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I'm looking at highly rated bagel recipes. I'm surprised that many (if not most) of the recipes call for sugar in the water the bagels are boiled in instead of baking soda. That has me a bit puzzled. I always thought that the water is supposed to be alkaline, like lye in the water in old-fashioned pretzel recipes, that it is the alkalinity of the water that give bagels (and soft pretzels) their distinctive chewy texture. What am I missing? Will sugar really create that texture?

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I've used both, and found sugar to give better results at home –  ElendilTheTall Nov 30 '13 at 16:04
    
@ElendilTheTall That's interesting, and surprising. Have you ever used both? –  Jolenealaska Nov 30 '13 at 16:36

3 Answers 3

baking soda (or even better, baked baking soda...see:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/dining/15curious.html?_r=0

is commonly used at home to make soft pretzels. I would use sugar, unless you want that distinctive pretzel flavor for your bagels.

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Traditionally bagels also get dipped in a lye solution, just like pretzels, and for the same reason: to foster browning and flavor. –  SAJ14SAJ Dec 1 '13 at 12:44
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I don't know of any "baked baking soda" - the article makes reference to baked soda (sodium carbonate). –  Aaronut Dec 1 '13 at 13:35
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You can make sodium carbonate by baking baking soda: chemistry.about.com/od/makechemicalsyourself/a/… –  Wayfaring Stranger Dec 1 '13 at 14:31

The main purpose of adding things to the boil are to promote browning and flavor. The texture of the crust is more a product of gelatinizing the starches by boiling, using a high oven temp, and using a good amount of steam during baking.

You can increase browning two main ways, by promoting the Maillard reaction and/or promoting caramelization. Baking soda, lye, or sodium carbonate baths increase the Maillard reaction, and increase surface gelatinization by breaking down some starch, but also give the bagels a "pretzely" taste. You can also promote the Maillard reaction by adding protein to the surface by using an egg or milk wash. Sugar (white or dark), honey, and malt added either to the boil and/or the dough increase surface caramelization and also lend a subtle glaze.

Personally, I always use malt incorporated both into the dough and into the boil. It adds a subtle sweetness and cereal flavor that complements the bagels. I find the pretzel taste from an alkaline bath off-putting. When I don't have malt I use honey, molasses, or brown sugar. I don't use an egg wash either, if you want to add toppings just place the bagel into the topping right out of the boil... they'll stick without anything else.

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I think that maybe the sugar is what gives the bagels their delightful glaze once they are baked. I don't know, have never used anything but sugar when dunking my bagel dough! Haven't made them in awhile though.... do you brush on some beaten egg before sprinkling them with your toppings or not? Hmm.... anyway, my bagels always turned out good with sugar in the water.

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These will be my first bagels. I'm going to start with plain just to get my feet wet - I'm going to try sugar on some and baking soda on the rest. I'll even try both on a few. We'll see! –  Jolenealaska Nov 30 '13 at 23:12
    
no you get the glaze by brushing them with a beaten egg –  Michael Dec 2 '13 at 10:27

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