Sourdough Bagels Experiment

I love baking sourdough. It is delicious, healthy1, and forgiving to work with. Over the past year, it has been an ongoing project to learn as much as I can about how to bake the most interesting sourdough breads from scratch. In this project, I decided to bake sourdough bagels.

Some have argued that sourdough bread likely resembles the first breads that humans ate. There is evidence dating back to ancient Egypt that bread was made using the yeasts from old beer. The basic concept is elucidated quite nicely by this baker.

Clearly, the rapid-rise yeasts found in Wonder Bread are nothing like the breads our ancestors ate. Some believe that these unnatural breads are associated with a recent spike in gluten intolerance. There is a bit of evidence in support of this assertion: some gluten intolerant people are tolerant of sourdough bread.

As a relatively recent addition to the 2,000+ year history of sourdoughish breads, San Francisco sourdough has quickly become the archetype pro tempore for sourdough. San Francisco sourdough is one of those interesting coincidences in life, kinda like life itself, I guess. The characteristic flavor of its sour dough comes from the organic byproducts of bacteria2 and yeast metabolism.

Specifically, the flavors come from lactic acid from the bacteria and a bit of alcohol from the yeast. Alcohol boils and evaporates at about 172°F, which means that it has a much lower boiling temperature than lactic acid (250°F). Because you bake break much hotter than 250°F (at about 500°F), the alcohol and lactic acid both boil off during the bake, so you won't get drunk from it after you bake the bread. However, due to its lower boiling point, the alcohol boils off more quickly than the lactic acid (the same principle that allows distillation!). The diaspora of these "metabolites" from the dough during the baking process also contributes to why your starter always has a stronger flavor than a leavened sourdough bread.

The science behind sourdough baking will be a topic for a future post, but for now, it's sufficient to say that San Francisco sourdough is unique because its lactic-acid bacteria, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, works symbiotically with its yeast, usually Candida milleri. The bacteria and the yeast each consume different sugars, so that there is not competition for resources. In addition, the bacteria has an antibiotic effect that keeps out other harmful infections, keeping your sourdough starter clean and delicious. If you're interested, you can read this article about the chemistry behind sourdough bread.

So how did I make the bagels? the principle is very basic: Let some dough rise, form it into bagel shapes, boil it in salty water, then bake them and eat too many carbs for 2 days straight. In the rest of this article, I'll explain the details of this process.

Let's start with the ingredients:

  1. Sourdough starter- Starting a starter is MUCH easier than you might think. You can read long blog posts about the process, but the basic concept is that you mix equal parts (by volume) flour and water together, and wait. Natural yeast and bacteria come from the air. Once again, the science will be a topic for a later post, but if you need a starter quick, I recommend stopping by a bakery and asking them if they'll let you have some of their starter for your baking experiment.

    My starter:
  2. Flour- Which flour to pick? This is a tough question when it comes to making baguettes. You want the absolute perfect amount of gluten; too much and it turns chewy, too little and the thing won't stay together. Bagels are a bit more forgiving. The white flour that they sell at Trader Joes or anywhere else should work fine for the bagels.

    A note on flour selection: I've noticed that a lot of novice bakers are immediatly drawn to trying to incorporate whole wheat flour into their baking, perhaps because they want to make their bread as “healthy” as possible. Truth be told, whole wheat flour is just very difficult to work with. Even though it has a reputation for being gluten-heavy, it's rather hard to get a good gluten development in your bread with whole wheat. This is why a lot of whole wheat breads fall apart so easily: they have little packets of gluten, but it doesn't "play well" with the rest of the loaf, so it crumbles.

    I simply reccomend skipping the whole wheat. As it turns out, sourdough probably has a lower glycemic index than whole wheat3, meaning a primary health benefit of whole wheat as opposed to white flour, the rate at which it raises blood glucose levels, is actually accomplished just fine with sourdough made from white flour. If you still want to be really healthy about it, choose rye over whole wheat. Sourdough rye consistently ranks as the lowest glycemic index bread.

  3. Water- Yeast and bacteria are living creatures. A good rule of thumb when adding water to them is that if the water temperature is uncomfortable for you, it is uncomfortable for the yeast and bacteria. Although a lot of fast-rise breads call for warm water to speed-up the kinetics of the reaction, the bread will rise just fine with room-temperature water.
  4. Salt - The yeast need salt, and it makes your bread taste better. I tend to salt to taste. If I've used 3 cups of flour, I give a few shakes of salt, probably not more than a teaspoon, but not less than half a teaspoon

I've often heard the adage that "cooking is an art, baking is a science," usually to suggest that one needs to be very precise when baking. As a scientist, I tend to believe that there is quite a bit of overlap between the domain of science and the domain of art. In order for baking to "work," two factors must be present:

  1. There needs to be a levening agent - This can be several things, including baking soda, baking powder, or yeast. What they all have in common is that they can be the "limiting reagent" in a leavened product if they are not present in surplus. All leavened products require enough leavening agent to create gas, usually CO2, to expand and get caught in the gluten matrix. If there isn't enough leavening agent, the product will not rise. However, it is not always the case that the levening agent is the limiting reagent. The rising of the bread can also be hindered by...
  2. Gluten! - if the gluten is not fully develped, there will be nothing in the bread to "catch" the expanding gas, and the gas will simply evaporate into space, leaving only a blob of dough to harden and undergo maillard reactions. The ideal level of gluten development depends on the type of bread you'd like to make. Slice bread has a spongier consistancy, so it can handle more gluten. Gluten is enzymatically released from wheat in the presence of water and heat. Thus, kneeding is an important step to helping the gluten form, but too much kneeding can lead to too much gluten.

