Why are NY bagels so good? And some tips
When other people anticipate a trip to New York City, they might think about fine dining. What’s the latest new cuisine to taste? Which famous chef should we try? Where do we need to make a reservation?
Or they may be looking for “ethnic” food: Chinese, for example, or Cuban, or Cuban-Chinese (yes, that’s a thing!).
What I look forward to more than anything is a bagel.
Bagels originated in Poland – and they still sell something similar on the street there – and were brought to the US by Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. For generations it was primarily a Jewish food eaten in New York City, but nowadays it’s far more widespread.
Check out the excellent Tenement Museum while you’re in NYC.
Why are NY bagels so good?
However, the bagel I crave is very specific: it has to come from New York City. If you don’t live in or near there, what you think of as a bagel isn’t quite the same thing.
I grew up in Connecticut, and every Sunday morning my mother or father would drive down to Gold’s Deli in Westport to pick up a bag of bagels. Gold’s had them delivered early each morning from New York, so they were the real thing.
Why are NY bagels so good? It must be something in the water that explains why they’re better than other bagels. I assume that bagel-makers in California, for example, use the same recipe as in New York: bagels are a yeast bread and, after rising, they’re shaped and then boiled in water before they’re baked. But somehow they’re never quite the same anywhere else.
In New York, the bagels are chewy and slightly salty. They present a certain resistance when you bite down, but the crust isn’t crispy; it’s just the right amount of chewy.
(I should add that nowadays some of the bagel factories are actually in New Jersey, but that’s right next door, so they’re still New York bagels, as far as I’m concerned. At least, they taste just the same anyway.)
We always ate them with cream cheese and, when my father was feeling flush, he’d also buy lox. Lox is smoked salmon, sliced from the belly of the fish, and it isn’t the same as what you can buy in the supermarket. At Gold’s they would slice it right off the salmon, so it wasn’t so neat, but it was saltier and had a stronger flavor.
So that’s what I wanted in New York: a quality bagel—a plain one, not one of these sacrilegious blueberry bagels or cinnamon-raisin or chocolate chip bagels—with cream cheese and lox.
I found a listing on-line of the best bagel places in New York and simply figured out which was nearest to where I was staying, the Jane Hotel in the meatpacking district. That turned out to be Murray’s Bagels: a hole-in-the-wall deli on 6th Avenue between 13th and 14th in Greenwich Village, with just a few tables and a constantly long line waiting to buy their perfect bagels.
They were indeed perfect. I had one for breakfast both days and, exaggerating only a little, it was heaven. Eating very slowly, I focused intently on each bite, putting off the moment when it was done.
I so wish someone here in Holland would figure out how to recreate that perfect bagel. Our Sunday morning bagels were so special.
Murray’s Bagels: 500 Avenue of the Americas, between 12th and 13th Streets. Nearest subway station is 14th Street for the 1, 2, 3, F, M and L lines. Open Monday-Friday 6:00-21:00, Saturday-Sunday 6:00-20:00.
And speaking of subway stations, have you seen the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn?
If you’re planning a trip to New York City, use this map to book your acccommodations:
How to eat bagels
Not only did I grow up in the Sunday morning bagel-eating tradition, but when I was 16 my first summer job was waitressing at Gold’s Deli. I learned a thing or two about bagels there:
Types of bagels
As I mentioned above, bagels are available in lots of different flavors these days. The traditional ones are covered in sesame seeds or poppy seeds or onion or salt. I also remember pumpernickel or egg bagels from my youth. My favorites are just plain white bagels.
How to prepare a bagel
The main thing is that it needs to be fresh, preferably boiled and baked the same day. In a good New York City bagel place, you can count on that.
You can eat a bagel as is, with no preparation. Some people like to toast them, which gives them just a bit of a crunchier crust.
How to cut a bagel
This is a safety issue. Bagels have a smooth surface, and your instinct might be to hold the bagel in one hand while slicing down on it in the direction of your palm with the knife in the other hand. Don’t do it! The knife may slip and you’ll end up with a bloody palm.
Instead, lay the bagel down so that it’s horizontal on a plate or cutting board. Place one hand on it, but keep your hand flat, pushing down firmly. With the other hand, take a bread knife and start slicing the bagel horizontally. You’re much less likely to end up cutting your hand this way!
Once you reach the halfway point, you can place the bagel vertically if you want, but still keep it in contact with the plate. Hold it steady with your fingers around the upper half of the bagel – the part that’s already been cut. Saw with the knife under your hand but downward toward the plate, away from your hand.
If you want to toast the bagel, it should fit in a toaster once you’ve cut it.
For lots of ideas of things to see and do in New York City, check out my article New York City on a Budget: Free or cheap things to do!
What to put on bagels
People put all kinds of things on bagels: pretty much anything you can put in a sandwich can go on a bagel as well. I admit that some of these just feel sacrilegious to me: ham and cheese, for example, on a Jewish food? But of course, the reality is that these days anything goes.
A more traditional topping is butter or cream cheese. In Jewish families that keep kosher, bagels are a breakfast food because generally breakfast is a no-meat meal. Kosher rules prohibit combining milk products with meat, so items like milk and cream cheese end up relegated to breakfast.
My favorite topping for a bagel, as I pointed out above, is cream cheese with lox. Sometimes people eat a “schmear” of cream cheese with chives mixed in or with bits of smoked salmon mixed in. The latter is a cheap alternative to slices of smoked salmon. Or they add a slice of raw onion or a sprinkling of capers.
