Box of bagels

A Brief History of the Bagel in America

What was once a regional, ethnic food is now an American favorite. Here's a bite of bagel history.

When you think of strong, historic labor unions that helped build this country, the United Steelworkers, and the United Auto Workers probably come to mind. But Bagel Bakers Local 338—maybe not so much.

Believe it or not, this union rose to power in the early 1900s in New York City and held a firm floured hand on bagel production for decades. Jewish bakers emigrating from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century brought the bagel with them to the New World. And with the help of the union, they kept its basic recipe (flour, salt, water, yeast, sweetener) and preparation methods close to their aprons. All members were Jewish, meetings were conducted in Yiddish, and knowledge passed predominantly from father to son. Over the years, the union even staged a few bagel strikes, which hit the New York area hard. But in the 1960s, the advent of large-scale, bagel-making machines made their union obsolete. 

Tom Gumpel, our head baker at Panera Bread®, is a bagel aficionado and, as with everything he creates, he likes to give due respect to how they were traditionally crafted. "Thanks to those Jewish bakers, bagels are one of the original artisan American breads," he says.

While the bagels you'll find in our bakery-cafes are larger than the original 2-to-3-ounce size, come in lots of flavors beyond plain, and are stored in baskets (rather than on strings or dowels), they are still made in a very traditional, artisan manner.

"Most of the bagels you see today are put in ovens within 45 minutes of being mixed," explains Tom. "But we use a sourdough base that we allow to cool and ferment for 36 to 48 hours (called 'proofing'). This really helps develop some depth of flavor. Then we place our bagels in the oven and give them a heavy steaming prior to baking. The steaming mimics the traditional boiling process used by those old Jewish bakers."

So where does all that leave us?

"The result is a bagel with a paper-thin crust and a center that has some real chew to it," says Tom. "You can't beat it."