Seeking the bialy: a Jewish gift

The bialy shares only a few features with its distant cousin, the bagel. Both are round and low, and both came into the world from Jewish bakers. A good and genuine bialy, however, has a thin, crisp crust with a soft, fragrant texture inside. If it seems slightly sweet, that taste comes entirely from partly caramelized fresh onions. There will be no malt, no sugars, no starches and no enzymes added to a good and genuine bialy. There is only flour, water, yeast and salt–plus toppings made from vegetables, seeds and oils. The classic bialy, originally from the city of Bialystock while it was part of czarist Russia, has lots of poppy seeds.

A good and genuine bialy takes some special care. There are many ways to cut corners, and they probably have all been found by some source one might encounter. There are always the traps of poor ingredients, sloppy technique and stale product. Beyond those, for example, attempts to produce a bialy from bagel dough simply make an inferior bagel–usually firm and heavy. Reducing water in the dough may make it easier to shape but yields a tough texture. Adding sugar or malt to speed rising or cutting out an overnight build produces bland flavor, somewhat like mass-produced bread. Adding eggs, milk or fats makes an inauthentic product. A topping made with dried instead of fresh onions will have an odd, medicinal taste, maybe suggesting a bargain-price pizza-sauce.

There are still a few small bakeries that will turn out a good and genuine bialy, often at special points of days and weeks or on special order. However, it is a difficult product to handle all the time, with a short shelf-life. The well known bakeries located in New York City are all deep into product changes that tend to help profits but pare quality. Fortunately, one can make a good and genuine bialy at home. It does not need unusual equipment or ingredients that are hard to find. If it did, neighborhoods of mostly poor Jews once living in czarist Russia would probably never have developed the bialy.

A recipe: The bialy recipe presented here uses only vegetable ingredients, so it is vegan (purely vegetarian). With kashrut, as observed in an Orthodox kitchen, and proper selection of ingredients, it can be kosher and pareve. The recipe uses techniques familiar to artisan bakers and lists all ingredients by weight, where an ounce is 28.35 grams. Measuring by weight is the method of nearly all bakeries: the only way to achieve reliable results. If one does not already have it, a digital kitchen scale that measures from 1 to 2,000 or more grams can be found for about $15 to $40 at most department and many discount stores.

To make 16 about 10 cm (4 in) diameter, 65 g (2-1/4 oz) as baked
– for the dough –
720 g unbleached strong AP flour, 4 cups unsifted
500 g water, 2 cups + 2 tsp, room temperature
12 g fine kosher salt or sea salt, 1-3/4 tsp
4 g instant yeast, 1-1/4 tsp
– for the toppings –
180 g onion, minced, 3/4 cup
10 g olive oil, 2 tsp
2 g fine kosher salt or sea salt, 5/16 tsp
10 g poppy seed, whole, 1 tbsp
– for supplies –
semolina flour for work surfaces, as needed
vegetable oil such as canola, as needed

We usually use King Arthur unbleached, all-purpose flour: kosher certified and readily available in markets throughout the northeastern United States. Made with hard winter wheat, it provides good flavor and texture. We found little if any improvement in either flavor or texture from using “bread flour” or other extra-high-gluten flours. For kneading, we use a Varimixer appliance made by Wodschow in Copenhagen. It is a labor-saver and has proven useful and reliable when baking often. When baking occasionally, however, kneading by hand works just as well. The recipe gives directions for both approaches.

Preparing a build: Flavor is improved by preparing an overnight build–also called a sponge, a pre-ferment, a “biga” for Italian bakers or a “poolish” for French bakers. During the second half of the nineteenth century, that reduced the use of baker’s yeast, a new and expensive ingredient for the period. The bialy seems to have originated as a “sweet yeast” bread. No nineteenth-century descriptions have appeared that mention “sour yeast”–wild yeast cultures widely used for breads before development in Europe of baker’s yeast from beer brewer’s yeast, between about 1750 and 1850.

In a small bowl, combine 240 g of the flour (1-1/3 cup unsifted) with 240 g of the water (1 cup) and 0.2 g of the instant yeast (1/16 tsp). Cover the bowl, and allow the build to rise about 12 to 18 hours at 20 to 21 C (68 to 70 F). Stir the build at about halfway. Use or refrigerate the build when about doubled in volume or when any shrinkage is noticed. Temperature affects rising time; a lower temperature takes longer.

