Bagels and the water bath
For both bagels and pretzels, dunking them in the water bath is very important for their appearance and flavour. Many experts will say that it is the process of dunking in boiling water that is the making of a good bagel. Industrial baking pursues convenience, and corner cutting is defended as “cost cutting”, so nowadays the boiling is replaced by steam injection in modern rack ovens.
To an afficianado of the real bagel, this oven steaming gives an inferior result, and bagels made without the boiling are rated as inferior to a point of being not worthy of the name.
The Bagel bath!
The bath of simmering hot water is made up as a caustic alkaline solution, which in the past was made by the addition to the water of lye. Lye’s chemical name is sodium hydroxide and it can climb to 14 on the pH scale. Although one can purchase food-grade lye it is essentially the same caustic solution that is used for making soap and cleaning drains. Its importance concerns the ultimate dark crust, the way it forms and tastes. The alkaline nature of the water bath affects the relationship between proteins and sugars on the surface of the dough. When the alkaline lye breaks down the proteins into smaller amino acid particles these fuse more easily with the sugars in the dough surface, creating flavour compounds, and setting up the crust of the bagel for a more spectacular Maillard Reaction in the oven.
The Maillard process is responsible for browning, and the widely different flavours of many foodstuffs, mainly in roasting, baking, grilling, and frying, of which bread is just one. For the best and quickest reaction it needs high temperatures and a dry surface on the cooking food, which will soon be hotter than boiling point. During the process, literally hundreds of compounds will form, all responsible for flavour, aroma, and colour.
With bread, the Maillard Reaction becomes an important phase of the baking stage, affecting not just crust colour but, more importantly, aromas and flavours. Its occurrence is based on that reaction between reducing sugars (simple dietary sugars, monosaccharides like galacose, glucose, and fructose) and amino acids undergoing extreme heat. It is different from caramelisation, which only destroys sugars, and occurs at even higher temperatures. As explained for the bagel, the Maillard Reaction is enhanced when the food comes from an alkaline environment.
Most amateur bakers and home bakers would agree that it is a big step to handle dangerous lye that requires rubber gloves and protective goggles. You can avoid lye by making instead your alkaline solution for your water bath using soda bi-carbonate, also known as baking soda, some types of which can reach about 9 pH. For those purchasing the common form from suburban shops, use it in the water at 6% (meaning 60 gm to a litre).
Good baking, Panarians, and I hope you try bagels.
PS. We make bagels to special order on our Thursday productions days. Why not give them a try? Select “Click and Collect” or “Home Delivery” at the checkout.