Monday, March 01, 2010

Putting the GLUE in gluten: a bagel FAIL

The ability to make decent bagels at home has long eluded me. I've tried several recipes, each one claiming to divulge the "secret" of bagel baking—barley malt syrup in the dough, baking soda added to the boiling water, boiling for X number of minutes, or Y number of minutes or whatever. Every recipe I've tried produced what were essentially dense little dinner roles with holes in the middle. I gave up on bagel making for a long, long time. Then I got Baking Illustrated from the library—a cookbook in which even the simplest recipes come with pedantic explanations. The Baking Illustrated bagel recipe was so comprehensive, so well-researched besides adding a new "secret" to my store of bagel lore that I felt it could not fail. I set out to Whole Foods forthwith in search of barley malt syrup and high gluten flour. I envisioned my kitchen becoming a bagel production center on a small scale. Never again would I have to stand in line at the bagel shop on a Sunday morning behind hung-over UVA students and Hateful Yuppie Families.
Baking Illustrated warns that high gluten flour can be hard to find and when I saw something called "Vital Wheat Gluten" in the bulk section at Whole Foods, I found an employee and asked him if it was the same thing as high gluten flour and he assured me that it was. I had some misgivings—the vital wheat gluten seemed somehow wrong—but the employee said it was OK—so I filled a big bag. After all, I planned to make lots of bagels.
Baking Illustrated says that professional bagel bakers put their bagels in a "retarder" (hear that Sarah Palin?) A retarder is a specially designed refrigerator that "retards" the dough i.e. causes it to rise more slowly to enhance bagel flavor. I felt that knowing the secret of retarding plus the new high gluten flour (not bread flour, Baking Illustrated is very clear about that) would finally give me the perfect home bagel.

A stand mixer with a dough hook is necessary, Baking Illustrated says, since bagel dough is so very stiff and dry. I put my precisely measured ingredients into the mixer and set it to high. The result was an industrial adhesive. I was concerned about its sickly gray color. I was more concerned about the fact that my dough blade—literally—could not cut into it. I made a half-hearted attempt at kneading the mass on my counter, but this dough didn't need kneading. It needed an exorcism. "Snack food for aliens" was one metaphor that passed through my brain as I wrestled with what, clearly, would never be an acceptable bagel. The dough reminded me of something that I couldn't quite place: cartilage, maybe. I was reminded of tales of old horses being cooked down into glue. This was like a pot of boiled hoofs. No doubt I had created something useful. It might patch a leaky tire or be used to caulk your garage windows, or repoint your brickwork but to actually eat it might prove fatal and would certainly result in a bowel resection.

Of course I realized quickly that "vital wheat gluten" is not the same thing as high gluten flour and may Whole Foods forever bear the shame of having misinformed a customer. I tried again the next day with all purpose flour. I considered adding a little vital wheat gluten to punch up the dough but decided that I'd had quite enough of baking disasters for one week. I slid my little bagels into my refrigerator retarder where they retarded themselves for twelve hours before being boiled and baked. Result? Dense little dinner rolls with holes in the middle.
Now I know that high gluten flour can be found in the King Arthur Baker's Catalog, and I may make ONE last attempt at home made bagels, but if it fails, it is the back of the line at the bagel shop for me again.
In other news, I got my application to UVA submitted on time and finished my "who do you want for dinner" essay last night after working a twelve-hour shift, actually two twelve hour shifts for the weekend, which, believe me, is fucking exhausting. For the essay I finally committed to Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Johnson, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Of course there were hundreds of other people I could have chosen, and I kept second guessing myself: "Oh God! What about Dorothy Parker? What about Michelangelo? What about George Stephanopoulos? What about Tim Russert? What about a Paul McGann triptych: Paul McGann as himself, Paul McGann as the "I" in Withnail & I, and Paul McGann as Lieutenant Busch in Horatio Hornblower?" That last one, I wouldn't seriously put in a college essay, but it's a fun idea. Anyway, it's done, except for the stupid FAFSA and UVA's own financial aid form which is more arduous than the FAFSA. Those are due today too.


  1. I solemnly swear that I will never attempt to bake bagels.

    Alice Roosevelt Longworth would be a highly entertaining dinner companion.

  2. High gluten flour is bread flour. KA bread flour has a pretty high gluten content. AP flour has 10-12% gluten vs. 13-14% gluten in bread flour. If you are so inclined, you may want to try the recipe again with bread flour. Maybe I will join you, I have that cookbook and I've never made bagels.

    BTW, that cookbook is my favorite baking book. Ever. I know the recipe explanations can be tedious and almost too fussy but it can't be beat for reliability, almost everything turns out. Like you, I've had misses but they're usually when I play mad scientist and try to experiment.

  3. That you would even attempt to make homemade bagels once, let alone a number of times, is impressive.

    Congrats on finishing the essay. I hope you are able to accomplish all the other tasks in a not-too-exhausting/aggravating fashion.

  4. Yes. High gluten flour is often called bread flour. You can also add 2tsp vital wheat gluten (which is flour with the starch rinsed out) to a cup of all purpose flour.

    There, you've been schooled on wheat flour by the celiac. ;)

  5. Did you try it using our hi-gluten flour? I hope with better (much) results! EFb @ KAF

  6. That is dedication to a cause. I am dedicated to store bought bagels.

  7. I was going to say what Lbs said, that the fact you're attempting bagel-making multiple times is admirable, but now that I think on it, I imagine that it is necessary for you to keep doing it until you achieve bagel WIN. It's a matter of principle now.

    I will be succeeding vicariously through you, of course.