1. BuzzFeed Food editors gathered bagels from 14 top-rated bagel shops all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.
That’s right: Out of dozens of bagel stores across the five boroughs, we selected 14 shops for the judges’ perusal, no doubt pissing off any millions of fellow New Yorkers who swear by this bagel joint or that. How? We picked the best-known and critically hailed, with some personal favorites thrown in.
We did not call ahead to reserve bagels; the BuzzFeed food team fanned out by subway, bus, and car, collecting all the bagels within roughly an hour of each other.
3. The tasting occurred less than an hour later to assure freshness.
4. We assembled at Peter Shelsky’s namesake bagel and appetizer shop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. (The proprietor was in fact much more excited about hosting the Bagel Brawl than this photograph suggests.)
Shelsky’s bagel provider is Mill Basin, so he was delighted when they won bronze.
5. In naming judges, I looked for discerning, witty, epicures. In a reversal of Ivy League admissions from a generation or two ago, Semitic ancestry was weighted as a plus.
Judges Adam Sachs, Anthony Weiner, Emily Fleischaker, and Ben Smith taste their way toward gluten-induced coma.
We kept it simple: plain bagels only. No toasting. Cream cheese optional. Judges were invited to handle the bagels as they wished. There was sniffing, tugging, manipulating. Judge Anthony Weiner (yes that Anthony Weiner), who worked at a Park Slope bagelry long before entering politics, compacted one sample between outstretched hands so that it ended up looking like a kaiser roll.
He wore a displeased look. “You don’t want air pockets,” he said. “It means that it sat out between the time that it was rolled and the time that it went into the water.”
The other judges were Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed; Adam Sachs, editor of Tasting Table; Liana Finck, author of A Bintel Brief; Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful; Emily Fleischaker, BuzzFeed’s food editor; and Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread.
7. The bagel that won — by a landslide — was Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Company’s.
“Zaftig,” wrote Smith about the bagel that would end up winning. (That means “juicily plump” in Yiddish.)
“Great look,” wrote Weiner on his scorecard.
“Bulbous,” said Sachs. (He meant it as a good thing).
Though the name suggests otherwise, Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Company’s fluffy, boiled-and-baked rings are sold out of shops in Queens (three locations) and Manhattan (on 8th Ave and 24th Street). They exude the snap and tang of their yeasty ancestors with one key difference that would confuse those who lived in shtetls and in Lower East Side tenements: It’s not just bagels at Brooklyn Bagels; there’s also an ample selection of panini made with ham and bacon.
9. Why a New York City bagel tasting contest now?
From left: Josh Robin, Maria Balinska, Liana Finck, Anthony Weiner, and Emily Fleischaker.
Others have ranked New York bagels, but nothing recently — meaning they’ve missed out on a crop of new arrivals. Black Seed is one of them. Started by Montreal native Noah Bernamoff, this Little Italy bakery wood fires its bagels. As such it may be the most authentic to the original bagel, cooked over burning logs in long ago Eastern Europe. That nostalgic comparison has its limits, considering Black Seed’s menu lists tobiko caviar as one available schmear. Black Seed was the most visually arresting, forming a taut, thin loop of doughy rope. Alas, more than one said it tasted like a pretzel.
To our surprise, the other much-touted new spot, Baz Bagel, which recently opened on Grand Street, collected these observations: “middle” (Balinsky); “meh” (Smith); “no flavor” (Fleischaker).
And what about Bagel Oasis in Fresh Meadows, Queens? Was it worth the schlep on the Long Island Expressway from BuzzFeed’s Manhattan offices, for which Fleischaker had to borrow her parents’ car? “This is fine,” Fleischaker wrote, tasting it blind. “Not amazing.” (For what it’s worth, they do throw in a free tub of cream cheese if you buy a dozen bagels Monday to Wednesday.)
What did we learn?
Sampling 14 bagels in one sitting risks bagel-induced death. But a hundred-plus years since they first browned in stifling ovens under Hester Street, the bagel perseveres. Even flourishes.
“Generally speaking, the state of the bagel union is strong,” Weiner said.
This was the only bagel that ranked in every judge’s top five, with four #1 votes and two #2 votes.
Tasting notes: “wonderful smell, freshness, sweet”; “bulbous, good taste”; “zaftig, fluffy”; “great look”; “best crust, sweet.”
14. #2: Ess-A-Bagel
Several of our judges loved this bagel; even though it didn’t win, it received two #1 votes.
Tasting notes: “chewy, sourdough”; “good texture”; “decent crust, a little dry”; “salty, chewy”; “best so far taste.”
15. #3: Mill Basin Bagel Cafe
Reviews were mixed because some didn’t love the sweetness, but in the end three judges put this in their top five and it received two #2 votes.
Tasting notes: “good texture, sweet”; “dry, too sweet”; “good crust, not as sweet as some”; “sweet.”
16. #4: David’s Bagels
This was a surprising high ranking! Two judges placed this at #2 and one gave it the #6 spot.
Tasting notes: “good volume”; “good chew”; “very good, chewy”; “nice.”
17. #5 (tie): Black Seed Bagels
Three judges ranked this in the top five.
Tasting notes: “Very good but won’t hold enough toppings”; “old fashioned, stiff crust”; “moist”; “tastes like a pretzel.”
18. #5 (tie): Bagel Hole
Three judges also ranked this bagel in the top five.
Tasting notes: “Love the crunchy outside”; “crunchy outside, favorite, a little dry”; “puffy, too crusty, burnt”; “good chewy, little dry”; “crispier.”
20. Bagel Oasis
This was very close to being in our top five bagels, with several judges giving it good marks.
Tasting notes: “Little tart”; “This is fine but not amazing.”
21. Terrace Bagels
Tasting notes: “Lighter than air”; “bland”; “taste too clean, not compelling but nice, but no crust”; “big but good muscle”; “good shape”; “good crust, dry.”
22. Baz Bagels
There was one judge who placed this at #1 and everyone else thought it was terrible.
Tasting notes: “Bland”; “meh”; “poor hole, no taste, bad color”; “lame”; “no flavor.”
The losing bagel, by a lot.
Tasting notes: “blah”; “standard issue”; “too soft”; “yucky flavor weird”; “low.”
25. Murray’s Bagels
This and Absolute tied as the second least popular bagel. Tisk tisk.
Tasting notes: “lame”; “bready”; “not bad, but whatever.”
26. Kossar’s Bialys
The judges were generally “meh” about this bagel, though one ranked it at #3.
Tasting notes: “Decent not great”; “sweeet”; “too puffy, good bottom”; “decent, not great”; “most taste so far”; “too dense, not tons of flavor.”
This was a very sweet bagel, which appealed to one judge, but most weren’t into it.
Tasting notes: “bland”; “bready”; “sweet”; “too sweet, no crust”; “sweet chewy, bagels are so good, no crust though.”
28. Absolute Bagels
Tasting notes: “Pretty good but not great”; “Fine but not special”; “no hole.”