Real New Yorkers Don't Toast Bagels

An essay on bagel toasting and interviews with prominent bagelers about bagels, bialys, best bagel flavors, and the answer to the eternal question: to toast?


Toasting. A highpoint of civilization.

Think about it — fire plus the greatest thing since, sliced bread. You take something perfect — bread in all its forms — born of cultures geographic and microscopic, a food that can be transported, used as a vehicle for flavor, meal, and plate-cleaning device, a food that even spoiled, hard like a rock, can still be used. You take this divine gift, a thing that falls from the sky in religious texts, and you apply another divine power to it: fire.

To oven-fresh bread toasting gives texture. In ‘fresh’ bread (fresh bread that’s no longer warm) it rekindles a hint of that nature from its moment of inception — warmth, chewiness, with steam wisping up from the torn, stretched inside. To commercial sliced bread, toasting gives nuance or its appearance. And with toasting comes that treasured trait, caramelization. Toasting lends the complexities that the most seasoned lovers of bread, pizza, pretzels, bagels, and pastries wax poetic about and argue: “It’s charred!” one says. “Are you mad? It’s burned!” another cries.

Brown, tan, black, sepia, and shades in between — consider the flavors and textures that can be paired with the world's many breads. Untoasted bread? Why! How bland? Have you no personality? No wish for nuance? No need to make your mark on the artisan’s handiwork? Do you lack will, confidence, decisiveness… purpose? Don’t you know what fire does to bread? Are you not transformed by what heat and texture does to butter and other spreads? Think of how it slightly warms jelly! Melts cream cheese. Consider the grilled cheese! The hamburger! Will you give up your toasted bun? Are you… a non-toast terrorist?

Toast! Ah! The Wonder! The Joy! The…

Stop. Just stop. Stop talking. I can’t take it.

Heresy. Sacrilege. Travesty. It's an outright wrong and a burning at the stake. I’ve mulled over this for years. I just can’t swallow the argument in favor of toasting. Toasting is wrong! Wait, a clarification. There is room for toast: for those who know no better, for those who cannot afford fresh bread (though bread’s pretty cheap) or the time to procure it, and as a component in some meals — a cooking method that betters the original dish. A grilled cheese, a lightly toasted hamburger bun, and yes, a Cuban.

chrometoasterI beseech you, do not misunderstand. In those cases toasting is necessary. And culturally, the chrome toaster may be as American as apple pie. Consider Mom or Dad rushing out the door in a commercial, toast in hand. Or a Rube Goldberg machine relying on a toaster to send crusty fare flying upward in some crazy Warner Bros. cartoon. But just as there is room for toast, there is a toast-free zone. That place, my friend, that place, is the bagel.

I was born in Queens in 1976 and raised for eight years in a predominantly Jewish town called Merrick on Long Island's South Shore. It is just a 45-minute ride to the City on the Long Island Railroad. It was there I remember having my bagel cognition moment (a corollary to the theory of pizza cognition, which states that your earliest bagel experiences form how you see bagels for life). I was even, as a Little Leaguer, a bewildered outfielder on none other than Merrick's Bagel City Mets (I'm a Yankees fan). Let me tell you, in that era before food fetishization über alles, we never, ever, in any bagel place, ever ate a toasted bagel.



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41 Comments

Judi Hershel's picture

Believe it or not, not that many of aspire to be a "real New Yorker."

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Toasting a bagel? Yuck might as well eat stale bread.

Why ruin a good bagel by making it stale?

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Eat your bagel as you see fit...but I'd be damned if I would get that worked up over bread.

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Of course, those who aren't from NYC usually can't tolerate the self-important, obnoxious b.s. of those who are for more than five minutes, so I guess it doesn't much matter.

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One week after this article was posted H&H bagel filed for bankruptcy.

You can eat your bagel any way you want. That's what's great about this country.

But for me a great fresh bagel loses something by toasting. Just like great sushi cannot be appreciated slathered on tons of Wasabi. The flavor of a truly great steak is masked by Ketchup. A great pastrami sandwich loses something when served with mayo, lettuce and tomato. If you ever encounter any truly great versions of these foods, go out of you comfort zone and try them the way natives eat them. You may like it better or maybe you won't. Keep an open mind (an important life skill in everything you do - wish more people were truly good at it).

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Actually real Philly Cheese Steaks come from Pat's in South Phila., but the "lunch trucks" that haunted the corners of 36th and Locust Walk when I was at the University of Pennsylvania are what many U. of Pa. alums consider "cheese steaks"--which you can get with grilled onions and pizza sauce. Go Flyers!!!

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Just as there is not such thing as a Philly Cheese Steak outside of Philadelphia (and don't you dare call it Philly--Yo!); no Pizza outside of South Philly); there just may be no bagel outside of NY. I gave up being a food fascist a long time ago, however. Face it, only someone over 50 likely even knows what "lox" is, that pizza is an American phenomenon, or that the best Texas steaks actually come from Kansas City (the same goes for barbeque--but as David Byrne noted a long time ago, God invented a species of humans to live in Texas who "like it here" despite the fact that it is unlivable. Oh, and you cannot get real fajitas outside of San Antonio. Eat that, New York!

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Just as there is not such thing as a Philly Cheese Steak outside of Philadelphia (and don't you dare call it Philly--Yo!); no Pizza outside of South Philly); there just may be no bagel outside of NY. I gave up being a food fascist a long time ago, however. Face it, only someone over 50 likely even knows what "lox" is, that pizza is an American phenomenon, or that the best Texas steaks actually come from Kansas City (the same goes for barbeque--but as David Byrne noted a long time ago, God invented a species of humans to live in Texas who "like it here" despite the fact that it is unlivable. Oh, and you cannot get real fajitas outside of San Antonio. Eat that, New York!

