If you want a Philly cheesesteak, you don’t have to go to 9th and Passyunk in Philadelphia. There are plenty of food purveyors across the country that are happy to hook you up with something pretty dang close to the original.
Similarly, the Montreal-style bagel has transcended its humble roots as a food made by Jewish immigrants in Canada to pop up in delicious forms all over America. Some bakers try to mimic the bagel exactly as it was originally produced, and others put their own spin on the Montreal style, often with fantastic results.
We spoke to three bagel makers in the U.S. about the history behind the Montreal style, how the bagels are made, why they’re a fantastic canvas for your next sandwich, and where you should buy your next one (outside of Canada, that is).
How the bagel made its way to Montreal
“The birthplace of the bagel is in Poland,” said David Bowen, the Canadian-born owner of Boulder, Colorado’s Woodgrain Bagels. “Immigrants moved all over North America, and especially to Montreal, where they brought their craft with them.” According to the Museum of Jewish Montreal, the bagels were likely sold for the first time in Montreal in the early 1900s by Eastern European Jews. Montreal still has its share of bagel shops from that era (like St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagel), though thankfully bagels are no longer delivered as they once were: by horse and wagon.
How the Montreal-style bagel is made
Baking a Montreal-style bagel isn’t as simple as throwing circular-shaped dough into an oven and waiting. “Montreal-style bagels have three things in common: They’re hand-rolled, boiled in honey water and baked in a wood oven,” Bowen explained.
Stephen Brown, president of Seattle’s Eltana bagel shop, explained why the bagels must be hand-rolled. “It’s not because someone’s hands make it taste good,” Brown told HuffPost. “Hand-rolling means that the dough is so stiff a bagel machine can’t make it. The hand-rolling is indicative that it’s going to be good, but it’s not why it’s good. If you have the right kind of dough, you can’t do anything but hand-roll it.”
Next, the bagels are boiled in honey water. “We boil them anywhere from three to six minutes,” said Dianna Daoheung, the executive chef and partner of New York’s beloved Black Seed, which makes a hybrid of a Montreal-style and New York-style bagel. “You have to know what you’re looking for. Unlike something like cookies, bread is a living, active thing. Even from batch to batch, there’s variances. When the weather changes, that changes the bread as well.”
While Black Seed doesn’t produce bagels like they do in Montreal (Black Seed’s bagels use salt in the dough, and are lighter and airier than a typical Montreal-style bagel), it still goes through a lot of honey. A lot. “We go through so much that we decided this past year that we’d partner with a beekeeper,” Daoheung said. The bakery uses at least 200 pounds of honey per week, keeping the Black Seed bees extremely busy.
Lastly, the bagel is wood-fired. “I tell people in our bagel classes that baking in a wood-fired oven isn’t an exact science,” Daoheung said. “Most New York bagels are made in a [conventional] oven ― they set it and forget it. The Montreal-style bagel process is more laborious because wood ovens never give consistent heat. The temperature fluctuates a lot.”
The “perfect” Montreal-style bagel likely doesn’t exist. “The bagels vary because they’re imperfect,” Bowen said. “I can look at our bagels and tell you which baker at Woodgrain baked them based on the shapes.”
How the bagels taste
On the surface, it might appear like the Montreal-style bagel is a more compact version of a New York-style bagel. But the differences are in the details. First, if it’s a poppy or sesame seed Montreal-style bagel, the seeds touch every available surface of the bagel. Eltana’s bagels take it one step further. “Our bagels are intensely seeded,” Brown said. “Our poppy seed bagel almost has a double crust.”
Seeds aside, the bagel’s flavor and texture is also notably different from a classic bagel. “The flavor is more intense because the bagel’s more dense,” Bowen said. “It’s meant to be dense, chewy and a little bit crusty on the outside.” The size of the hole in the middle is also a differentiator. “New York bagels have a smaller hole and are bigger and breadier,” he said.
Don’t worry, just because the bagels are boiled in honey doesn’t mean they taste like a pastry. “The honey lends a depth of sweetness,” Daoheung explained. Combined with the flavor imparted from the wood-firing process, the bagel will tickle your tastebuds in a way your average New York-style bagel can’t. “You do get a bigger depth of flavor,” she said. “It’s almost a little nutty.”
Why Montreal-style bagels are a great canvas
Bagel sandwiches are delicious. But the size of the Montreal-style bagel makes it especially attractive when you’re looking for a sandwich. “I think the ratio is important,” Daoheung said. “A New York bagel is huge in comparison to a Montreal one, and you end up eating so much bread. Bagel shops overcompensate for it by putting, like, two pounds of cream cheese on one bagel.” And if you’re counting calories, Brown estimated that his bagel contains about 200 of them ― about half the amount of calories of a standard New York bagel.
Because you’re a human with free will, you can spread any type of schmear on any type of bagel you want. But because of the Montreal-style bagel’s unique flavor profile, there are spreads that truly shine when piled upon it. Daoheung loves a simple layer of butter, Woodgrain’s customers order a plethora of lox sandwiches (though the owner Bowen said Marmite is likely his favorite), and Brown enjoys the Mediterranean red pepper walnut spread called muhammara with avocado and lox.
Ultimately, the bagel itself is the star. “If you really want to taste one, get it by itself fresh out of the oven and eat it how you’d eat a pretzel with nothing on it,” Daoheung said. “You’ll taste the little nuances of honey and wood fire.”
5 places in the U.S. worth visiting for Montreal-style bagels
This Boulder, Colorado-born bagel shop has since expanded to two additional locations in Denver, and specializes in bagel-ified avocado toasts, open-faced sandwiches with lox, and deli sandwiches with everything from fried chicken to seitan.
NYC’s popular bagel destination serves up a hybrid of New York- and Montreal-style bagels, and keeps hungry New Yorkers sated with a slew of egg and cheese options, schmears and inventive sandwiches.
A favorite of Daoheung’s and Bowen’s, Beauty’s on Oakland, California, plates modern favorites like shakshuka with buttered bagels, and more traditional sandwiches that feature smoked trout or chopped liver.
Surely the only Montreal-style bagel shop from Seattle that recently opened a location in Osaka, Japan, Eltana has a Middle Eastern slant to its menu, offering spreads like harissa hummus and za’atar scallion cream cheese alongside Yemeni egg salad sandwiches.
With three locations across the Philadelphia area, this bagel shop offers plenty to top your Montreal-style masterpiece, including wood oven beef brisket, burgers and seasonal sweet berry spreads.