Why do bagels have holes? We asked the same question, then set out to find the answer. Join us and read on.
When most people look at a bagel, they see, well, a bagel.
But if you’re like me, you look at a bagel and an existential question starts racing through your mind: Why do bagels have holes in the middle?
Suddenly, a round piece of bread with a hole in it — which most people take for granted and simply ignore — becomes a mystery that keeps you up at night, and one you absolutely have to solve.
Hop onboard as I try to solve it once and for all.
The Holes Create More Surface Area for the Crust
Bagels aren’t special only because they have holes. Bagels, you see, are made differently than most other types of bread: They are boiled in hot water for 60 to 90 seconds before baking, like pretzels.
As food writer and editor Emma Christensen explains for The Kitchn, the boiling sets the crust. This cooking technique makes the bagels chewy on the outside and prevents them from puffing up in the oven, so they come out dense and rich, just like we like ’em.
This explains bagels as a whole, but not necessarily why they have holes. Sure, it could be argued that the hole’s there to provide more surface area for the crust, as explained in a post by The Bagel Bakery.
The answer, though, probably has less to do with technicality and more with history and tradition. To get to it, we need to familiarize ourselves with the origin story (or should I say “stories”) of the bagel.
More Likely, Bagels Have Holes Because of Tradition
In The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread, author Maria Balinska suggests that bagels originated either in 14th-century Poland, when Germans were brought to the country in support of its booming economy, or in 17th-century Austria, as a tribute to the Polish king Jan Sobieski (from The Atlantic).
If bagels were made by German immigrants, they probably started out as an adaptation of the pretzel. Hey, they may even have started out as a pretzel gone wrong — some of our favorite foods, like blue cheese, were allegedly invented by accident.
What about origin story number two? You know, the Austrian one?
Well, if bagels originated in 17th-century Austria, they have holes because they were shaped in the form of a stirrup in honor of the then-king John III Sobieski, who led the armies of Austria and Poland to successfully repel the invading Turkish army.
Sobieski led the armies on horseback. And story has it he liked to ride horses, so a baker gave him a tribute shaped like a stirrup (called Bügel in German).
What Is the Hole in a Bagel Called?
Bagels have been around for a few centuries, that’s for sure. You would think that someone would have given the hole a name during that time.
Hint: They haven’t.
There’s no term for the hole in your bagel. Rebecca King has put together a list of terms that every bagel aficionado needs to know over at NorthJersey, and there’s no mention of a term for the hole.
Call it a hole, a bagel hole… a bagel ring, maybe? Or, if you want to avoid coming across as some bagel-infatuated weirdo, don’t reference the hole as a thing on its own and just talk about the bagel. Someone has to come up with proper bagel etiquette some day. Until then, this is taboo.
The Bottom Line
The mystery remains unsolved. But at least there are fewer options for an answer.
Maybe the bagel was a German immigrant’s pretzel that went wrong, or maybe it came about as a tribute to a king who defended freedom. Either way, we should be thankful the recipe’s still around and we can enjoy its pleasures.