Every delicious bagel is a precious gift from above. But some sides, undoubtedly, are more precious than others. Seinfeld famously addressed the unequal nature of another breakfast staple, the muffin, in its 1997 episode “The Muffin Tops” in which Elaine Benes comes up with the “million dollar idea” to just the sell the tops—the “crunchy,” “explosive” part of the bread “where the muffin breaks free of the pan and sort of does its own thing.” A parallel quandary exists for bagels. But unlike muffin stumps, which are universally disappointing, bagel bottoms are inconsistent. Some bottoms are seeded just like the tops. Some aren’t. What gives?
The question is a relatively recent one, said Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. The dough of the earliest bagels, she said, were braided and therefore not smooth, which meant, “in terms of having toppings, it was a little bit more complicated.” The earliest mentions Balinska has found of sesame and poppy seeds on bagels were in written accounts from 19th century Poland. But those, she said, didn’t indicate whether both sides of the bagels were seeded.
“Don’t forget you always had the bialy, which had onions as a topping, and that existed in Eastern Europe as well. But that was very much on top,” Balinska said.
When it comes to the small, sweet Montreal-style bagel, the issue is less ambiguous. Pretty much every recipe for Montreal bagels calls for seeds on both sides, and indeed, said Larry Rosenblum, owner of Philadelphia’s Spread Bagelry, which has been selling Montreal bagels since 2011, seeding both sides of the bagel is a matter of tradition. But it’s also a matter of principle, he said.
“It’s important, if someone eats something, that they have the experience of the flavors that come from both sides of the piece of bread,” he said. “You need to have the flavor that comes from every experience of every bite. That’s what we do.”
Being generous with the seeding, he said, “costs us a lot of money,” but it’s worth the expense.
“We enjoy making a product that’s right,” he said.
Mary Ting Hyatt, who makes, in all likelihood, Boston’s best bagels at her shop, Bagelsaurus, wants to make her product right too, she said. But that requires leaving seeds off the bottom of her bagels.
“We press the bagels right out of the water without much draining and we get a nice coat on [the top],” she said. “You’re actually getting the same amount of total seed that you’re desiring from just the top.”
Cost has nothing to do with the decision to just seed the top, Ting Hyatt said. It would be “excessive,” she said, to seed the bottom, strictly from a taste perspective. Too many seeds, she said, would overshadow her bagel’s crunchy exterior, which took her years to perfect.
“We think the texture of our bagels is really important. It’s a crispy outer skin, which comes partially from the boil and partially from the long fermentation. When you cover the whole bagel with seeds you don’t capture that thin, crispy, crackly texture of the outer skin quite as well,” Ting Hyatt told me.
Do customers, I wonder, ever complain about the un-seeded bottom?
“We have people questioning everything, as people who are passionate about bagels do. But yes, we have people that say we should have them on both sides,” she said.
When Philly Style Bagels co-owners Jonathon Zilber and Collin Shapiro started making bagels in 2014, they thought carefully about every aspect of the bread they wanted to make, including how to seed them.
Growing up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Zilber told me, the bagels at his local shop were only seeded on one side and, as a result, he “always looked forward to eating the top more than the bottom.”
“The bottom was just kind of bland and boring, especially because the bagels themselves weren’t particularly flavorful in my suburban Detroit hometown. They were fresh but they weren’t the best,” he said.
For many years, Zilber worked in coffee shops, and bagels were always on hand for snacking during the day.
“I would always just eat the top and throw the bottoms away. Maybe that’s wasteful. That’s probably not a good anecdote to bring up,” he said.
Zilber and Shapiro now make a bagel that claims allegiance to neither the New York style—which, more often than not, is only partially seeded—nor the entirely seeded Montreal variety. It is, rather, a new style, which they call—you guessed it—the Philly Style Bagel. They boil their bagels in a mixture of water and beer, and they bake them in a pizza oven. And when it comes to seeds, “we go for complete coverage,” Zilber said.
“It makes me think of the quote … I can’t remember who said it actually, but it was somebody on the Food Network in the mid ‘90s, who would always season both sides of the food, and they’d say, ‘Nobody wants to eat one-sided-tasting food.’ So it’s about balance and the yin and the yang of it, you know? If it’s one side only there’s no balance,” he said.
Like some of their colleagues in the bagel business, Zilber and Shaprio don’t dip their bagels in vats of seeds. Instead, they sprinkle them on one side, flip them over, and sprinkle the other side. That means that while the tops and bottoms are completely coated in seeds, the sides are left bare.
“All those seeds would just come off when you sliced them anyway,” he said.
Ah yes, the seeding of the side of the bagel. Another important debate. But that’s a question for another time.