As you can glean, there is a lot of variability with respect to how you get your bread to "work." In many cases, I think that following a recipe to the dot is a very bad way to make bread, because it doesn't force you to pay attention to the qualitative features that will affect how your bread bakes and tastes. Once you have successfully baked a few loaves and have the confidence to deviate from a recipe, I highly recommend trying your own flour/water ratios, kneeding techniques, and rising times, just to see what happens and how each will affect your bread.

That being said, I know that it's helpful to have a ballpark idea for what ingredients to use, so here's a basic guideline based on how I made these bagels:

  • 1/2 cup starter (50/50 suspension of flour and water, by volume)
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2/3 tspn salt
  • seeds to taste - I used a mixture of fennel, poppy, and sesame seeds. I also chopped some onions and garlic to put on top. Do whateva ya like!

And the basic process:

  1. Make sure your starter is active. This means that it is bubbling, and has probably been fed about 3-6 hours ago

    An active starter is a happy starter:
  2. Put the starter in a plastic bowl. Always use plastic (or wood if you're a hippy and you feel like cleaning it afterwards), metal can interfere with the yeast.
  3. Add about a cup of the flour, the salt, some of the seeds (if you want seeds inside your bagels), and the water. Mix it all together. It should be very wet.
  4. Continue to slowly add flour. Once it gets to the point where you absolutely cannot mix it with a wooden spoon anymore (I personally use a chopstick), knead it. Don't worry that it gets all over your hands, this is how real dough behaves. Continue to add the flour until the dough still feels quite wet, but it can form a bit of a ball
  5. Let the wet dough ball sit for about 5 minutes. Believe it or not, this will be a very helpful step in releasing the gluten.

    Un-risen dough ball:
  6. knead in about another 1/2 cup to a cup of flour. Because we will be boiling the bagels later, we can have a fairly dry dough for rising, but it should still be sticky. If this is your first time dealing with dough and it isn't surprisingly sticky, then maybe add another teaspoon of water. The yeast will love you for it
  7. Let the dough rise over-night. Or if you did all this in the morning, let it rise while you're at work. The important part of this step isn't that the dough "rises," but that the yeast and bacteria eat the sugar, and that the dough release gluten. If both steps have been completed successfully, the dough will puff up and rise. If the dough does not rise, a likely possibility is that the dough did not release enough gluten. I like to check my dough to see how springy it is: It should be able to stretch when you pull it.

If your dough has successfully risen, then we are finished with the "dough development" phase of bagel making. Now for the fun part: Making the bagels!!

  1. First, if you really want to, you can punch the dough, although I don't recommend it. I prefer to gently fold the dough back into itself, then divide it into 4-6 pieces. Although you don't need to be too precious with the dough, don't over-handle it.
  2. Gently form a ball out of the pieces, and let it sit for about 5-10 minutes. Then place both of your thumbs in the middle of the ball and gently create a hole. Gently form the bagel shape, then put it on a sheet of wax paper to rise. After you've formed all your bagels, let them rise for about an hour

  3. Before the next step, you should prepare your toppings. I chose to use fennel, poppy, and sesame seeds for some bagels, garlic for others, and red onions for variety. You will want to put the toppings on as soon as the bagels finish boiling.
  4. Now it's time for the famous part: boiling the bagels. I always put way more salt in my water than I think I need, and I have yet to really over-do it. maybe about a tablespoon or more. You only need to boil them about 30 seconds per side. If your gluten hasn't developed well, the bagels might fall apart in the water, as water can break up gluten. The bagels should puff up and float when they boil.

    It can be difficult to fish them out; I recommend using a serrated spatula.
  5. Immediatly after you extricate your bagels, put the toppings on! Yum.
  6. I baked my bagels at about 500°F for about 12 minutes. Here are pictures

  7. Like all good bakers, take a pretty picture to show errehbody:
  8. enjoy!

Final thoughts on the project: I'm really stoked with how the bagels came out! They were chewy on the inside, appropriately crusty on the outside, and quite flavorful. I have made them twice, and I didn't change the process at all from the one I described above. I really wouldn't change anything about how they turned out.

I think it's probably important to bake them on something that does not conduct heat too efficiently to prevent the bottoms from burning.

Published on November 13, 2012 in Projects

> > Sourdough Bagels Experiment