Bialys Worth the Trip

Bell Bialy converted me. They handed me—a bagel devotee—a hot bialy right off the line. After an oversize bite and 12 or so chews, I won’t ever go back.

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Bell Bialy converted me. They handed me—a bagel devotee—a hot bialy right off the line. After an oversize bite and 12 or so chews, I won’t ever go back. “Once people start eating it, it becomes a cult following,” Warren Bell, owner of Bell Bialy, informed me upon seeing my reaction.

More than 65 years ago, Warren’s father, Martin Bell, started a small bialy business out of his basement in Borough Park. He soon expanded to a storefront in Canarsie, and about 15 years ago, Warren took over the business.

Today, Warren runs Bell Bialy out of their factory in Canarsie with the help of his son, Jared. Though Jared started college last year in Albany, he moved home after one semester to work with his dad. “He ended up letting me take time off as long as I promised to go back to school to study food science, which I’m doing next year,” Jared told me.

Bell is now the largest bialy bakery in the country, baking roughly 13 million bialys and 13 million bagels a year and shipping both fresh throughout New York and frozen throughout the world. (I was oddly more excited to learn that the local bialys I grew up with are shipped to Publix in Florida than I was to learn that they are shipped to Japan.) Each bialy is pulled by hand with the middle indented by thumb. When I asked Jared if the onions were sprinkled on by hand as well, he kindly corrected my wording: “They’re not sprinkled, they’re schmeared.”

Bialys are bagels’ humbler cousin. They have only four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast, whereas bagels usually contain additional dough conditioner, sugars, and cereal bits. They are baked rather than boiled, and they have an onion-filled depression rather than a hole.

According to Jared, “New York water is 100 percent the reason our bialys are better, but the process we use is different, too. Other companies have overhead proofing systems that proof the yeast for a set amount of time regardless of the size of the bialys. We allow our bialys to proof for as long or as short as they need depending on the dough, and we test the bialys to see if they’re ready each day.”

The Bells have followed family tradition with their recipes and techniques since 1947, but they’ve adopted new flavors over time. They now sell four bialy varieties and sixteen bagel flavors, including French toast and sun dried tomato. They’ll also soon be clearing out one of their warehouses to open an entirely gluten free facility.

Warren and Jared will stick with the traditional stuffed bialy, though. When I asked what their favorite ways to eat a bialy were, Warren told me he prefers “lox and scallion or vegetable cream cheese.” Jared, on the other hand, likes a “toasted bialy with American cheese and butter. It’s so bad for you, but it’s so good.”

To find out where you can purchase Bell Bialys, click here. But trust me, it’s worth the trip to Canarsie to get them fresh off the belt.

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When Marissa was a little girl, she threw her bottle and pacifier down the stairs and begged for "real food." More than two decades later, her passion for real food has grown into a part of her everyday life. Marissa graduated in May 2014 with a Masters in Food Studies from NYU, where she focused her research on food politics and food culture. She has taught children’s nutrition, gardening and cooking classes for the past four years, and she will spend the next academic year as a FoodCorps service member in Guilford County, North Carolina.