New Yorkers are often characterized as rude and of the opinion that nothing outside their city rates very highly. In 1976, Saul Steinberg, the well-known cartoonist, and illustrator featured in The New Yorker for more than six decades created what has become the iconic “definition” of a New Yorker. His illustration was featured as the cover for the March 29 edition and it showed the view a typical New Yorker would have if they were standing on 9th Avenue and facing west. There is a lot of detail until you get to the Hudson River but beyond that very little is more than a blur.
Whether Steinberg’s cartoon was a fair depiction in general or not, there is little argument that, when it comes to bagels, New York City lays claim to having the best. Period. This has nothing to do with the way they are served or whether you have them with cream cheese and lox or simply plain. This is entirely about the bagel, itself. New Yorkers firmly believed that the only reason anyone would even eat the inferior versions sold other places is that they have never had an authentic New York bagel, crispy on the outside and delightfully chewy on the inside.
What Makes the NYC Bagel Better?
While there was never an argument over whether NYC actually has the best bagel, there has been a fair amount of controversy over just exactly what it is that makes it so much better. Ask most New Yorkers and they will tell you without hesitation that “it’s the water!” They may be right. The water that flows through the taps in the city originates in what is called the NYC watershed in the Catskill Mountains. Because it has really low levels of calcium and magnesium, it is classified as “soft”, which affects the gluten content in the bagel dough.
One famous New Yorker, former talk show host Larry King, certainly believes the water theory. Upon retirement from CNN, King, who moved to California years ago, became an owner in The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co franchise in Beverly Hills, which claims to use proprietary water that matches the chemical composition of what is found in NYC.
So, is it the water? In all likelihood, the water does make a difference. Based on research by the American Chemical Society, Boston is the only city in the U.S. where the water is softer. Not everyone agrees, however, that the composition of the water is the defining factor. What probably contributes more is the process itself.
Bagel makers in New York City have been baking bagels the same way the original Polish immigrants introduced them to the city well over a hundred years ago. By 1900, more than 70 bakeries were baking bagels in the city and doing so the time-honored way of proofing the yeast and then boiling the bagels before they ever reach the oven. This is still the way NYC makes its bagels. The same cannot be said for most other places in the country. Shortcuts are taken with the preparation of the dough and instead of boiling, there is steam added during the baking process.
Does this modified process produce an inferior bagel? Just ask anyone who has ever had a New York City bagel.