What makes a glorious bagel?
If you eat one that’s made with attention-to-detail, the experience begins with, as the great New York food writer Ed Levin writes in his 2003 New York Times homage, “a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh.” That crackly tug of the crust should give way to an interior that manages to synthesize density and lightness into a singular bite.
Bagels are closer cousins to a soft pretzel than they are, say, to a sandwich roll or sourdough loaf and they require a lot of little technical steps along the way to make an exemplary version. Using quality, high-protein bread flour helps the bagel develop the right gluten structure and a lower hydration ratio than in most breads offers that denser texture. Rolling and twisting bagels as they’re shaped helps add layers that bring a lightness to the composition.
Bagels are typically cold fermented for at least 24 hours to help develop extra flavor and structure. The most important part of making a bagel a bagel and not a roll is the boil – the path to developing that classic, bubbly crust is a quick bath, generally for a minute or so, in alkaline, sweetened water.
No, the water need not be imported from New York. The “secret” to a beautiful bagel is not taking shortcuts when you make them.
Bagels are best warm. You can layer a bagel however you want but don’t overdo it with too many toppings (or commit the all-too-common sin of an overabundance of cream cheese). The key is to use the bagel as a canvas; they’re better as a base for a tartine than as a platform for a sandwich. A fresh-from-the-oven bagel is blissful when simply adorned with a pat of excellent, room-temperature butter.
The story of the modern bagel is steeped in legend, with various histories tracing it back to the 1300s as an analog to German pretzels or an early 17th-century tribute to a Polish king by an Austrian baker. However it started, the bagel has deep ties to Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jewish communities, who brought the bread to the United States during a period of mass migration in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Bagels in the United States tend to be defined by their historic connection to New York City. There’s a good reason for this.
By the mid-1910s, bagel-making was an established trade in New York. The hand-crafted process of hydrating, sweetening, kneading, shaping, cold-fermenting, boiling and baking bagels was codified by the city’s bagel bakers and by the 1930s their technique was standard practice at all the significant major bakeries in the city and northern New Jersey.
Bagels largely remained a regional specialty until the emergence of technology including bagel rolling machines, steamers (which reduce the quality of crust but are easier to use in bulk baking) and bread preservatives in the late 1960s allowed for lesser caliber bagels to hit the mass market nationally.
While those bulk-made bagels obtained supermarket shelf ubiquity, some bagel makers in New York managed to carry on to the tradition established nearly a century prior by those highly skilled Jewish immigrants. In the past decade, as we’ve seen a re-embracement of celebrating the craft of local bakers, old-style bagels are undergoing a resurgence, too.
Pittsburgh is just cracking the code on a great bagel but we’ve made significant strides recently. These six businesses, which range from bespoke to higher-volume, all have one thing in common: They’re run by bakers who are doing the little things right.
These are the Best Bagels in Pittsburgh right now.
The bagels at Lola’s Eatery come with classic leathery chew on the well-baked outside, with all the blistering you’d look for following a proper boil. The interior of the small restaurant’s bagels dance a beguiling ballet of lightness through a toothsome density. A subtle background sweetness adds to the complexity of its flavor.
Zoe Rieder and Max Becerra opened the Lower Lawrenceville eatery in 2019. The couple were inspired to add bagels to their establishment’s mix of Filipino and Mexican savory and sweet offerings as they recalled memories of joking about crafting a perfect hangover cure while in college. (Indeed, Lola’s “Hangover Cure” bagel breakfast sandwich is a fitting boost for a hazy weekend morning.)
Lola’s shares a space with Engine House 25 Wines, which means temperature and humidity fluctuate a bit more than it would at a typical bakery. So after tinkering for a bit on their recipe, they settled on a method of building a pre-fermentation starter, a room temperature proof and punching a hole, rather than rolling, the final shaping of the bagels (which they say makes for a better exterior). Following a 24-hour cold-proof, Lola’s bagels are boiled with malt and baked at high temps and fast the day of service.