How to eat a bagel
At home we often ate bagels open-faced, spreading cream cheese and slices of lox on both halves. In a bagel shop, you’ll receive the bagel as a closed sandwich, and it’ll be cut in half like a sandwich as well.
Bagels do not last well in, say, a bread box or in the fridge: a day or two at most, and you’ll have to toast them after a day to get them back to the right texture. When I visit New York City, I buy a baker’s dozen of fresh bagels the morning of my flight home. I ask the shop to double-wrap them and I take them home in my luggage. When I arrive, I immediately take them out, wrap them tightly and individually, and chuck them in the freezer.
The flavor and texture stays good if you let a bagel defrost, then slice it as instructed above and toast it. However, I usually can’t wait, so I zap it just for a minute at a low temperature in the microwave, just enough to be able to slice it for the toaster.
The hard part, for me, is making my freezer supply last!
Have you ever eaten a true New York bagel?
First published in May 2015. Expanded and republished in June 2021.
Yum! I used to go to H&H bagels and Zabars in the upper west side. Good memories.
I remember Zabar’s but not H&H. I know that Zabar’s didn’t show up on the lists I saw of best bagel places, though they may get their supplies from one of the good ones. Yes, good memories!
I always loved to eat bagels with Crew m cheese! I miss them, too.
Crew m cheese? Is that some weird spellchecker version of “cream cheese”?
Love it! When I traveled to NYC regularly for business many moons ago, Zabar’s was it. Imagine the horror to see bagels served with ham and melted cheese on them when I moved to Minnesota. Where do you even start with so many levels of wrong? ::::facepalm::::
Exactly! Bagels are acceptable in a few different versions: plain, sesame seed, poppy seed, onion, salt or egg. That’s about it. They should NOT be sweet, like blueberry bagels or chocolate chip, and, given that they were originally a Jewish food, ham and cheese is about as sacrilegious as it can get!
Mmmmm! NY Bagels with cream cheese and Lox – Now I’m drooling and Cafayate, Argentina is just too far south… Happy for you!
Yes, and I live in Holland. Sigh. I suppose if I lived anywhere else I’d miss the Dutch cheese, so I really can’t complain!
I visited my sister in January in NJ and we got us some bagels in NY. It’s so true, I’ve never eaten anything like it!! I’ll have to refer this post to my sister for the perfect bagel!!
I know! They’re just better than anywhere else! Earworm: ‘There’s something in the water, something in the water, that makes me love you like I do…’
They look great (will be getting my chomps into true NY bagels very soon), although I’ve always understood a hole in the wall joint to be just that.
A hole in the wall!
They look like they have true shop frontage, prime real estate! 🙂
When I used the expression ‘hole-in-the-wall’ I was referring more to the inside than the outside. It was crowded! And there were just a few small tables next to benches, with no table service. It was all a bit chaotic on our side of the counter, that’s all. On their side they were remarkably quick and efficient with filling orders.
So glad that you found good bagels, the perfect one for you! I have found it fascinating how international the bagel has come. We even saw bagel shops in China. I just read a fascinating article on Eater that explains why bagels taste better in New York!
I know! And I often try them and end up disappointed! I’ll go look for that Eater article! Thanks!
I have heard about New York bagels but have never tasted one. I look forward to trying them some day, although if I find them as good as others claim, the experience may spoil me for other bagels.
If you didn’t grow up with them, you might not relish them as much as those of us who grew up with them. I’d love to hear what you think, when you do finally try them! And, yes, it spoiled me for other bagels. I only very rarely eat them.
I’ve always wondered why everyone makes such a big deal out of NY bagels. I’ve never had one though. It’s great that you grew up with them and came back to try them as an adult, not to be disappointed. I find that all too often I try something later in life and it’s never the same. That cream cheese and lox bagel made my mouth water… now I’m craving this for dinner!
If you ever do try a quality New York bagel, I’d love to hear what you think!
I’ve had many a great bagel in NYC. Your posting has made me very hungry.
Yeah, me too!
Food is such a fun part of the travel! Funny thing about bagels – people have very strong preferences. We tried bagels in NYC, too and our party is split. My husband and son think bagels should be plain or savory. My daughter loves the cheesy ones and I love sweet. Love that your bagels have such sweet memories!
Natalie, The Educational Tourist
It’s memory food for me. I suppose everyone has some sort of memory food, which might or might not also be comfort food. Thanks for commenting!
I would definitely take your advice on this…I love how you blended your own experience from your childhood and today. Next time I am in NYC, I’ll be looking for a bagel-breakfast!!
Let me know what you think of them!
I love the plain or “everything” bagels with the sesame and poppy seeds spread with cream cheese and lox. How fabulous to see the salmon sliced right off the fish in irregular chunks and to have that as one of your childhood memories. Hope to get back to NYC this year, and if I do, I’ll be looking for the best bagels to try. MMMM!
And I’m jealous, because I won’t be going back to NYC anytime soon!
We lived in NYC for 5 years and still like Montreal style bagels better, more dense and chewy.
I always found it funny that locals would get their bagels “scooped out” because they were so thick and bready.
I’ve never tried Montréal bagels, but now I will next time I’m there!
NYC bagels are the best in the world. They say it’s the water. Who cares? They’re terrific and that’s all we need to know. The perfect bagel with lox and cream cheese is heaven!
Thanks for commenting!