The secret of New York City’s mythic bagel-making water

There are essentially two elements—calcium and magnesium—in very specific proportions that make the water in the New York metro area unique.

Fortunately, the ratio of those two ingredients to other minerals also happen to be ideal for baking crispy-on-outside-chewy-on-the-inside New York-style bagels, as they help to strength the glutens in the dough.

That was the conclusion reached by Josh Pollack, a bagel baker and entrepreneur in Denver, Colorado, who recently designed a process to recreate New York City’s legendary water some 1,700 miles away from the source, and is now using it in his Mile High City shop, Rosenberg’s Bagels.

“It’s mainly New York’s watershed program that’s the difference,” he says of the initiative that protects the region’s natural water sources, enabling local utilities to minimally-process the city’s drinking water. “They don’t use a sediment filter for their water, so a lot of the minerals that come from the reservoirs, as a result of those watershed protections, are still in the water.”

It’s all about the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water, Pollack says, which is a measure of all of the combined substances in a given water sample. All of the elements in water affect the baking process in some way, but it’s the proportions of each element to the others that really make a difference in gluten strength. Those ratios also tend to be very local, differing not only from city to city, but also neighborhood to neighborhood. As a result, Brooklyn water might have a different TDS than Manhattan water, based on the treatment facilities serving each. (City-wide water reports can vary widely as a result, as most will simply report on the average TDS over a large area, rather than calling out these local fluctuations.)

Pollack, a New Jersey native, spent nearly a year sending water samples from across the NYC metro area back to Colorado State University for testing in order to narrow down the specific elemental differences. He then contracted with a local filtration company to build his shop a system that would reintroduce the necessary minerals, in the proper proportions, into his metro Denver tap water.

As of now, the actual proportions involved and the workings of the system are proprietary, but according to research conducted at the National Institutes of Health, New York’s water supply contains about 13.5 mg of calcium per liter, far lower than the national average of 50.6 mg/L. The TDS ratio for calcium and magnesium in New York’s water supply is about 1 to 5.

It isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, says Dr. Jim Self, manager of the Soil, Water, and Plant Testing Lab at Colorado State University. In fact, the water supplies in Colorado and New York are already similar, as they are both mountain-fed.

“A lot of the water [in New York City] is coming down from the Catskills to the city so that water should be fairly pure to start with,” Self says. “The pH is slightly more acidic, whereas Denver water tends to be more alkaline, but it’s not by much.”

Pollack isn’t alone in this quest. The Florida-based Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. chain, founded in 2008, bases its own recipes on similarly “reconstructed” New York-style water at its 19 US restaurants, all located far, far away from Brooklyn.

Still, Pollack insists there’s more to it than just science.

“It’s not just the water that makes a good bagel,” he says, “but it’s a number of things that have been done the same way for almost 200 years. You can take one of the processes out; you can take the water out, and keep everything else true to the tradition and still have a really awesome bagel. But if you take out the water, and the oven that they traditionally use, you’re not going to get the same bagel.”

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