Bialy: Bagel's Lesser-Known Cousin


Photo by LDHNY/Flickr CC

Bialys are one of those really good foods that most folks take little or no notice of. Even around here, where we make them, I'll bet very few people know what a bialy is--if you don't work Tuesdays or bake on the Monday night bagel shift at the Bakehouse you might go years without ever seeing one, since we only sell them on Tuesdays.

So, backing up a bit, if you aren't familiar with them, I can tell you that bialys are the traditional "roll" of the Polish town of Bialystok, brought to this country primarily by Polish-Jewish bakers around the turn of the last century. Back then they were very much an everyday bread. In New York City they're still sort of readily available, but out here in the rest of the country a bialy (let alone a good bialy) isn't something you'll find every day. And, as far as I know, Lender's hasn't come out with frozen version yet so...

In context I could share that one of the first things that drew us to wanting to work with our bread mentor, Michael London, back in 1992 was that we discovered early on that he had the bialy recipe from Kossars, my favorite Lower East Side bialy bakery. Because I avoid comparisons to classic producers (and especially any in New York) I definitely don't want to get into whose bialys are better. Kossar's is the classic spot to get bialys, and you should definitely go next time you're in NYC. The key to me here is that the bialys that the bagel crew every night at the Bakehouse is crafting are really good. And definitely something you want to check out.

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I like the way John Thorne described them a few years ago in Simple Cooking. A bialy, he wrote, "is a bagel that's lost inside a Polish joke: it's outside is crusty instead of glossy and the hole in the center doesn't make it all the way through. But, fresh from the oven, it is a delicacy unique to itself, crisp and chew at once, the center dimple stuffed with translucent onion bits..." More directly, with a bialy, the "hole" in the center isn't really a hole; it's more of an indentation, a thumbprint of an impression, which is filled with lots of fresh, diced onions and plenty of poppy seeds. And since a bialy isn't boiled before being baked, it doesn't have as thick a crust. And as Mr. Kossar (from the above-mentioned Kossar's) was quoted as saying in Joan Nathan's excellent Jewish Cooking in America, "they'll never be like bagels, because you still have to use your fingers to make that special shape, to make that hole."

You can do a lot of the same things with a bialy as you would a bagel. Eat 'em out of hand, or toasted with a little butter or cream cheese or smoked salmon. Or having read Mimi Sheraton's very nice book, The Bialy Eaters, I learned that back in Bialystok people generally ate bialys by simply spreading butter across the top, not slicing them in half as we do with bagels. They're even better if you warm them in the oven for a few minutes before you eat 'em. Spread the word!