’s classical color and consistency. The added fat in challah is traditionally egg yolks (whereas in brioche it’s butter…), and you know me, I must adhere to tradition. So yeah, there are a lot of egg yolks. The recipe calls for 170 grams of egg yolks. That’s about 26 eggs…ok not really, it’s about 8-10 egg yolks (but its much less than 26 right?). I know what you’re thinking “How are you not on the biggest Loser?” That’s a good question, but here’s my justification, if you’re going to make something make it how it’s supposed to be made, at least the first time you make it, and then you can tweak it the next time. Makes sense right? Also, this batch made 4 large challahs, one medium one, and 3 rolls, so not an epic fat-fest in the long run.

Anyway – challah has sugar and fat in it, which actually prevent the gluten from forming properly, however this lack of properly formed gluten is what gives it it’s tenderness, but therefore it needs to rise for a longer period of time. To accommodate that, we’re going to make the dough in advance, and let it rise in the fridge which retards (yes that’s the actual word) the rise, and lets it rise for an extended period of time (you can make this up to 4 days in advance). This also lets the dough develop more flavor, so it’s a win win!

Baking is more of a science then cooking, and whenever possible I like weighing out stuff, instead of measuring it. Not only is it more accurate, there’s also less stuff to clean after, so that’s always a plus.

Start by measuring out your yeast and water, and mix to combine


Then add the egg yolks, oil, sugar, and vanilla to the water/yeast mixture, and mix that up.


Then add your flour and salt, and with the paddle attachment, mix until it just comes together, about 2 minutes on the lowest speed, and then let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

IMG_2871 IMG_2874

After 5 minutes, put the dough hook on ad knead for about 4 minutes on medium-ish. When that’s done, plop the dough down on a floured surface and knead a little more until the dough is soft adding a little flour as needed. You’ll know when it’s done. Then transfer it to an oiled container for it’s retarded retardation in the fridge, and go get some well needed rest, you deserved it…I’ll see you in a few days. IMG_2877IMG_2879

Ok – you’re back, rested up, and ready to bake. I like your enthusiasm. But wait – we’re not ready to work just yet. Take the risen dough out of the fridge and let it rest at room temperature for at least 2 hours before we start manhandling it. It will make it much easier to work with.

After 2 hours, transfer the dough to a floured surface, and divide the dough into however many portions you need (whether you’re gonna braid it or not).


Challah dough, after risingIMG_2882

Shape your loaves and set on a baking sheet or loaf pan.

Combine the egg white, and water to make the egg wash, brush the loaves with the egg wash, and let it sit for an hour (reserving the egg wash in the fridge). Then, re-apply your coating of egg wash, sprinkle with poppy and sesame if using, and let it sit for another hour.

15 minutes before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 350. When the dough has risen, bake for 20 minutes, rotate the pans, and then bake another 15-30 minutes. Let cool for 45 –60 minutes, and then rip it apart like the ravishing person you are.


I’m not gonna lie, the challah was pretty awesome. Not necessarily the best tasting challah I’ve ever had (that’s not to say it didn’t taste good, it did, but it wasn’t the best), but in regards to texture, it was dead on. I’ve never had homemade challah that was this perfect in texture. It was soft, tender, and had a great crust and crumb. Also because of the added fats, it keeps really well.

By the way, as per the website I got the recipe from, if you want to use whole eggs, and not just egg yolks, you can, just omit 2 tablespoons of water per whole egg you use. IMG_2887



  • 2 ½ cups/510 grams lukewarm water
  • 1 ½ tablespoons/14 grams yeast
  • 8–10 egg yolks or 170 grams depending on weight of yolks
  • 5 tablespoons/71 grams vegetable oil
  • 6 tablespoons/85 grams sugar, or 4 ½ tablespoons/96 grams honey or agave nectar
  • 1 tablespoon/21 grams vanilla extract (optional)
  • 7 ½ cups/964 grams unbleached bread flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons/19 grams salt or 4 teaspoons/20 grams coarse kosher salt
  • 1 egg white for egg wash
  • 2 tablespoons/30 grams water for egg wash
  • 2 tablespoons/20 grams sesame or poppyseeds for garnish


To make the dough:

  1. Combine the water and the yeast in a mixing bowl or the bowl of a 5-quart mixer and whisk together to dissolve.  Add the egg yolks, oil, sugar, and vanilla, if using, and whisk together to break up then add the flour and salt.
  2. Using the paddle attachment, mix the dough for 2 minutes on the lowest speed.  Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.
  3. Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium low for 4 minutes.
  4. Use a floured bowl scraper or floured hands to transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, sprinkle the top lightly with flour and knead by hand for a couple of minutes until the dough is soft and supple.  It should be tacky but not sticky.
  5. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, or divide the dough in half or in as many portions as you plan to bake,  and place in oiled bowls.  Cover and immediately place in the refrigerator.  The dough should rest at least overnight and can be kept refrigerated for up to 4 days.

To make the Challah:

  1. Remove the dough from the fridge approximately 2 hours before you plan to bake.  Transfer it to a lightly floured surface and cut it into the desired number of braids you want to use or shape into loaves, or dinner rolls.
  2. Shape as desired and place the loaves on sheet pans lined with parchment paper.
  3. Make the egg wash and brush each loaf with the wash.   Reserve the rest of the wash in the fridge, and let the loaves rise uncovered for about an hour. They will not have risen much at this point.  Brush the loaves again with the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds or sesame seeds or a combination of both.
  4. Let the loaves rise for another hour until they increase to about 1 ½ times their size.
  5. 15 minutes before baking, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F./177 degrees C. or 300 degrees F./149 degrees C. for convection.
  6. Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
  7. Cool on a wire rack for at least 45 minutes before slicing and serving.