The Hole Story: Where can you find authentic bagels, flagels and bialys?

Fresh bagels are sold every day in America – but where can a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey find an authentic bagel in St. Louis? That’s what I wanted to know. When I put that question to Margi Kahn, a St. Louisan who has been teaching and writing about bread baking for more than 10 years, I was told “you only have three choices.” But before we reveal where to get these chewy, yeasty, golden, round delights, let’s make sure we know the differences among bagels, flagels and bialys and their origins of yore.

The birth of the bagel

Bagels may have been consumed as early as 1610, but legend has it that the first bagel was boiled and baked in 1683 as a tribute to the king of Poland. Atop his horse, he had saved the people of Austria from Turkish invaders. In his honor, a baker formed a ball of yeast dough into the shape of stirrup and called it a beugel, the Austrian word for stirrup. Over time, its shape rounded into a circle and its name morphed into bagel.

At the turn of the 20th century, enterprising immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe used the hole in the middle of the bagel as a marketing tool, stacking the chewy, tasty treats onto dowels and selling them on the street corners of New York. In 1907, the International Bagel Bakers Union was founded; only the sons of union members could be apprenticed to learn the secrets of bagel making.

The very first bagel factory outside New York was opened in New Haven, Conn., in 1927 by Harry Lender. With the advent in 1963 of the Thompson bagel forming machine, capable of producing hundreds of bagels an hour, real bagels were being boiled, baked, sold and savored all across the United States.

Bagel basics: flour, water, yeast and malt

Bagels are basically made of flour, specifically high-gluten flour, yeast, malt and salt, according to their individual recipes. Water is also added, sometimes as much as a half pound of water for every pound of flour. The ingredients are mixed, the dough is divided into portions and then shaped into the classic bagel shape.

The bagels are then allowed to proof, or rise; the amount of time the dough is allowed to rise also varies by bakers’ differing recipes. Then comes the step that gives the doughy rings their quintessential bagel-ness: They are “kettled,” or dropped into a huge vat of boiling water for a few minutes. The boiling gelantinizes the gluten, seals the surface and results in a shiny, deep amber, chewy crust – what characterizes a “real” bagel from cheap, quickly made imitations. Finally, the bagels are baked in a very hot oven.

The explanation for why all those wannabe bagels from the grocery store and other national chain bakeries don’t have that great crust is simple: They are baked in a steam injection oven. They’ve never been in a kettle.

Bialys and braces

When I got my braces, bagels were on the Thou Shalt Not list along with Bazooka bubblegum and Tootsie Pops. But with thanks be unto Polish bakers, I could have bialys. Also of Jewish origin, the bialy is lighter and whole, unlike its chewy, holey, famous cousin.

As we learned, true bagels are boiled; bialys are indented instead before they are baked. After the dough has risen almost completely, the baker pushes in the center and stretches it to form a hollow where a delicious dollop of a filling – traditionally caramelized onions, though other flavors are also available – can fit in. Baked in a hot oven for less than 10 minutes, a bialy is pale, dusty, lightly brown and even spotty looking.

The baker’s touch is essential to an authentic bialy. Being so labor-intensive may explain why they are so hard to find. While it is tempting to think that “bialy” is Yiddish for bellybutton because of its resemblance to one’s navel, it’s actually named after the Polish city where it was first made, Bialystok.

Skip the bagel, have a flagel

What the heck is a flagel? It’s a flat bagel. First created at Tasty Bagel in New York in 1993, a bagel becomes a flagel just after it is boiled. That’s when it’s flattened to be twice as wide but still have a hole in the middle. If you’ve ever seen someone dig out all the bready middle of a bagel, you know why this “slimmer” bagel is popular. Some might think it has fewer carbs and fewer calories, but what a flagel really does have is just lots of chewy crust. Flagels are very popular on the East Coast even though they are a pain to cut in half. (Please be careful with that serrated knife!)

Only three choices

So Kahn leveled with me: “There are three places in St. Louis that make boiled bagels, Companion Bakehouse, Pratzel’s and The Bagel Factory.” Companion makes about 150 dozen bagels a day in its South City bakery. The bagels are sold at the company’s Bakehouse in Clayton and are distributed to multiple locations, including restaurants, specialty food stores, hospitals, schools and universities, in Companion’s distinctive bread brown trucks. Josh Allen, founder of the 13-year-old company, explained: “We started making bagels in 1999 to meet customer demand. To be true to our bread-baking standards, we had to make real kettle-boiled bagels. We called them Sophie’s Bagels after my then-2-year-old daughter.”

Pratzel’s Bakery in University City is the storefront for the 93-year-old baking company. There it’s the traditional plain, poppy, sesame and tzitzel (cornmeal-dusted) varieties. Pratzel’s bagels are also sold at Kohn’s, Pumpernickle’s, Billy Sherman’s, Carl’s and Posh Nosh delis, as well as at some Dierbergs stores. According to owner Ronnie Pratzel, “Every day we boil, drain, seed and bake 350 dozen bagels at our mechanized manufacturing facility in Olivette.”

At The Bagel Factory on Olive Boulevard in Creve Coeur, a three-person crew hand-makes 100 to 120 dozen bagels a day. “It’s like Lucille Ball in that candy factory,” said owner Tola Moit, describing how they have to keep up with the bagel former. At 500 degrees, a rotating, radiant-heat oven can crank out a finished bagel in 20 minutes from when it was fished out of the boiler. They flip them halfway through to make sure they are evenly crusty and brown.

Moit said the joy in his seven-days-a-week business comes from his customers. Many of them have been coming to the hole-in-the-wall that is The Bagel Factory for decades. It looks exactly the way it did when it opened 36 years ago. While 80 percent of his sales come from preorders, Moit likes talking with the folks who come in every day for one bagel. “I also love the ones that come in and say, ‘It reminds me of New York,’ or they confide to me that ‘This is the only place in St. Louis to get a real water bagel,’ and those who have been away that are so happy to find we’re
still here.”

“An authentic bagel must have ta’am, the Hebrew word for taste,” Kahn said. “It’s the challenge of biting, tearing and chewing that makes eating a bagel so satisfying. They must have character and be satisfying on their own.” I’ll take mine with a schmear.