Mixing, kneading, rising, shaping and proofing: Varimixer technique. Lightly oil the Varimixer bowl and hook tool and a large bowl for bulk rising. Blend the remaining 480 g flour, the remaining 260 g water and the entire build at Varimixer 0.5 for about 1-1/2 minutes until well combined and smooth. Cover the Varimixer bowl tightly, and let stand about 20 minutes. Knead at Varimixer 1.0 for 12 minutes, clearing dough off the hook at least once. Add the remaining nearly 4 g instant yeast and the salt, and blend at Varimixer 0.5 for 1 minute. Place the dough in the bowl used for rising, form it into a flattened ball and cover the bowl.

Hand technique. Lightly oil a mixing and rising bowl. Place the remaining 260 g water, the remaining nearly 4 g instant yeast and the entire build into the bowl and blend them. In stages, add the remaining 480 g flour, and mix gently with a spatula until smooth. Cover the bowl and let stand about 20 minutes. On a work surface lightly dusted with semolina flour, knead the mixed dough by folding it in half and pushing and stretching, then rotating a quarter turn and repeating. At around 20-30 cycles, taking about 10-15 minutes, the dough will become elastic and resist kneading. Gather it into a ball, put it back in the bowl and let it rest about 5 minutes. Smooth it across the work surface, sprinkle the salt evenly and knead for about 10 more cycles. Place the dough in the bowl again, form it into a flattened ball and cover the bowl.

Allow about 2 hours for bulk rise at about 25 C (77 F), folding twice at intervals of about 40 minutes. After bulk rise, working on a surface lightly dusted with semolina flour, form the dough into an even roll. Divide in half 4 times, making 16 equal rounds of about 75 g (2-5/8 oz) each. Shape each round into a disk about 6 cm (2-1/2 in) diameter. Stretch the bialy disks to about 10 cm (4 in) diameter with thin middles and thick rims, about 2 cm (3/4 in) apart on nonstick baking surfaces. Proof about 1-1/4 hour at about 25 C (77 F).

Adding toppings, baking and serving: Preheat the baking oven to 220 C (425 F). That is the maximum rated temperature for high-performance, nonstick baking trays; results are just as good as with higher temperatures. A baking stone low in the oven will help to maintain an even temperature. Cook the minced onion in the olive oil over medium heat about 15 minutes, stirring often, until translucent and lightly browned. About half the original weight of onion should remain. Blend in salt, and set aside to cool. Place poppy seeds in a small bowl or a spice dredge for dispensing.

After proofing, dock the hollows in the middles of bialy disks around their edges with a plastic fork. Spread about 6 g (1/2 tbsp) of onion mix on each bialy, mostly in the hollow but a little toward the rim. Using more onion mix or leaving onions wetter than described can make a bialy blow up and become a lump. Brush each bialy rim lightly with water, then sprinkle about 0.6 g (1/4 tsp) of poppy seeds across the top, including the hollow. Bake about 15 minutes at about 220 C (425 F) until golden brown with crisp crusts. Allow to cool about 5 minutes on an open rack, and if possible serve within a half hour. Best while warm.

Can be frozen for storage, best in a sealed plastic bag about 10 minutes after baking. Can be kept frozen for up to about a month. When ready to serve, thaw and crisp in a toaster oven about 2 minutes, or thaw about 20 seconds each in a microwave oven and crisp about 2 minutes under a broiler. Traditionally consumed whole, not sliced, often spread with butter, cream cheese or whitefish salad. Also eaten with a variety of other foods.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 1, 2017


Rebecca Kobrin, Bialystok, YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, founded in 1925 at Wilno, Poland now Vilnius, Lithuania, today the Institute for Jewish Research, since 1940 at New York, NY), 2010

Leo Melamed (CME Group, former chair, Chicago Mercantile Exchange), There are no Jews in Bialystok, 2000

Barry Harmon, Bialy photos fresh from the oven, Artisan Bread Baking (West Valley City, UT), 2013

Bialys, pp. 262-263, in Jeffrey Hamelman, Bread, Wiley, 2004

Sarah Smith, Well-travelled food: the story of the bialy, The Garden Deli (Yorkshire, UK), April, 2015

Sylvia Carter, For many, a bialy is the bread of a lifetime, Newsday, September 6, 2000

Florence Fabricant, Kossar’s is sold and kosher, in Food Stuff, New York Times, March 11, 1998

Dylan Schaffer, Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story, Bloomsbury, 2006

Mimi Sheraton, The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World, Random House, 2000

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