One morning in 2011, I went to Peter Pan in Greenpoint, not to get a doughnut but to get an egg and cheese sandwich. (I like a savory breakfast, and Peter Pan makes a heck of an egg and cheese sandwich.) Before ordering one on a roll, my eye caught on a bialy. At the time, it was unfamiliar to me; I knew only that it was a traditional Jewish roll with a history in New York bakeries.
For a reason I don’t remember, I opted for an egg and cheese on a bialy that day, and since then my relationship with egg and cheese on bread has never been the same. The bialy added a sweet tang to the sandwich with its central cluster of caramelized onion; the bread was thinner and its circumference smaller, so there was less to negotiate before I could get to the meat, as it were, of my morning treat. And while it still had a substantial shell, the inside was soft and pleasantly chewy. This was a more sophisticated version of a roll, and, unlike a bagel, it didn’t make me feel like I had a carbohydrate brick in my stomach for the next several hours.
Bialys come from Bialystok, a city in northeast Poland west of Belarus. Bialystok is also the birth place of many of the Jewish immigrants who eventually made their way to Manhattan and the Lower East Side, and it is from these immigrants that the bialy became a popular New York treat. The recipe is simple: flour, water, salt and yeast—no sugar added. But bialy dough is purportedly difficult to work with. Unlike bagels, it’s not boiled before it is baked. And because it’s indented in the center rather than punched the whole way through, a bialy comes with with that standout pocket of concentrated flavor (most often in the form of caramelized onions).
Since my bialy awakening at Peter Pan, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to recreate the moment elsewhere; it hasn’t been easy. Most bakeries, even if they do sell them, don’t make their own. So it is not just a good bialy but a bialy-at-all that is hard to find. Here, then, is a list of blessed Brooklyn bakeries and (because bialys first built their name in Manhattan), two outstanding options across the river that still make their own. And, if you want your bialy at its freshest, arrive early: the cult of the bialy may not be as big as that of the bagel, but the feelings of those who are in it are strong, sources are limited, and supplies often disappear before noon.
Bell’s Bialys, 10013 Foster Avenue, Canarsie
If you Google “best bialy Brooklyn” the first result is Bell’s. Bagels By Bell’s is a third generation Brooklyn company—begun 65 years ago by Martin Bell, handed down to his son warren, and now to warren’s 23-year-old son Jared Bell. Warren says his father Martin fell into the business but that, “if he was going to sell something, it was going to be the best.” Almost 70 years later, he’s made that happen (in Brooklyn, at least!) and Bell’s wholesales to many of the best bakeries in Brooklyn. Now that Jared has brought the business online, Bell’s also ships across the globe. Bell’s does not have a traditional storefront, but you can still show up in person at the bakery and get a dozen of them fresh off the press.
Where does the recipe come from?
Warren: I guess it’s always been the same since my dad. The recipe has not changed—it’s more about how we process the product; it’s really nothing to share, it’s just how we do it. We don’t really wanna give anybody a heads up on our process, but I can tell you that it’s still made by hand, not automated. We do it the way it was always done.
Why do other people say they like about your bialys?
People usually say it’s a cross between a bagel and an english muffin. I guess the big thing about it is it’s got that fresh ground Spanish onion that we put in the middle—but it doesn’t have an onion taste, it has a sweeter taste, and we do not add sugar, just water, flour, salt and yeast, that’s it. It’s a very hard dough to work with, due to the amount of time we proof the dough. We’re going to be on the Travel Channel’s best of Brooklyn, along with Peter Luger’s, Junior’s Cheesecake, and Di Faras pizza.
How many do you make per day?
I guess we do about three thousand dozen a day. [Whoa.]
What is your favorite way to eat a bialy?
There is nothing better than straight outta the oven. Let it cool off a bit, but outta the oven is the best. I actually like it toasted well-done, because the bottom becomes very crunchy and the top has nooks and crannies and butter runs into it. I eat it separated—not the top and bottom together.
Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop, 727 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint
Co-owner of Peter Pan, Donna Siafakas, felt that along with her co-owner (and baker husband) not everyone wants something sweet. Plus, “some people don’t want the heaviness of the bagel, it’s a light option,” said Siafakas. “So we thought we’d give them an alternative.” Siafakas grew up in Greenpoint and you can see her in the store every morning. And, maybe if you have more luck than we did, she’ll share her husband’s outstanding recipe with you.
Where does your recipe come from?
My husband is the baker and it was his recipe—no I can’t [share it] or he’ll kill me. He always tells me that I talk too much, that I say more than I’m supposed to.
Why do your bialys stand out from others?
I’ll tell you, a lot of bagel stores don’t make bialys; they don’t want to be bothered making the bialy because it’s a different process. I feel like bialys go back a long way in New York, we always made bialys here, and if you don’t want the heaviness of a bagel, it’s a light option.
What is your favorite way to eat a bialy?
Toasted with butter is the best. I would say I actually do prefer a bialy over a bagel. I think it’s just the texture of the dough—it’s lighter to me. It’s very good with eggs, and very good as a lunch sandwich just with tomato and cheese.