Lola’s offers plain and everything bagels as part of its standard rotation. Becerra and Rieder also enjoy playing with specialty flavors such as yuzu spice, hot chili, pesto and asiago as weekly specials. The eatery typically puts out 300 to 400 bagels per week, but don’t come to Lola’s planning to order by the half- or full dozen; they are only available with a spread, lox or as a sandwich.
3337 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville; lolaseatery.com
Driftwood Oven’s bagels are Pittsburgh’s bakers’ bagels. This isn’t surprising considering Neil Blazin’s Lawrenceville establishment became ground zero for Pittsburgh’s best New American baker style pizza when it moved from a mobile operation to a standalone storefront in 2018. Over the past couple of years, Driftwood Oven has exploded into a full-tilt bakery (especially on the weekends) with a team led by head baker Alaina Phillips.
Driftwood’s bagels are naturally leavened, which means you’ll get a hint of sourness in the aroma; that tang is balanced by a slight toastiness from whole wheat, an uncommon ingredient in a typical bagel but a welcome addition to Driftwood’s high-quality flour blend. That whole wheat helps make for burnished brown skin with beautiful bubbling and a slight crispness that gives way to chew. The well-fermented dough has a better-developed gluten structure than most bagels, offering air pockets and a lighter body.
Phillips uses 30 percent levain in her dough, which rises for about 2½ hours before it’s hand-rolled, rested at room temperature for another hour and then put into cold fermentation for 18 to 20 hours. Finally, it’s boiled with a bit of malt syrup (also used to sweeten the dough) and baking soda prior to hitting the oven.
Bagels typically are best eaten the same day they are baked, but Driftwood’s reheat beautifully in the toaster the next day. Because the bagel has a well-developed gluten structure, the texture holds – even improves – with a second heating.
Driftwood Oven bagels are available in Lawrenceville on Saturday and Sunday. The bakery doesn’t offer much accouterment beyond cream cheese, but there is a whole line of baked goods to enjoy. And the shop starts offering its outstanding pizza, salads and sandwiches at 11 a.m. on weekends.
3615 Butler St., Lawrenceville; driftwoodoven.com
It’s the new classic story of our era: Chef gets furloughed from work in March 2020 due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, begins working on a culinary passion project at home, markets their work via social media and decides to start a business that has more manageable hours than those at a restaurant.
That’s just what Colin Whiddon did with bagels. While on hiatus from Poulet Bleu, the chef and baker channeled memories from his 12 years in New York City into researching and crafting a bagel recipe he felt would shine in Pittsburgh's relatively limited bagel market. What he came up with is a picture-perfect bagel with an almost mahogany skin that offers a gentle tug and a medium-dense interior with a soft, wheaty brightness.
Whiddon uses his prized 16-year-old sourdough starter to begin the 48-hour process of fermenting a base of King Arthur bread flour plus a touch of whole wheat flour from Frankferd Farms in Saxonburg. Like most bagels on the list, these are cold-proofed overnight after they are shaped. Whiddon looks to the old-time bagel greats by using lye and malt syrup in his boil.
Whiddon typically makes approximately 700 bagels per week. He bakes on Saturday mornings for wholesale clients such as Local Provisions, Tazza D’Oro, Koala Coffee in McCandless and Main Squeeze Juice Bar & Cafe in Tarentum. Sunday is retail day – hungry bagel eaters place orders for a half- or full dozen up to 10 days in advance for pick up at Adda in Shadyside and Garfield and Hampton Community Park in Allison Park.
A standalone Three Brothers space on Mt. Royal Blvd. in Glenshaw is now under construction. Looking for a summer opening. Whiddon says bagels are the focus but he also will serve sandwiches, smoked meats and baked goods.
Matt Rahenkamp started making bagels in 2019 to recreate moments of shared culinary bonding he and his partner had while living in Rockland County, New York.
