Wednesday, 5 January 2011


A Dozen Buckwheat Bagels

Let's start at the beginning.

Or rather begin with the starter.

Bread needs a starter to make it rise; conventionally, yeast is used, either from a fresh, creamy-crumbly block or in the dried, "instant-mix" form.  However, we have taken up an older method of bread-making: it takes longer, is less convenient, and seems like a step backwards in practical terms. But this isn't about speed or ease; we want bread with flavour and texture.  And it all begins with the starter - the catalyst that begins the reaction that makes the dough rise.  Ours is to be found in a mysterious plastic box in the fridge, full of a sludgy, pale grey mixture, that smells of old beer.  This is our sourdough starter. 

Sourdough uses the natural yeasts in the air and the flour to make a dough ferment and this makes the bread rise. Our “mother” brew has been on the go for some four years now. All it needs is feeding at regular intervals with a bit of flour and water. We stir a bit of this sludge into our dough to make all kinds of bread. And croissants.  And bagels.

If you don’t have a starter already bubbling away in your fridge, it is easy to get one going. Be warned, though: serious sourdough addicts (aka: saddos) will have several different types (one wheat, one rye, one liquid, one stiff, etc) all brewing at the same time, so debates about space can occur if the fridge is also to be used for storing other foods. 

A good place for advice on starting your starter is  This is the website of an online community of ordinary sourdough bakers; it contains a whole range of ideas, photos, recipes and, best of all, lots of chat in the discussion forum where saddos from around the world share their successes, failures, ideas and grumbles. To get started, just follow the link “make your own sourdough starter”:

Now we've started, we can begin.

To make your bagels

The sourdough starter intensifies the flavour of the bagels, and the addition of buckwheat flour gives a nuttier taste and finer texture, as well as a bit of genuine NYC authenticity (though Americans tend to use buckwheat for pancakes rather than bagels).  If you prefer, leave out the buckwheat and use 550g of wheat flour.

400g                      sourdough starter
100 – 150g            tepid water
450g                      strong white bread flour (ideally organic)
100g                      buckwheat flour (ideally organic)
38g                        vegetable oil
25g                        brown sugar
15g                        salt

Mix these all together to form a stiffish dough.  The quantity of water needed will depend on the ratio of flour to water in your starter, so it is worth starting with 100g of water and adding more if the dough is unmanageably dry after kneading for a few minutes.  Once it has incorporated all the loose flour and begun to feel “smoother”, return the dough to the bowl and leave to stand in a warm place (the airing cupboard works well in our house).

After 10 minutes, flour your surface, turn out the dough and knead for about 10 minutes, before returning it to its bowl.  Then leave the dough to rise in a warm place for 3 - 4 hours.

Flour your surface, turn out the dough, knead it briefly, then divide into roughly 12 pieces, forming each segment into a flattened ball (each one should weigh about 90g).  Take each ball in turn and form it into the traditional bagel shape, either by sticking your thumb through the middle to form the hole, or by rolling the ball into a cigar shape and joining the ends to make the ring shape.  

I prefer the thumb method; they always seem to unravel the other way. If the dough is too moist, the holes will fill in again rather than remaining “whole”. This isn’t a problem as they will taste just as good, but they look less professional; my first batch resembled heavy frisbees.

Cover a baking tray with a floured piece of baker’s parchment or greaseproof paper.  Place the bagels on this tray, cover them and then refrigerate overnight (cue more discussions about bread, the fridge and space).  This process, called retarding, slows down the rising process and allows the flavours to develop.

The next morning, turn on the oven (200 degrees). Boil a large pan of water to which you add a couple of handfuls of brown sugar – to give the bagels their characteristic glazed surface.  
Once the water is boiling, remove the bagels from the fridge; place three bagels in the water, turning them after a minute and removing them a minute later.  Place the par-boiled bagels back on the tray, and repeat until all have been done. 

Then place the bagels in the hot oven (200 degrees) for about 20 minutes or until done: golden brown and firm to touch.

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