The best bagels are in California (Sorry, New York)
BERKELEY, Calif. – The bagels at Boichik Bagels look like Labrador puppies curled up for a nap: soft and chubby, golden chubby (made handy for that old puppy or bagel meme).
The bread has a comforting squeeze to it – thick but pliable, chewy but not dense, with a shiny, sweet and salty crust, and a rich, malty breath that fills the pouch before you even get home.
Here the writer (me), a retired New York City (Brooklyn) resident, smugly tells you that these bagels are good for California bagels that are excellent for West Coast standards.
But no, to be very clear: Emily Winston’s bagels are some of the best New York style bagels I’ve ever tried. They happen to be made in Berkeley.
And it’s not an anomaly. Ms. Winston, 43, is part of a West Coast bagel boom, one of many bakers who craft and excel at local styles.
Daily Driver’s wood-fired bagels and impressive blocks of butter have their own fan base. The same goes for the dark, wonderfully tough bagels at Gjusta, the puffy beauties at Bueller’s Bagels, the strong sandwiches from Yeastie Boys and the more restrained ones from Maury’s.
When Zachary Liporace moved to Los Angeles from New York, he tried every bagel in town. While working as a caterer in 2017, he started a pop-up called Pop’s Bagels, named after his grandfather.
“New York style is sure to be an influence,” he said, but he is still reluctant to use the phrase on his menu. In part, the term means so many different things to different people that they are often disappointed.
Compared to a New York bagel, “our bagel isn’t that dense and tough,” said Liporace, 34. “And the outside is different because we use deck ovens.”
The exterior is light and wonderfully crisp, with a definite crunch, and once it’s cool enough to touch it is best lathered with the store’s homemade cream cheese, flavored with buttermilk. (For those who like a different type of finish, he sells the raw, shaped frozen batter to bake at home.)
Like many bakers, Mr Liporace expanded his business during the pandemic. He opened a location in Culver City in January and is planning a second in Brentwood.
Arielle Skye, 29, started selling small quantities of delicious, aggressively crunchy bagels on her bike and later found an audience with a wobbly cardboard sign at the farmers market in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles every Saturday.
The bagels looked like Montreal-style bagels, and I happily waited for open-faced sandwiches thickly coated with cream cheese and stacked with sliced, ripe tomatoes, even as Ms. Skye’s fan base grew and the lines got longer and slower.
Last October, she and her partner Chris Moss opened Courage Bagels in the Virgil Village neighborhood in the room where Elvia Perez had previously run a bakery called Super Pan.
Ms. Perez served the Guatemalan, Mexican, and Salvadoran communities in the region for 20 years until the landlord expelled her in 2018. She moved her business to South Central Los Angeles, where Ms. Skye and Mr. Moss drive every Friday so they can store the Pan Dulce in the case at Courage Bagels – a bittersweet relic of the block’s identity, set against a gentrifying pattern of rising rents, evictions and changing tastes.
Buy Ms. Perez ‘Pan Dulce when you see it, along with Ms. Skye’s smoky poppy seed bagel with all of its layers of crispness and crispness. And go for the burnt it all if you like to lick your fingers and save the crispiest, most browned onion and garlic chunks that inevitably shake off a bagel on the move.
Bagels are personal and everyone sticks to their own vision of the ideal.
The bread is certainly not new to California. Nick Beitcher, 37, grew up in Los Angeles with bagels from Bagel Nosh Deli and New York Bagels – his dad always came home from the gym with a big brown paper bag full of hot bagels, and his family still eat them in theirs Yom Kippur breakfast.
But the bagels he now makes at his San Francisco store, Midnite Bagel, is almost impossible to categorize, which is more influenced by his time as head baker at Tartine who works at Chad Robertson’s school.
Mr. Beitcher’s bagels have a high hydration and are fermented naturally with a young, liquid sourdough starter that develops flavor for around 24 hours.
Mr Beitcher started Midnite Bagels as a pop-up in Tartine, but during the pandemic he went and turned to bagels all day. Most days he’s up at 3 a.m. and cooks the dough. He jumps into his van for home and cafes deliveries. He also runs a busy bagel stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
He thinks of the bagel, he said, as he thinks of good bread: “You should try the grain that is used in the dough. And there should be contrasts – texture contrasts, taste contrasts. “
Ms. Winston of Boichik grew up in central New Jersey and ate the H&H sesame bagels that her father brought back from Manhattan. She started baking in 2012, not long after the H&H Bagels location on 46th Street closed.
“I was so upset that I would never have that bagel again,” said Ms. Winston. While other locations still operate downtown, for many fans they are not the same.
In her memory, the H&H bagel was the ideal New York style bagel. It had a pronounced sweetness and a malty perfume. And while some bagel lovers found it too cute for Mrs. Winston, this cutie was spot on. It defined the bread.
“I mean, it’s not a muffin, it’s not a cupcake, it’s sweet and neutral, which goes very well with cream cheese and salmon,” she said.
While developing her recipe, Ms. Winston took baking classes and visited bagel shops, particularly in New York. To evaluate each bread, she tore it apart and licked the shiny exterior. She was looking for a specific density, maltiness, chew, crust, and smell – “I think the smell is really big,” she said.
Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who introduced the bagel to Lower Manhattan in the early 20th century defined the general parameters of a New York-style bagel.
The dough was based on a long, cold fermentation – usually overnight. Changes in temperature and humidity, as well as the hydration of the dough itself, were all factors in the development of taste and texture. The raw rings, traditionally rolled by hand, were briefly boiled and then baked on boards wrapped in burlap.
Cooking NOW: Learn how to make bagels with Claire Saffitz.
Water has long been part of New York bagel mythology. The city’s tap water is particularly poor in magnesium and calcium, which makes it “soft” in the water. But bakers can set their dough to boil in soft or hard water to achieve the desired effect.
“It’s not the water source, it’s the baker,” says the introduction to bagels in Modernist Bread, the mythical 2017 bread book by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya.
Ms. Winston uses unfiltered Berkeley tap water. And when she started baking, she used what she calls the “crappy, standard electric, totally fancy, not fancy oven.”
It was a DIY situation, and she made her own bagel boards and baked a dozen at a time in her eat-in kitchen. When Ms. Winston was serious, she got a home cooking license and posted about the bread on Facebook. Lines grew in her Alameda kitchen, outside the front door, down the street, around the block.
Boichik, simply adorned with family photos, was only open a few months when the pandemic broke out. Ms. Winston was quick to ponder what to do – pushing for wholesale sales, introducing home delivery, and hiring a Shopify developer to create a new website for smoother online ordering.
Now a socially distant line dots College Avenue. The bagels that are made in bulk are still fat and chewy and flavorful and malty. But they’re not replicas of the H&H bagel – they never were.
“I know it’s not exactly the same,” said Ms. Winston. “But it pushes that button in my brain that makes me happy.”
Where the bagels are
Boichik bagels, 3170 College Avenue, Berkeley, California; 510-858-5189; boichikbagels.com
Courage bagels, 777 North Virgil Avenue, Los Angeles, 323-828-9963, mutbagels.com
Midnite bagel, A 50 Ferry Building, San Francisco, midnitebagel.com
Pops Bagels, 8850 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, California; 323-903-7481, popsbagelsla.com