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.

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.

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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.

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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."

 


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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."

murraysPanos 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."

"Integrity? It's preference," noted Juda Engelmayer, president of Kossar's Bialys. Even so, his first response was telling, "A fresh hot bagel needs no toasting, but a bagel stored in your freezer and thawed could use a toasting to get it going."

Another bageler, Arye Lewkovitz, the owner of Daniel's Bagels was more declarative: "Not to toast. First of all, when you bake the bagels, and they’re coming very fresh, they’re already crispy outside and soft inside. People that come from out of town, or another state, their bakeries bake them and make them once or twice a day, so, often when they get them they’re very hard. So they like to toast them to make them as if they’re fresh. We keep our ovens on all day. So we’re constantly making fresh bagels that are crispy outside and soft inside. So there’s no need to toast them."

Hear that? Real New Yorkers don't toast. What about a more recent addition to New York City's bagel scene? Call it "The Mile End Effect," a growing number of Montreal bagels making inroads in Gotham. Joel Tietolman, the founder and managing partner of Mile End Montreal Bagel wouldn't speak about New York bagels, but noted, "A Montreal bagel goes back to its original-hot-out-of-the-oven gooeyness after a light toasting. It’s a known trick that if sliced as soon as possible and frozen, that a quick toast brings them back to an incredible fresh-tasting bagel."

And where would say Vince Morena, the president of the storied St-Viateur Bagel in Montreal, Canada, weigh in on this? "Given the choice, hot and fresh out of the oven," Vince agreed. "But toasting for me is all right. And believe it or not, I keep bagels in my fridge. I tend to toast them whole to give them that crispy oven effect."

monalisabagelAll this having been said, I admit, when I asked my hometown bageler his preference my heart fell. "It may not be correct, but I’m a Jew at heart, and Jews love toast!" admitted Bagel Boss's founder Adam Rosner, laughing. "I do! I love toast, man. A toasted bialy is the Jewish English Muffin." But he was talking about regular toast, right? How about bagels? "A plain bagel, would I toast a bagel? I do."

Even so, you have to concede, he knows it's not right. Which brings this random sampling of experts on the toast matter to six out of nine (seven out of ten counting Sheraton). So, you. Yeah, you. Stop toasting. Go find a good bagel. And don't even get me started on the right amount of cream cheese.

Click here for full interviews with the eight bagel experts above as they discuss toasting, cream cheese, and their biggest competitors.

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