What's a bialy? Bell's of Oceanside has been making them for 75 years
If bagels are the Paul McCartney of the bread world — easily accessible and universally beloved — bialys are George Harrison, whose soulful gifts are more nuanced but every bit as rewarding.
And, as with the Beatles, it’s hard to explain what a bialy is without comparing it to a bagel. Luckily, the world’s leading expert on bialys lives and works right here on Long Island: Warren Bell, the second-generation owner and president of Bell’s Brooklyn Bagels & Bialys in Oceanside, which he characterized as “the biggest wholesale bialy manufacturer in the world … also, to my knowledge, the only wholesale bialy manufacturer in the world.”
Having grown up in the 75-year-old business, Warren has the explanation down pat: “A bialy is a cross between a bagel and an English muffin. It’s softer than a bagel, not so sweet, not so big, not so shiny.”
Warren’s son, Jared, the company’s vice president, picked up the thread: Whereas bagels are traditionally boiled before they are baked — that’s what gives them their glossy crusts — bialys are not; their textural complexity comes from a central dimple that is filled with chopped onion.
Bell’s produces more than 250,000 bialys a week, selling them to bagel wholesalers and directly to bagel shops that don’t make their own. They supply major supermarkets so if you’ve bought a fresh bialy from the bakery at ShopRite or Stop & Shop, it’s probably been Bell’s; in the freezer section, you’ll find Bell’s bialys sold under the Ray’s New York label. The factory has no official retail shop, but if you stop by during business hours (8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day but Sunday) you can buy bialys by the dozen, as well as that nearly extinct species called the pletzel , a flat LP-sized bialy whose surface is almost obscured by seeds.
FROM BAGEL TO BIALY
In the late 1800s, Jewish immigrants from the Polish city of Bialystok brought these distinctive yeast rolls to New York; the name was short for “Bialystoker kuchen,” cakes from Bialystok. Originally, a bakery would make either bagels or bialys — there were even separate trade unions for the bakers. Kossar’s, founded in 1936 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is the country’s oldest bialy shop. It eventually added bagels to the mix, just as many bagels stores started making bialys. But both breads were handmade fresh every day.
Then, said Warren, “Lender’s changed everything.” Starting in the '60s and continuing through the 80s, the New Haven-based bakery revolutionized the bagel business, automating the process and selling the bagels to supermarkets both fresh and frozen. The requirements of both mass production and mass-market tastes changed the bagel.
“They got sweet,” he said, “they got so puffed up you can’t get a finger through.” The “real, old-fashioned bagel,” he explained, “you couldn’t produce it in large volume, you couldn’t ship it. And then people get used to this other thing. Now you are selling bagels to people who grew up with Lender’s.”
But a bialy … a bialy requires that human touch. “It’s what we call ‘pulling,’ when you stretch the dough to make that little depression that holds the onion. It has to be done by hand.” He can back up this claim: Jared still kids his father about the time in the 90s when he spent an unspecified amount of money on a pulling machine that fell flat.
Warren concedes that “bialys will never have the market penetration that bagels do.” And Bell’s profits from machine-made bagels too, selling even more of them than bialys. There are machines involved in their production of bialys, but what you see on the factory floor is the kind of automation you might have seen at the dawn of the industrial revolution: lots of wheels and belts and people covered with flour — not a computer, let alone a robot, in sight.
HOW TO MAKE BIALYS
When Bell’s takes delivery of flour, it goes into an indoor silo that holds almost 100,000 pounds. Pipes on the ceiling draw the flour, 500 pounds of it at a time, into a mixer that kneads it for seven minutes with water, salt and yeast — the same ingredients used for pizza. The finished dough is hand fed into a machine that rolls it into small balls (no one knows why they are called “tagels ”) that get dropped onto wooden boards.
Bialy dough is quite wet (65% hydration) and it is showered with flour so it doesn’t stick to the innards of the machine; the boards are liberally sprinkled with cornmeal so the tagels don’t stick. Both measures bestow a distinctive powdery, matte surface to the finished bialy. The dough balls go into a warm, humid proofing box (to rise) and emerge ready to become bialys.
Now we reach the critical point. The puller picks up each risen tagel and gently but firmly stretches it out, using thumbs to thin out the center but also to stabilize it so it doesn’t tear. It goes onto a moving conveyor belt and, immediately, the schmearer drops a little splotch of freshly chopped onion into the center, reinforcing the depression. It takes three to six months to become a puller; the schmearer’s job requires less dexterity, but must be quick enough to keep up with the puller.
Next comes the bialys’ journey into the tunnel oven, 700 degrees on top, 600 on the bottom. Three minutes and 15 feet later they emerge as fully formed bialys, golden brown and with a light but resilient crumb. After they cool to room temperature, they are sorted and packaged according to their ultimate destinations.
FROM BROOKLYN TO OCEANSIDE
The 32,000-square-foot factory is a far cry from Bell’s roots. In 1948, Warren’s father, Martin, was unable to recover a loan he made to a bialy maker and so he took over the business, B & S Bialy, located in a basement in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Martin and his team worked in their underwear, the coal oven burned so hot. And coal was so expensive, he would periodically go to the Brooklyn Navy yard to supplement the coal with any discarded wooden pallets he could find.
In 1954, Martin “came upstairs,” establishing a proper shop in the neighborhood and, 10 years later, he moved B & S to Canarsie, selling his own bialys and bagels he brought in from another shop. In 1972, by which time young Warren had joined the business, he started making his own bagels and renamed the shop Bell’s Bagels & Bialys . In 1996, the company moved again to a larger facility in Canarsie that was supposed to be wholesale only until, Warren recalls, “people started pounding on the door demanding to buy bialys.”
Needing even more space, the company, which was now wholesaling bagels as well, moved to its present location in Oceanside in 2016. Martin died in 2004, around the same time that 10-year-old Jared started working. When he was 19, he decided he wanted to come on board full time but his father said no: he knew his smart and hardworking son could make more money and work fewer hours if he “got an education and became a professional.”
Jared came up with a foolproof plan: He threatened to join the army knowing his mother would forbid it and, shortly thereafter, he settled into a desk right next to his father’s. In that office, surrounded by sports memorabilia and decades worth of framed articles and citations, they oversee the business, along with Warren’s son-in-law Aaron, the quality assurance manager.
THE FUTURE OF BIALYS
While Warren is still deeply involved in sales, Jared, now 30, takes on more responsibility, managing the books, the website, social media, product design and spearheading new products such bialys flavored with jalapeño and Asiago cheese. He is also determined to bring Bell’s bialy roll to a wider audience and it certainly deserves one: Made from the same dough but with no depression, the everything-seeded roll is perfect for accommodating burgers and sandwiches.
Still, the heart of the business remains the classic bialy and, despite himself, Warren is proud that Jared’s involvement ensures that it will be preserved for generations to come. “The idea that we brought the bialy to this level,” he said, “that we are making a product that almost no one makes anymore — it’s an awesome responsibility.”