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?
Yes, I'm from Long Island (quibble with that if you like), but I’m sorry to inform you that most often, bagel-toasters are not native New Yorkers. The natives who do? Well, they either don’t know good bagels, or don’t know what they’re talking about.
Credit: Arthur Bovino
A good bagel in its perfect form — that is to say, fresh from the oven — does not require toasting. It does not benefit from toasting. Toasting a good bagel is bastardizing a beautiful thing. If you’re toasting a good bagel, you’re toasting something that’s already warm and crusty — that’s redundant. You’re not going to get anything better than peak form — oven-fresh. The outside is already crisp yet pliable. The inside, willing and giving, accepting and forgiving, still able to transform through its residual heat, its breath — your spread, from its natural state into something just slightly different, while keeping its integrity. If you’re taking this level of craftsmanship and toasting it you either have hubris or a lack of experience with quality product.
There is nothing wrong with toasting an average bagel, a day-old bagel. Go ahead, freeze your bagels and then toast them. By all means. But a fresh bagel? Make whatever case you want about who makes the best bagel. Indeed, let's start that fight! But to take whichever bagel that is for you, that pinnacle of bagelness — everything that is bagel and everything that a bagel should be — to toast that? No. And here’s the thing, those bagels, those bagels acceptable for toasting? The frozen ones, the hours-old bagels, the day-olds, the second-time rounders? You keep them. They’re not worth eating if you have to toast. If you’re toasting a bagel worth eating, you’re not just painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, you're spitting in Da Vinci's face.
When you’ve had a fresh bagel from the oven, you know there’s nothing else. Leftovers? They’re good for guests overstaying their welcome, for the pigeons that ride the A train, the tourists who queue up needlessly for Broadway shows when they can just walk in. Slice those bagels thin on a mandoline, lay them on a baking tray, and use them as chips. Get some cream cheese with scallions, Nova, or ‘veggies’ mixed in and use them to dip. Or dry and grind them up — super-powerful Jewish breadcrumbs. Do what you like with them, but keep them away from me.
Real bagel-lovers, and by extension, real New Yorkers don't toast their bagels.
Says who? Says some of the most prominent bagelers and critics. Toasters, stop invading New York and feeling like you're part of the in-crowd because you know what 'schmear' means. Go back to Ohio and pop a Lender's in the oven if you want a toasted bagel.
Sure, it's easy to find things to disagree about with former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton — food trucks, David Chang, Brooklyn — as Zachary Woolfe's Capital New York interview showed. But as Richard Horwich noted in Saveur, she was right about one thing, "Ten years ago, food writer and bagel purist Mimi Sheraton was kvetching about the 'obscene' practice of warming or toasting bagels before eating them; now, heaven knows, anything goes."
Former BBC journalist Maria Balinska agrees. She grew so interested in bagels that her research culminated in a book The Bagel. Ms. Balinska noted, "If the bagel has just come out of the oven it’s a crime to toast it because you miss out on the sensation of tearing into the steaming dense dough. But if it’s over 12 hours old then the bagel benefits from being heated up again."
Some bagelers bow to customer preference. Panos Voylatzis, the president of Brooklyn Bagel was equanimous about his own preference: "Sometimes I toast my bagel, and sometimes I do not." For Panos, toasting means time, and time, money. "The way we see it is that the only downside to toasting is from a business perspective," he explained. "Toasting definitely slows down our customer line." But was that a note of frustration, or derision in his addenda? "We have some customers, and only a few, thankfully, who prefer their bagel toasted as soon as it comes out of the oven."
Panos isn't the only one to make concessions. "Leo’s does toast," acquiesced Adam Pomerantz, co-founder of Murray’s and the owner of Leo’s Bagels. But, he added, "Personally, I do not need a bagel toasted — if it’s fresh. It has to be fresh, or right out of the oven. A fresh bagel does not need to be toasted. Murray’s does not toast. Leo’s does."