I can't get enough of your bagel recipes. The only problem is I'm now making bagels faster than I can eat them. What's the best way to store them so they last a long time? Do bagels need to be refrigerated?
Do bagels need to be refrigerated? No. Bagels, like all bread, do not need to be refrigerated. Putting your bagels in the fridge will cause them to go stale faster than if you leave them at room temperature. If you're interested in learning more about how to properly store your bagels read on!
As soon as your bagels finish baking and come out of the oven, they immediately begin the process of staling. Water leaves the starch molecules as the bread cools. The starch molecules begin to break down (two processes known as "retrogradation" and "recrystallization"), drying out and hardening the bagels.
"This process is so central to staling, in fact, that even bread that has been hermetically sealed to prevent all moisture loss will still harden and turn stale," Daniel Gritzer wrote for Serious Eats in 2014.
Just how much faster will bagels go stale in the fridge? In 2009 the Boston Globe's Dr. Knowledge column explained: "Starch tends to crystallize at cool temperatures, and this process [...] happens about six times faster at refrigerator temperatures than at room temperature."
SIX! TIMES! FASTER! So no, bagels do not need to be refrigerated.
This is the same for any bread, but bagels often seem to stale faster, in part because they're smaller than bread loaves. Bagels are also often made from low hydration dough, meaning they don't have as much water in them in the first place. Less water means you notice the effects of that water disappearing much, much faster.
The best way to store bagels
There are a number of different ways you can store your bagels to keep them fresh longer. There's this clever hack where you use the bagels themselves to seal the bag shut, but it only works if we're talking about store bought bagels. But what most people recommend is storing bagels inside a paper bag, and then placing the paper bag inside an airtight plastic bag.
My preferred method uses a similar principle but is a little less cumbersome than trying to fit a paper bag inside a plastic bag. I store my bagels in a large gallon plastic bag along with a paper towel. The paper towel absorbs moisture so it doesn't sit on the surface of the bagels and encourage mold growth, but the airtight seal on the bag keeps the moisture in (and additional moisture out) so the bagels don't go stale faster.
If you have the counter space, or if you frequently need to store bagels while they're still warm, you can also use a bread keeper with adjustable air vents like this one. Open the air vents to let steam out while the bagels are warm, then close them off to keep the bagels fresh longer inside.
Other reasons bagels go stale or moldy
I haven't done a side by side test, but anecdotally can say I've found that bagels with mix-ins like garlic or sun-dried tomatoes tend to mold faster. Bagels with a looooot of seeds on top (like a solid layer of seeds) also mold faster. The mold doesn't necessarily come from the bagel itself, but from the fact that those add-ins or toppings are trapping moisture, which enables mold to grow.
In terms of staling, bagels with salt toppings, like salt bagels or if you use an everything bagel topping that has salt in it (looking at you Trader Joe's Everything But the Bagel blend!), will stale faster. That's because the salt draws moisture out of the bagel dough and causes the bagels to dehydrate faster.
Bagels have a pretty short shelf life in general — about four, maybe five days maximum before they're too hard to eat. So if you're making bagels with a lot of additions, consider trying to freeze or eat them sooner rather than later.
Stale bagels are salvageable. Moldy bagels are not.
How to rehydrate stale, hard bagels
Part of the reason bagels go stale is because they're dehydrated. The moisture loss makes them hard and causes them to dry out. So if your bagel is a day or two stale, but still mold-free, rehydrating is easy — you just need to add water.
Dunk your bagel briefly in warm water, then toast it as you normally would. "Toast it? Whole?" I can already hear you asking the question. Yes. And if you don't believe me, this genius tip has been endorsed by both Kenji Lopez-Alt (The Food Lab, Serious Eats) who picked it up from Dan Pashman (The Sporkful podcast).
"There's no doubt that the water-dip method is effective at re-moistening a dried-out bagel. As the bagel toasts, that water evaporates, and the steam works its way up through the bagels' interiors. The water-dipped bagels were noticeably moister and steamier as I cut them in half. Heating the water seemed to make a difference, too—the bagel dipped in hot water came out just a bit crisper on the exterior, most likely due to the fact that the water got a head start on evaporating."— Kenji Lopez-Alt, "How to Rehydrate Stale Bagels" @ Serious Eats
I can also vouch for this tip firsthand, though since I have a two-slice toaster and not a toaster oven, I tend to slice my bagels first, then pop them in the toaster to reheat. They don't turn out as well as they would if I toasted them whole, but it's still better than trying to eat them when they're rock hard!
Kenji has so much faith in this rehydration process, btw, that if you read that article I linked you'll be shocked to see he does keep his bagels in the fridge. Gasp! I know. We foodie types don't all agree on everything.
I stand by my recommendation not to refrigerated bagels. I would rather not speed up the staling process and have to use the rehydrating process every time I want a bagel. I like to think of rehydrating bagels as a "punch glass in case of emergency" trick in my culinary tool belt, not a mandatory step in enjoying a toasted bagel for breakfast. Besides, when it comes to homemade bagels, we usually eat them before they have a chance to go stale.
The best way to freeze bagels
If you're going to freeze bagels for the future, you'll want to do so as soon as possible after they've been baked. Let them come to room temperature; they need to be completely cool or else the moisture and starches inside will crystalize and you'll end up with an unpleasant texture.
Slice them almost all the way through (leave about ¼-1/8" connected) before you freeze them so you can keep the halves matched. If you don't slice them at all before freezing them, you'll end up regretting everything as soon as you start trying to slice a frozen bagel.
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