As a just-out-of-college young man, I used to grab a bagel every morning on my walk to my first Manhattan job. This was the early-aughts, right before that whole “carbs are bad” Atkins era ruined the nation. Like Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, I too might have exclaimed “Bread makes you fat?!” once I finally found out the truth. Still, all those bagels may have made me fat, but they also made me an expert. I know every New Yorker, certainly every New York Jew, claims they’re a bagel expert, and I suppose we all kind of are.
But that wasn’t always the case for me. My parents moved us from New York City to middle America when I was just a tot. The urgent need to have an onion bagel with a schmear may have been ingrained in my Semitic blood, but my Oklahoma City town of the ’80s and ’90s was severely lacking in bagelries. Perhaps lamenting the dearth himself, my Long Island-raised father would often grab a bag of Lender’s for the freezer. They were fine—kids have godawful palettes—but when we returned to his hometown, only then did I learn what I’d been missing. There, in the bagel mecca of Great Neck, my grandparents would lay out gorgeous Saturday morning spreads of local bagels and lox. Lender’s was a curse word to me forevermore.
I currently live in one of the city’s top bagel neighborhoods, Park Slope, Brooklyn. There I have dozens of excellent bagel shops within a half-mile of my home. Nowadays I only indulge once a week, and it’s always a momentous occasion. I wondered, though, what if I lived in Boise or Des Moines or Timbuktu and had no fresh-baked option to scratch my bagel itch. What if, like my father, I was stuck buying bagels from the supermarket? If certain poor souls were stuck eating store-brand, and often frozen bagels, I wanted to help them out by ranking their options.
To conduct this ranking, I always opted for everything bagels if the brands had them and I could easily find them. Never minis, never “flats,” just normal bagels. Likewise, while most bagel experts find toasting to be an abomination—myself included—with frozen bagels, you don’t really have a choice.
#10. White Rose
Surely, I couldn’t go into my local supermarket and buy frozen bagels. If a friend caught me, it would have been more embarrassing than being found exiting a porno shop with a new Fleshlight. Luckily, the checkout girl at Key Foods was a true professional, though I thought I detected a slight, sad glance toward the bag boy as she scanned the barcode on this pathetic offering. They’re puny, at a mere three inches in diameter. And though the package says they come pre-sliced, it was like trying to separate two hockey pucks super-glued together. It tasted like the kind of bought-in-bulk Wonder Bread toast you get at a diner, that doughy, floury goo that sticks in your molars. After one bite, I balled it up like Silly Putty and slung it in the trash.
#9. Joan’s GF Great Bakes
My wife excitedly thought these were a sack of ice cream sandwiches. I understood completely as they were flat and cylindrical like a Chipwich and loaded with black seasonings that could easily be mistaken for chocolate chips. On the exceedingly pricey package there’s a caricature of “Joan,” a speech bubble noting, “Hand made with love and care for my grandchildren.” Wheat-free, gluten-free, preservative-free, cholesterol-free, trans fat-free, Joan instead utilizes white rice flour, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum. She also advises baking these bagels for 20-22 minutes… then allowing ten more minutes to cool! Even so, the bagels came out of the oven looking raw on bottom. They were virtually impossible to slice in half due to their comically thin size (and me forgetting to register for a bagel slicer for our wedding). Still, I refused to toast them and add any more time to this meal, which took longer to prepare than a white wine-sauced pork chop I made for dinner that evening. The chocolate chip-esque seasoning was indeed tasty, but fell off the bagel in odd clumps. Ultimately, it was like chewing everything-flavored bubblegum. Joan’s poor grandchildren.
#8. Lender’s New York Style
Lender’s New York Style is 50 percent larger than Lender’s Original Recipe, according to the bag, guaranteeing “BIGGER bagel satisfaction!” It’s still only about four inches in diameter. The word chutzpah is used on the packaging, though Lender’s clearly assume you’re a middle American huckleberry who doesn’t know what that means, offering up a parenthetical definition (“relentless passion”—which I don’t find to be quite correct). Anywho, it surely took a lot of chutzpah to bring this crummy bagels to market and somehow become the frozen bagel world’s only household name. Barely better than White Rose, it tasted like that same kind of bleached, “enriched” white bread, with maybe a tad more saltiness. Lender’s should only be used as a conduit to get cream cheese into your face.
#6 Pepperidge Farm (tie)
Flavor: cinnamon raisin
The supermarket bagel industry is obsessed with cinnamon raisin for some reason. Meanwhile, most New Yorkers completely ignore the flavor. (New Yorkers aren’t opposed to sweet bagels, though, especially the imminently ’grammable Rainbow Bagel with sprinkled cream cheese.) Most famous for making those faux-European cookies, it figured that the more dessert-y cinnamon raison would be the flavor Pepperidge Farm would push hardest. Purchased at a Rite Aid, this “boiled and then baked to authentic perfection” bagel was perfectly dry and chalky, even dusty. Cream cheese was needed as a throat lubricant just to get this down, the rock-hard raisins acting as potential choking hazards along the way.