Four years later, the Pittsburgh native and former chef at Cure and Morcilla is hitting the Empire State nail square on the head, baking a medium-density bagel with a soft pull on the exterior and a smooth give on the inside. Hellbender’s plain bagels are an ideal canvas as a base to build flavor, and his pastrami-spiced and everything toppings are dynamite with a simple schmear of cream cheese.
The bagels begin with a pre-ferment called a biga that Rahenkamp allows to rise and fall several times. He cold ferments the bulk proof, which is enriched with a little bit of sugar and malt powder, overnight. The following day, Rahenkamp rolls and shapes the bagels and lets them rest overnight. Finally, the next day he boils the dough in a water bath with molasses and baking soda prior to baking for approximately 20 minutes.
Hellbender is headquartered at Scratch and Co., where Rahenkamp is a chef-partner. You can pick them up there daily or sit in the Troy Hill restaurant’s cafe for breakfast and brunch, where, among other permutations, the bagel is the base for one of the best breakfast sandwiches in Pittsburgh. The bagels are also sold wholesale to Redhawk Coffee, Cafe de Amore and Government Center.
The bagels at Gussy’s in Oakland are dense, with an excellent leathery tug in the crust and a slightly soft touch inside. The deli and pizzeria offers a wide selection of flavors, mostly restrained to the classics (plain, sesame, poppyseed, onion, cinnamon raisin, egg and sea salt, pumpernickel, everything), as well as weekly specials.
It takes nearly 48 hours to make the bagels at Gussy’s. The scratch process begins with a biga and a room-temperature bulk fermentation, during which temperature and humidity are monitored. Then, it’s extended refrigeration to further develop the depth of flavor before a boil in alkalized water. Finally, the bagels are baked in a 70-year-old Bari Italian oven that came with the space.
Go for bagels and lox. The classic gravlax, a lacy, softly oceanic bite house-cured with dill and citrus, pairs nicely with Gussy’s poppyseed bagel, especially so when accompanied by a cream cheese schmear, thinly sliced onions and a sprinkling of capers. The eatery’s schmears range from straightforward plain, scallion and smoked whitefish to more fanciful wild berry, chocolate hazelnut and bacon-pimento.
The Oakland establishment opened in 2021 and also offers a sandwich menu, which has everything from breakfast sandwiches on bagels to classic deli and deli spins. Earlier this year, it also added a rather excellent pizza selection. Gussy’s is open seven days a week, so there’s always a place in Pittsburgh to get your bagel fix.
3606 Fifth Ave., Oakland; instagram.com/gussysbagels/
Gab Taube kicked off Pittsburgh’s bagel resurgence when she started selling Pigeon Bagels at area farmers markets in 2017, working overnight in the kitchen of Badamo’s after the North Side pizzeria closed for the evening. Two years later, Taube and company opened a brick-and-mortar storefront in a former laundromat in Squirrel Hill. It’s been drawing long lines ever since to the Pittsburgh establishment that most closely hews to a classic New York bagel shop.
Pigeon’s hand-rolled bagels, with a slightly chewy exterior and a medium-dense core, echo the best of the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition. The flavors are classic, too — plain, sesame, marble, garlic and sea salt, everything and egg, and the add-ons come on both sides. An underrated but essential quality of Pigeon Bagels is that they are perfectly salted (see: good technique); it’s not enough to notice salinity, but it’s the thing that gives it just the right flavor.
The exterior of the bagels at Pigeon tend to be a little lighter than the other bagels on the list, but they have all the pull you’re looking for in a good bagel. That chew gives way to a dulcetly dense hand-rolled interior. These bagels do quite well when reheated the next day if you have any leftovers. And even in the earlier form, they are made even more pleasant by warming them a little.
Pigeon Bagels offers a small selection of spreads such as plain, tofu (vegan), fig and honey and whitefish. The space is certified Kosher (dairy) by Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh, and its baked goods are pas Yisroel, meaning they were prepared entirely or in part by the hands of a Jewish person.
5613 Hobart St., Squirrel Hill; pigeonbagels.com
Hal B. Klein
Laura Malt Schneiderman