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shuuuuuuuuuuuut uuuuuuuuuup.

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The article was way too long and drawn out, but the basic message is correct. If you toast a good, fresh bagel, you are a savage with no taste. Fight it all you want, but it's the truth. Deal with it.

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Agree! Now I am stuck in GA and people think I am a freak. But they also eat bad bagels here (though we have real ones if you make an effort).

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What a pretentious, silly article. I'll eat my bagels any g'damn way i choose.

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New York Bagels that are baked in the most authentic scenario are second to none. What is it that makes them taste the way they do? Water boiling method ? The water that nyc gets. Humidity. Attitude? Experience Air Altitude? Everybody has their own argument but the truth is noone can pin point the Exact recipe. The fact just remains that New York Bagels are second to none! For gifts and expats try www.BestNewYorkBagel.com

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New York Bagels that are baked in the most authentic scenario are second to none. What is it that makes them taste the way they do? Water boiling method ? The water that nyc gets. Humidity. Attitude? Experience Air Altitude? Everybody has their own argument but the truth is noone can pin point the Exact recipe. The fact just remains that New York Bagels are second to none! For gifts and expats try www.BestNewYorkBagel.com

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Speaking as a hick from flyover land, I just want to say how fortunate I feel to have someone from the right coast take the time to show me the error of my toasting ways. What would we unwashed masses do without all that wisdom?

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what a pretentious article.

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I was born, raised, and Bar Mitzvahed in Flatbush and moved to Forest HIlls when I was 20. Fifteen years later I moved to Manhattan where I've been ever since. So my pedigree is intact. I would have a bagel as last meal. Simply put, there are no rules on how to eat a bagel, and by bagel I don't mean anything with blueberries or raisins in it. When slathering on Philly and lox, I prefer my bagels un-toasted, I'm not a big fan of melted cream cheese or slightly warm salmon. with butter, my preferred topping, the bagel must be toasted medium dark, to allow for some charring of the crust and it's accompanying crunch, but not too dark to ruin the soft integrity of the bagel's interior. And by the way, I've never had a bagel in Manhattan that comes close to the ones you can find in the outer boroughs, H&H is sheer bagel hackery.

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I grew up in Brooklyn, lived and worked there for 35 years, was a teamster in Manhattan for 15 of those years, ate every bagel store bagel known to man. Moved to Bergen County, NJ 20 years ago and was the ultimate NY food snob. You can't get good pizza or Chinese food out here, and the water sucks. However, there is a bagel store in River Edge called Kinderkamack Hot Bagels that rivals any bagel store the five boroughs has to offer. If you are in the area, check the place out, you will be very happy you did.

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WAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

DIFFERENT PEOPLE DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY AND IT'S WRONG!!!

WAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

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Here in Cali, you have to toast your bagel, but back in New York -when I got 'em right out of the oven and the butter drips off- it would be a sin to toast it. They didn't need it.

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I live in central NJ, and its rare to get a fresh bagel right out of the oven. They are usually just sitting in their assigned batch, so toasting is a must. I have had bagels right out of the oven before, and because I have become so accustomed to toasting my bagels to a golden crisp, I even toasted the few that were right out of the oven. I am an African Sicilian, and I like my pizza well-done, my loaf of bread fresh and thorougly cooked, and my bagels toasted dark too. We all have our preferences. I wanna give NY fresh bagels a shot- w/o toasting for a change. (I love my well-done dough though)

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wow, this is one dull, overly written article. i like bagels. i am not a new yorker-let alone the ever elusive real new yorker. what ever that is.

i thought i might learn something interesting about bagels. instead i get a slapdash, rambling p.o.s. article about an opinion that reinforces nyc exceptionalism. go figure. i'll eat my bagel as i please.

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haha
signed,
new yorker in florida. toasted. go figure!

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I'm responding to your NYT piece on NY bagelries. First: you lost credibility when you said a bagel should have nova; a bagel deserves only the best -- lox. I f you don't know the difference, shame on you. Second, bagels didn't used to be sweet: what happened? Get rid of the sugar AND the malt!

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I live in Detroit. We do not have much in the way of fresh hot bagel places in my hood. The closest place has what passes for bagels and even at 7:00am they are never warm. Soft and crusty, but cold. It's all I have. I must toast if I want it warm. I feel so sad, but it is what it is until I move out of this bagel desert.

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"Real New Yorkers"??? Seriously??? Real New Yorkers don't give a shit what your stupid pols say. With 3 million people, don't tell me what REAL NY ERS do.

So fucking stupid

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Would you toast a pretzel? Same difference in my opinion. But i'll be honest, there is a time, place and application, IE in the addition of smoked salmon, in my case.

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I agree wholeheartedly that a fresh bagel is best eaten untoasted. When I get to NYC I have a nice, fresh bagel with lox and cream cheese, no toasting necessary ... or desired !
However, living in a relatively bagel-free zone in Ohio, I do on occasion resort to purchasing frozen bagels. These MUST be toasted to be even remotely comestible.

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When I first moved from the midwest to nyc, I had never had a bagel. This was the mid 50's. 2 blocks from our apartment was a bagel bakery. Let's just say that I became a steady customer and to this day, I would NOT dream of toasting a fresh bagel. Frankly, in those days, we never had left over bagels. No problem. Now I have bagels flown in as well as other delicacies such as rugelah, biayls, and often time fresh NYC bagels as a treat for my family. Yep, over 50 years and I still love a NYC bagel the best.

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I've been trying to tell my mother this for years.

Here in DC, the point is moot. We don't have bagels here. We have round things made of dough, and they are labeled bagels, but they are not.

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