Ask Mary Ting Hyatt what makes a good bagel, and she'll give you a very specific answer: "A shiny, crisp, crackly crust that has great chew, but not necessarily dense." And she should know — for over a year she tested and tweaked what would become the signature bagel recipe of her mini bagel bakery, Bagelsaurus, which sells (or rather, sells out of) around 500 bagels every Friday and Saturday.
I admit I hadn't had a good bagel in Boston until I tasted Mary's bagels, so I was thrilled when she agreed to let me observe her bagel-making process one week. What makes her bagels so good? In short, high-gluten flour, a sourdough starter, and an overnight cold fermentation. Here's a look at her process:
The 4 Things That Make Mary's Bagels So Unique
"I've been thinking about bagels ever since I moved to Boston," Mary told me. "I was always looking for bagels, but I couldn’t find anywhere to get good ones." After graduating from culinary school and interning at America's Test Kitchen (where she overlapped briefly with our own Emma Christensen!), Mary worked at notable Boston bakery Clear Flour, and it was her experience around bread bakers that really informed her bagel making.
Four things in particular stood out to me about her bagel-making method:
- She uses a sourdough starter. Mary's bagel recipe relies on a 34-year-old sourdough starter, which is admittedly unusual for bagels. The sourdough "gives a better flavor and a more open, irregular crumb," she says.
- High-gluten flour: Mary's bagels are made of a proprietary mix of flours, but the main element is high-gluten flour, which "contributes to the chew and rise a lot," and which Mary says is infinitely better for bagels than regular bread flour. She said discovering how much of a difference high-gluten flour made was a turning point in her bagel development!
- An overnight cold fermentation: After Mary or her assistant mixes up all the ingredients for her bagels and shapes the dough, she lets them rise in the fridge overnight. "This is more of an artisan bread approach," she says, "which is letting the dough develop and gain some flavor over longer fermentation." You can see bubbles in the dough the next day as a result of the overnight fermentation!
- She shapes the bagels from dough rounds, not a roll: The typical way to shape bagels is to slap a big mass of dough on the table, roll it into a long rope or log, and then shape bagels out of that with a rolling motion. Mary doesn't do the rope or log method; instead, she starts with individual dough mounds, which she then punctures in the middle with her thumb to make a hole. "My thought is we don’t want to drive out all the gases we’ve been building up [by rolling and pressing the dough], because that’s the flavor," she says. "A lot of the rolling is to make it even more dense, and [my bagels] are a little bit different. I don’t really like the word "dense" ... I like chewy, but not dense. I tried the rope thing, and I wasn't very good at it."
A Bagel Making Timeline
Mary only started selling her bagels eight months ago, and they're currently only available on Friday and Saturday mornings. (She shares kitchen space with Cutty's, a fabulous sandwich shop in Brookline, and sells the bagels there as well.) While exact numbers change every week, she typically makes 200 bagels for Friday's run, and 300 for Saturday, and offers nine flavors: Plain, Everything, Sesame, Poppy, Sea Salt, Black Olive, Pretzel, Cinnamon Raisin and Seeded Wheat.
She also makes specialty cream cheese to go with the bagels, including Honey-Rosemary Cream Cheese and Mustard Butter. Yes, they are both amazing.
The whole process starts early Thursday morning, when Mary comes into the bakery at 6:00am and adds the water and sourdough starter to the dry ingredients, which have been pre-measured into large plastic tubs the night before.
After this, she or her assistant, Kat DiFronzo, mix the dough by hand. While it's hard work, Mary says it proves you don't need a mixer or food processor to make bagels. "Bagel dough tends to be tough because it’s pretty low-hydration in terms of a bread dough. I broke my home mixer twice trying to mix the dough. If I'd known then I could have done it by hand, it would have been better."
(Still, mixing gallons of dough by hand is pretty labor-intensive, and when she gets her own Bagelsaurus storefront, you better believe a pro mixer is on the must-buy list!)
A few hours after mixing, the dough gets cut into rounds, shaped into bagels, and then put into the fridge for an overnight cold fermentation. On Friday morning the bagels that fermented overnight are ready to be boiled, baked, and sold to an eager crowd of bagel lovers, who are already lining up outside the shop at 8:00am. Mary arrives 5:30am to start boiling the bagels. She'll bake around 300 bagels in an hour and a half.
In addition, on Friday morning Mary also starts the process all over again for Saturday's batch, mixing the dough, shaping the bagels, and putting them into the fridge for an overnight fermentation. Come Saturday morning they'll be ready for a boil and bake!
Stay tuned for more bagel tips this week, including Mary's thoughts on using lye for bagels (is it really necessary? Is there an alternative for home cooks?), as well as as a closer look at the unique way she shapes her bagels, which you can definitely replicate at home.