If someone asked you where to look for the best New York-style bagels in the USA, you might think it was a trick question. New York and bagels go together like cream cheese and lox. It’s a partnership that has gone unquestioned for over a hundred years, since the first bakeries were set up by Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. New York bagels come from New York. The clue’s in the name.
But when Food and Wine published their list of America’s best bagels earlier this month, something strange appeared to be happening. New York bakeries made up scarcely a quarter of the entries on the list, with the rest hailing from all over the country, from Pittsburgh to Seattle. A few days later an article in the Big Apple’s own publication, The New York Times, declared that ‘The Best Bagels are in California,’ before going on to list a few of the Golden State’s best bakeries. Et tu, Brute?
It’s beginning to look like New York’s bagel crown may have slipped. But how did it happen? According to David Landsel, author of the Food and Wine list, many New York bakeries simply weren’t putting in the hours. "To make a truly great bagel, you need time, you can't be in a hurry, and if you're at all familiar with New York, you're probably already laughing," explains Landsel.
Of course, in recent decades independent bakeries have been undercut by mass-produced goods, and it seems that some may have begun cutting corners in order to compete on price. Quantity tends to be cheaper to produce than quality, and many bakeries began offering outsized bagels made with cheap flour. The results were pale, flabby and uninspiring, and contained enough carbohydrate to knock you out for a week.
But while many in New York were struggling, some truly exceptional artisan bakeries began appearing around the rest of the country. Now, it seems, you can find great New York bagels in the most unlikely of places.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, artisan bagel bakeries have taken root most firmly in California, which already has an established artisan and slow food culture. Emily Winston, of Boichik Bagels in Berkeley, California, spent five years perfecting her bagel recipe, travelling to bagel stores around the country in search of the perfect flavour. The New York Times describes the result as "thick but yielding, chewy but not densely so, with a shiny, sweet-and-salty crust and a rich, malty breath that fills up the bag before you even get home."
Across the bay in San Francisco, artisan bagels are a natural fit with the city’s famous baking culture. The New York Times recommends the hand-rolled, wood-fired bagels from Daily Driver, which are served with cultured butter and organic cream cheese from their in-house creamery, and the naturally leavened bagels from Midnite Bagel, which are made using a sourdough starter by owner Nick Beitcher, former head baker at legendary sourdough bakery Tartine.
Los Angeles also has more than its share of exceptional bagels. Maury’s is the pick of the LA batch for Food and Wine, thanks to it’s simple, traditional bagels and adherence to the classical New York style. The New York Times puts in a mention for Bueller’s Bagels, a no-frills, cash-only spot where the quality of the bagels speaks for itself, while both articles recommend the brilliantly-named Yeastie Boys Bagels, who sell generously-stuffed bagel sandwiches from their small fleet of trucks.
The New York Times is also a fan of Pop’s Bagels, which is situated just outside LA in Culver City. Owner Zachary Liporace, who started the business in 2017 as a pop-up, makes a lighter, less chewy bagel, which is cooked in a deck oven for a crunchier exterior. Pop’s also serves homemade cream cheese and shaped frozen dough for baking fresh at home.
But California isn’t the only new location for the artisan bagel. Burlington, Vermont is also something of a hidden gem in terms of quality bagels. Food and Wine recommend Feldman's Bagels, which now has four locations throughout the city, for it’s great bagels and unpretentious feel.
Another great location for that honest, home-baked vibe is Pigeon Bagels, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Self-taught baker Gab Taube was encouraged to go professional by friends who tried her exceptional homemade bagels, and, after a while providing local markets and cafés, she opened up her own shop back in 2019. Her bagels are certified Kosher, and described by Food and Wine as "Bagels any city would be lucky to have at their fingertips".
Naturally-leavened bagels are also appearing in bakeries around the country. The sourdough bagels from Rubinstein Bagels in Seattle, Washington, are "the best of all possible worlds," according to Food and Wine, with the appearance and satisfyingly chewy texture of a New York bagel, and an increased depth of flavour from the sourdough starter and long fermentation time. Likewise, Bagelsaurus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are creating sourdough bagels that Food and Wine have called "some of the best new-style bagels in the country," with the crust and chewiness of traditional New York bagels, and a deliciously light interior.
There are some new bagel companies that refuse to fit into any neat categories, and Lenore’s Handmade Bagel Co., from Dallas, Texas, is one such company. Food and Wine praises the fledgling start-up for not attempting to link their product to New York, instead concentrating on sourcing the best local ingredients to make the best local bagels, which also happen to be some of the best in the country.
Does this spell the end for New York? Absolutely not. The Big Apple remains very much the spiritual home of the bagel, and its influence can still be felt in many of the new bakeries around the country. Emily Winston of Boichik Bagels tells how her search for the perfect bagel was inspired by the much missed H&H Bagels at 80th and Broadway that her father would bring home from business trips to New York, while many others mention the city at least as an influence.
New York bakeries that resisted the urge to cut corners and stuck to making high-quality, traditional bagels have acquired legendary status, with a trip to one of these guardians of New York heritage like an act of pilgrimage for many bagel lovers. Ess - A - Bagel is one of Manhattan’s last old-school mom-and-pop bakeries, and has been run by the Wilpon family since 1976. You will find giant bagels here, but these are made with care, and none of the corner-cutting you might expect. Food and Wine describes them as ‘the finest of their type,’ and the brand appears to be more popular than ever, with three locations throughout the city.
Another of these New York legends is Utopia Bagels, which has been serving bagels to the Whitestone neighbourhood in Queens since 1980. Utopia prides itself on doing everything the traditional way, from hand-rolling the bagels and a longer fermentation, to the vintage 1947 carousel oven used to give the bread an even bake. Described by Food and Wine as ‘one of the city's very best bagel emporiums,’ this looks like another New York institution that is here to stay.
It’s not just the old guard keeping New York’s bagel traditions alive. At first glance, Tompkins Square Bagels, in Manhattan’s East Village, may seem like an unlikely candidate as a stalwart of traditional values. With its wide variety of innovative flavours, it has plenty of modern appeal, but at its core are quality, hand-rolled bagels, made using a recipe from the 1950s. Owner Christopher Pugliese has been baking bagels since the age of 16, and according to Food and Wine, this could be an institution in the making.
How to Make Bagels at Home
If you want great bagels without leaving the house, why not make your kitchen the newest bagel hotspot on the list? With our easy how-to guide, you’ll soon be baking perfect bagels every time.
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