Schmear campaign: Baking a perfect bagel in Utah


SALT LAKE CITY (JTA) – When Robb Abrams first moved to this mountain city from the New York area six years ago, he loved the idea of living in an outdoorsman’s paradise.

But there was one thing in particular he found very troubling: He couldn’t find a decent bagel anywhere.

What began as a casual hunt quickly turned into an obsession – and, eventually, a profession.

A technology executive by training, Abrams had limited experience in the kitchen. Until his wife’s career at Goldman Sachs precipitated their relocation to Salt Lake City, Abrams managed a $12 million operation for the jeweler Tiffany & Company. But newly jobless in Utah, Abrams had a lot of time on his hands. He spent much of it griping about the lack of quality bagels and lox in town.

After three years, his wife told him to shut up, quit his job hunt and make some damn bagels of his own.

“I thought she was absolutely crazy,” Abrams recalls. “I’m a technology guy. I had never baked before in my life.”

READ: What bagel are you?

Fast forward three years and Abrams, 45, is building a business as the city’s resident artisanal Jewish bagel maker (not that he has much competition on that score).

Abrams’ shop in the city’s northeastern Liberty Wells neighborhood, The Bagel Project, sells some 6,000 bagels and bialys a week, in addition to lox and whitefish salad, and many mornings the line snakes out the door. Abrams has fended off offers from local markets that want to buy his bagels wholesale, and he is preparing to open a second location downtown in July to keep up with demand.

It took Abrams months of research and experimentation to come up with the recipe for what he says is the perfect bagel: crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside. The key, he says, is a circa-1900 formula he found online that uses a sourdough pre-ferment that takes about 15 hours to mature.

It took Bagel Project owner Robb Abrams more than six months to perfect his bagel recipe. (Uriel Heilman)

It took Bagel Project owner Robb Abrams more than six months to perfect his bagel recipe. (Uriel Heilman)

“I stumbled across a formula used by Jews in the Lower East Side when they migrated to New York and brought their bagel recipes over from the Old Country,” he said. “We’ve been using it ever since.”

Figuring out the magic formula was no easy feat. A tinkerer more accustomed to fiddling with his mountain bike, Abrams spent months testing out various flours he’d ordered from all over the country. He visited bagel shops in New York, where he says he was horrified to discover many bakers were using preservatives and dough conditioners to make the dough more pliable. He baked bagels nonstop, sending his two children to school with leftover samples to share.

The kids’ friends in their Mormon-majority public schools found it a little strange that the children kept turning up at school with bags of bagels, he said, but they figured it was probably something New York Jews did all the time back East.

READ: With 75% non-Jewish students, Utah’s Jewish school seeks to universalize Judaism

Once Abrams perfected his bagel recipe, he began to be inundated with requests from his kids’ friends and teachers. He opened a bagel booth at the Salt Lake City Downtown Summer Farmers Market in 2013, usually selling out in the first four hours. The next summer he started making schmears from scratch and curing salmon to make gravlax.

He opened his neighborhood store with a $50,000 investment in January 2015, selling plain, salt, sesame, poppy seed, garlic, onion, everything and cinnamon raisin bagels, in addition to bialys, for $1.75 a pop. He often sells out. Abrams estimates his customer base is split evenly between native Utahns and transplants from California or the East Coast.

Having mastered the bagel and recently finalized his formula for challah, Abrams says what he really wants to do is focus on appetizing – the smoked and cured fish Jews traditionally eat with bagels.

“The mission statement is really to bake and cure Old World, turn-of-the-century Jewish soul food on the parve side of the kosher diet,” he said. “It’s really a dying breed. Not many people here even know what appetizing means. Our goal is to bring appetizing back to the country – and eventually to open up additional locations outside Utah.”

Abrams makes his gravlax from sushi-grade salmon he buys from a local wholesaler who has it flown in fresh every day. The whitefish comes from Brooklyn. Abrams has employees pick out the bones by hand rather than pulverize them, so the whitefish maintains its natural texture. The store also sells Jewish favorites like hamantaschen and mandelbrot.

Abrams — who used to rise at 3 every morning to make the bagels himself —  has trained staff to do the baking. After giving the sourdough starter 10-15 hours to mature, they mix in flour, water, salt, malt and yeast, and let the dough rest a bit.

Then they hand-shape the dough into circles, place them on wooden boards dusted in corn meal and store them in a cooler for 24 hours. The chilling time helps give the bagels a more complex, tart flavor, according to Abrams.

Employees at The Bagel Project pick out whitefish bones by hand rather than pulverize them, so the whitefish salad has a more natural texture. (Uriel Heilman)

Employees at The Bagel Project pick out whitefish bones by hand rather than pulverize them, so the whitefish salad has a more natural texture. (Uriel Heilman)

When the bagels are ready for baking, they are boiled for about 30-45 seconds, taken out, seeded and flavored, and then baked for about 20 minutes. The formula is adjusted slightly from summer to winter to account for changes in the local barometric pressure that can affect the final product.

READ: At Utah’s on-slope Shabbat service, ski boots required

“I never thought it was such a hard thing to make a bagel,” Abrams said.

Aside from running his own business, which he says is now turning a profit, Abrams says it is very satisfying to be doing something for a living that’s part of the American Jewish tradition.

“It’s more than just providing for my family for the future, it’s really about the experience around the food that we grew up with,” said Abrams, who grew up in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and later lived in New York and New Jersey. In Utah, he’s a member of Temple Har Shalom in nearby Park City.

“Having Jewish food at the table during holidays or at special events during the year was a part of my childhood,” he said. “Now there’s nothing more rewarding than to see my children eat my products with the same type of joy that I had growing up.”

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