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.
The tasting occurred less than an hour later to assure freshness.
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.)
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.
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.
"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.
Why a New York City bagel tasting contest now?
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.