The quintessential—and elusive—bagel has a crackly exterior and a chewy interior. Shiny and caramel-colored, it tastes yeasty, the tiniest bit sour, and an even tinier bit sweet. The contrast in texture and the subtle sweet-sour flavor, when combined, define what it is to be a bagel. The ultimate bagel doesn’t need toasting to be delicious.

Many bagels are just the bland, bloated stepchildren of their dense, chewy ancestors. According to Ed Levine, the New York food maven and founder of Serious Eats, bagels once topped out at 3 or 4 ounces, while most sold today weigh as much as 6 or 7 ounces. “Bagels have suffered from bagel elephantiasis over the last 20 years,” says Levine. “It’s big, big, bigger, biggest. You’ve got to get the [2.5- to 3-ounce] minis.”

Even H&H, New York’s famed Upper West Side bagel bakery, has fallen prey to the Starbucking of bagels, adding girth and diluting flavor. Levine lists H&H’s flaws as too big, too sweet, and not chewy enough. “A bagel should be like a pizza crust at best: It should be chew that gives way to tender bread dough.”

What Not to Do

Traditionally, malt gives bagels their sweet hint. But these days, most recipes bolster malt’s subtle flavor or replace the ingredient altogether with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. The resulting saccharine taste pleases modern palates that are accustomed to consuming sugary cereals, pastries, and coffee drinks.

Soft and fluffy, mild and pale, the rolls with holes in most of the country are bagels in shape only. Last December, I tasted my way through the best the Bay Area has to offer. I found hints of that addictive bagel flavor at Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto, and strengthened my jaw on the chewy interiors from House of Bagels on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. I even slummed it at Noah’s, a Bay Area chain with decent coffee but innocuous, puffy bagels.

What ever happened to the authentic bagel? I called Israel Rind, Brooklyn native and owner of Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels, to find out. Mr. Rind explained that nowadays most bagelries—including many in New York—steam their bagels instead of boiling them. Boiling is more labor intensive, but it’s what gives bagels their crackly crust and shine. Eliminate the process, and you remove that bagel texture. “A lot of places will give you a bagel that looks like a bagel but is not made like a bagel,” says Rind, who boils his. “It’s like trying to make wine in three weeks.”

When Ed Levine craves a bagel, he hits Absolute Bagels, also on the Upper West Side, or one of the other establishments on the list he compiled for the New York Times on the most authentic bagels in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Levine calls the bagels at Absolute “near perfection: a bagel that is crunchy, not too dense or sweet, and just chewy enough.” Absolute owner Samak Thongkrieng explains that “malt is not so sweet like sugar; the taste is more mellow.”

Those of us who can’t drop into a shop like Absolute are left with only memories and dreams of the crackly, chewy bagels we grew up on, or tasted while passing through NYC. Having faced this cheerless fact, I turned to my oven.

Melissa Wagenberg Lasher is a food and travel writer living in San Francisco. An ex–New Yorker, she has embraced Bay Area food culture—learning to distinguish between clementines and satsumas, discovering which fig trees lend themselves to thievery. Until now, she stubbornly imported bagels.

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