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Published Friday, June 26, 2015

Bagels Are Much More Than Round Bread With Holes in Them

By Todd Feinburg

Owner Mike Lombardo, left, works the oven with baker Andre Lima at Rosenfeld’s Bagels in Newton Centre last Saturday. “You can’t find a bagel like this anywhere,” says Lombardo.

Bagels are one of those foods that people have opinions about. Strong opinions. Red Sox versus Yankees sort of strong. Some like their bagels harder and tougher, others like them soft.

When I was a growing up in Lexington in the 1960s, my father would drive us to Newton, where he grew up, just for the Jewish Deli. He was longing for what he called sissle bread, wonderful light rye filled with caraway seeds that many refer to as light rye. But we would also pick up a dozen of their New York-style bagels.

I loved the strong ethnic flavor of the store where I got my first tastes of tongue and whitefish. But the bagels stood out most of all. They were tough — so tough it was hard to tear a bite free once you sank your teeth into one.

Over time, bagels have transitioned from being a Jewish food into a modern day fast food, with any piece of bread shaped like a donut getting away with calling itself a bagel.

Two weeks ago, taken by an urge to bite into a sturdy bagel, I took a little research ride with my wife. Our goal was to answer the question, “Does anyone make a New York-style bagel around Boston anymore?”

Off to Marblehead we went for a visit to Evan’s, which we’d heard good things about. Evan serves an authentic New York-style bagel, but it’s one that he buys frozen from a New York outfit, allowing him to simply put them in the oven for a few minutes before removing a very nice bagel.

Despite the success of Evan’s model, what we’re really looking for is a locally made bagel, where the baker has to come in at 1:30 a.m. — we want them to make money the old fashioned way — by boiling it!

From Evan’s we drove to Swampscott to sample the offerings at Newman’s Bakery, which cooks its own New York-style bagels says baker Bernard Newman, who operates the family business with his sister, Jessica. When I told Bernard that I was in search of the bagel of my youth, he said, “You’ve found it. We make it fresh every morning, the old fashioned way!”

Next we went to Bagel World Bakery and Deli in Salem (they also have three other stores). The baker explained that after proofing at room temperature for a time, they’re put in the walk-in to continue rising overnight before being boiled and baked. Despite those steps, one customer we spoke with said they’re not exactly New York-style bagels. “They’re bigger and puffier,” she said, “but still the best in the neighborhood, so I’m here.”

Issues of process — proofing the bagels, then, before baking, dropping them in boiling water — these are the elements that some say make the New York bagel special, not the oft-credited New York water. The water is different there, but water hardness is easily adjusted wherever you are, so there’s no reason a Boston baker couldn’t get the same results.

Proofing was highlighted recently as the defining part of the process in a much quoted bagel-analysis column by science writer Brian Palmer in the online magazine Slate. Palmer writes, “whereas New York’s venerable bagel establishments tend to ferment their dough slowly in wooden containers, fly-by-night operations abbreviate this process. The longer method employed by traditionalists allows the yeast to produce more than 50 flavor compounds.

We couldn’t find any local shops using the wooden proofing method. Even without the wood, though, allowing the dough to take its time rising is said to be one of several keys to a process that produces a great bagel.

“No one does this anymore,” says Mike Lombardo, owner of Rosenfeld’s Bagels in Newton Center, where you can watch the bagels boil before being put in the oven to bake. “This all started to change about 20 years ago when the big companies decided they wanted to make bagels. This is too much work for them.”

Lombardo tears open a steaming hot bagel as he speaks from behind the counter, his passion drawing other customers toward us, as he hands me half. “Taste this,” he says, “You can’t find a bagel like this anywhere.”

At Rosenfeld’s, the dough proofs for about 24 hours, the only way to get it to rise enough without using additives, says Lombardo, because bagels are a low-yeast product.

On day two of our bagel research, we started with an early visit to Katz Bagels, the legendary shop in Chelsea owned and operated by the same family since 1938. It reminded me of the vibe in that old deli in Newton that my dad used to frequent, with locals hanging around and chatting with the owners.

“You’ve got to try the bagel pizza,” said one man who was waiting for a fresh batch to come out of the oven. “Best thing you’ll ever eat!”

From there we went to Kupel’s on Harvard Street in Brookline, a busy deli with sandwiches, baked goods, and a huge reputation for making bagels the old fashioned way. But the bagels we tried were soft and mushy — we were perplexed.

So there’s a short list — Evan’s, Newman’s, Katz’s, Bagel World, Kupel’s and Rosenfeld’s that make an effort to get an old fashioned, New York-style bagel into your hands.

Toward the end of our search we found Bagelsaurus, a small bagel store that opened about nine months ago on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge that describes itself as a “modern bakeshop.”

Owner Mary Ting Hyatt’s bagels are tougher on the outside than any we tasted at the New York-style bakeries, while softer and airier on the inside. “We’re not trying to be New York,” she says. “We’re just trying to take what we like about New York bagels, about any bagels, while eliminating the things we don’t like, like how dense they can be.”

And Bagelsaurus bagels are stunningly good food. The sourdough bread is pleasingly tart, and my wife and I shared big smiles as we chewed. These baked goods struck us as a cut above the others, a new model, perhaps, for what bagel excellence should taste like.

We learned a lesson. Instead of looking to the past for great New York-style bagels, we should have simply been looking for great bagels. The good news is, despite our mistake, we found them.

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