Hot Bagels and Bialys, 1201 Quentin Road, Sheepshead Bay
The Zaire’s family has been making Bialys in Sheepshead Bay for 35 years. John and Chris Zaires now own and manage the place; when their father came from Greece he ended up in Brooklyn and the bagel and bialy business is what he fell into—no, Chris Zaires tells me: Greece is not known for bialys. But when their father started working in the business he worked hard to come up with a recipe. What he landed on has evidently served the Zaires and the rest of south Brooklyn right. Now in a new location just a couple of blocks away from their original space, Hot Bagels and Bialys offers bialys fresh out the oven daily.
How do you believe your bialys stand out from others?
Chris Zaires: Everything is made fresh, right out the oven, every day—I mean, our bagel is considered one of the best in Brooklyn, same with our sugar free bialys. I think the taste of the recipe is different compared to everyone else. Throughout the day w’ere only closed between 1am and 4am; you can get them in that 21-hour time frame. We make them fresh throughout the day. It’s a pretty decent size, soft, and people really enjoy them.
Does that mean they’re bigger than the standard bialy?
They’re not big, it’s just a different kind, and comes with onions. We don’t share the family recipe. That’s a secret.
Why do you love bialys and what is your favorite way to eat them?
I’ve been growing up on them for about 27 years—I eat them every day. They are really good toasted with butter, or cream cheese, but also with sandwiches. People come back every day.
A.R.E.A Bagel and Bialys, 55 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope
This shop has been open for only eight years but, as mentioned, few places make their own bialys daily, rather than getting them delivered from places like Bell’s (or, in Manhattan, the famed Kossar’s—which we’ll get to!); for that reason, these bialys, fresh out the oven, are worth the trip to Fifth Avenue. We spoke to an employee who has worked there for more than a year.
How does the recipe stand out to you?
We make them daily—every day fresh. The onion in them is very good; the bialy is lighter and fluffier than our bagels.
Do your bialys sell out daily, and do you have regular customers who come back for them?
We actually have very specific customers who come for bialys. They come and buy them and, when we only have a few, they sell out very quickly. Come before noon Moday through Sunday to get them. I would say they are more popular than some of the bagels.
In your opinion, what is the best way to eat a bialy?
Toasted with butter, that’s the classic way. Or, what’s popular here is to get them with lox spread and tomato.
Hot Bread Kitchen, 1590 Park Avenue, Manhattan
The next two bialy bakers are in Manhattan; but if you do go to the trouble of crossing the river, it will be worth it—these bialys be good. Actually, you can get this bialy—outstanding and slightly fancy—a little closer to home at Dumbo’s fine grocer. Knowing that Hot Bread Kitchen bialys were the makers of these mouth watering bialys, we had to go to the source to find out more about the people and business who makes them.
Tell us a little bit about Hot Bread Kitchen, and how you developed your bialy recipe.
Hot Bread Kitchen’s mission is to preserve the craft of baking from around the world, so it only made sense, as a bakery in New York City, to make a classic New York-via-Poland bread, the Bialy. We developed our recipe in 2010 and, in doing so, sampled lots of bialys and pulled inspiration from Mimi Sheraton’s Bialy Eaters.
Can you share a little bit about your bialy recipes?
We offer traditional onion bialys as well as a cheese and onion version (born out of necessity, when Jessamyn was also head baker and hungry late at night—she’d throw some cheese on a bialy, one of the last things to come out of the oven, when it was hot).
What is the best way to eat a bialy?
The best way to eat them, certainly, is hot—if you can’t bake your own and eat them fresh out of the oven, make sure to toast them. In Almacen, Hot Bread Kitchen’s retail storefront in La Marqueta, we offer a breakfast sandwich called the Bialy al Barrio, with a fried egg, cheese and Valentina hot sauce. The recipe for this, as well as for the bialys themselves, can be found in The Hot Bread KitchenCookbook.
Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys, 367 Grand Street, Manhattan
Say the word “bialy” in New York City, and someone will likely follow-up by responding, “Kossar’s.” This eighty-year-old business is basically synonymous with this particular version of baked dough. So, with a clear consciousness, we had to stop by the long-acknowledged bialy champion in all of New York City, to see what this delicious bialy was all about.
How old is the recipe and where does it come from?
Kossar’s has been open since 1936 and we have been making bialys for the past 80 years.
We use the original recipe brought over from Bialystock Poland by Morris Kossar. The exact recipe is a secret, but a bialy contains only 4 ingredients: Flour, water, salt and yeast.
How do your bialys stand out from others?
Today Kossar’s is the oldest remaining bialy bakery in the US, and the only dedicated bialy bakery left in NYC, possibly the country. All of the bialys are still made by hand at Kossar’s, with no artificial colors or preservatives added. All our bialys fillings are made fresh every day (like our roasted onions and garlic). Our bialys are baked fresh all day, throughout the day. The shop maintains two totally separate kitchens for their bagels and bialys—each kitchen has its own mixer, oven and staff.
Why do you love bialys? And in your opinion, what is the best way to eat them?
What’s better than a hot bialy, just out of the oven?! Eating a bialy is like eating a piece of history—the flavors are simple, but the taste is complex. The best way to eat a bialy is with our own line of cream cheeses and spreads, of course!
Photos from Kossar’s and Hot Bagels by Chris Trigaux
Hot Bread Kitchen Photo by Jennifer May and Evan Sung. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Bell’s Bialy courtesy of Bell’s