#6 Sara Lee (tie)
Flavor: Cinnamon raisin
Another company more famous for their desserts, like pound cakes and pies, it would figure Sara Lee would also go after the cinnamon raisin bagel-loving grocery shopper. (They also have a carrot cake bagel, believe it or not.) According to their own slogan, we know “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee,” but they didn’t poll me. The packaging claims “fresh baked,” and indeed this bagel was very bready, almost like a Kaiser roll. It had a chemical-y taste too, as if baked in a oven you’d just sprayed with cleaner and then forgotten to wipe down. In 2013, Sara Lee bagels were recalled because of the presence of metal fragments due to faulty manufacturings. Talk about an everything!
#5. Just Bagels
This was a “A real New York water bagel,” according to the packaging, that was “made in ‘Da Bronx.” But Just was a major disappointment. The bagels were not pre-sliced—a near requisite for frozen bagels—and thus were difficult to cut in two. I don’t know what’s going on in the Boogie Down, but these were not much better than White Rose or Lender’s, the inside consisting of a cheap white breadiness. The outside was only slightly better with a little crunch, like the discarded pizza crust you only fish out of the delivery box because you accidentally didn’t order enough pie and are still hungry.
The rare non-frozen bagel in my tasting, it was also the largest, a good five inches in diameter and as bulbous as an alcoholic’s nose. Fresh out of the bag, the bagel tasted like a hamburger bun with a damn hole in it. A decent, store-bought hamburger bun, but still. Toasted, those signature Thomas’ English-muffin-esque nooks and crannies magically arrived, and the bagel flattened and shrunk a good 20 percent in total area. Edible and inoffensive, it’s what you’d expect to find at a budget hotel’s free continental buffet alongside an ice bowl of foil-squared butter pats and plastic containers of grape jelly.
#3. Alvarado St. Bakery
Flavor: “Seriously Sprouted” Onion Poppyseed
At least this solar-powered bakery is trying to offer a product that your local mom ‘n’ pop bagelry couldn’t dream of producing. These bagels use whole grains which are “sprouted” by soaking them in filtered water for several days. Supposedly that creates more nutrition in these GMO-free hand-rolleds. Nutritious or not, the bagel was ghastly, a ghostly white color, slimy to the touch. Oddly, the most perfectly circular bagels I’ve ever seen, the bread remained a milky white even out of the toaster, the interior of the bagel toasting more than the outside for some reason. It tasted like that phony wheat bread Subway serves and which you can smell from several city blocks away. And just when I was about to exclaim that maybe Alvarado St. should considering adding some genetically modified whatever to the mix, I found myself kinda liking the bagel.
#2. Udi’s Gluten Free
This bagel looked like a cinnamon cruller, wrinkly and spirally, as if it was made using French choux pastry. If only! Instead, it was sunflower seeds, cranberries, flax seeds, millet seeds, quinoa flour, and pumpkin seeds. I can say it was truly a pleasure to slice this bagel; no crumbs even fell. Out of the toaster, it arrived with a stunning lack of flavor considering the amount of ingredients. Each bite was like a search for some hidden trail mix within the bagel. (Oh look, a cranberry! A nut! Hey, was that some birdfeed?) I was ready to put Udi’s gluten-free bullshit way toward the end of this list, but adding cream cheese to the bagel really improved the overall flavor. It became like a complex dessert, the subtle sweet and savory notes exploding on my palate. I actually enjoyed it! Though I had some nuts stuck in my teeth afterward.
#1. Utopia Bagels of New York
This was the best-looking bagel I sampled. It appeared to be an authentic New York offering you absentmindedly put in the freezer overnight. Of course, that’s because it comes from a real, brick and mortar bagelry in Queens (its frozen version is available exclusively through Fresh Direct). Frozen or otherwise, this was the most loaded everything I’ve ever seen. Which was good, because I had to hold and handle and twist and coax the bagel for so long in order to slice it that, by the time I had halved it, I had an everything left hand and my bagel now lacked about 50 percent of its original seasonings. It toasted up to a crisp and crunchy outside, with a light and airy, though not overly chewy interior. As far as a frozen, toasted bagel goes, this is the only one I could truly recommend, and the only one I finished eating before retreating to my couch to question my ideas for future ranksicles.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of the novels How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman. He has written for Esquire, The Daily Beast, Playboy, PUNCH, and First We Feast, among others.