Bialys are a delicious, chewy onion rolls that are often confused with bagels. They originally came from Jewish bakeries in Białystok, Poland, a thriving city that was predominantly Jewish. During the Nazi occupation of Białystok in WWII, the bakeries that made this bread disappeared, but by then the bialy had already been imported into the Jewish bakery scene in the Lower East Side of Manhattan by emigrating Polish Jews.
Over a seven-year period in the 1990s, [Sheraton] interviewed bialystokers all over the world who recalled the kuchen bakeries on neighborhood corners; the women who sold the warm rolls out of big woven baskets, how they ate them with smoked fish, soup, potatoes or even halvah (a soft, sesame paste candy.)
Another interesting article in Serious Eats explains the lineage of the bialy and its not-relationship to the bagel.
Americans lump bialys together with bagels, but the bread really belongs to what bread expert Andrew Coe calls “that great, forgotten tradition of Jewish rolls” and, more specifically, onion breads. “There’s a whole bunch of Jewish breads that involve onions, not just the bialy,” Coe elaborated, “and those didn’t make it into the American mainstream, either.”
The bialy has lived on, somewhat quietly, in bakeries in New York City and in parts of the U.S. where New Yorkers have migrated to over the past century. I was introduced to bialys one college summer when I lived in Brooklyn and worked in a diner.
The diner served a few foods I’d never heard of while growing up outside Washington, D.C.: bialys, scooped out bagels, and egg creams. Back then, bialys struck me as being tiny dry oniony pizzas that were fantastic with butter. Scooped out bagels are just what they sound like: all chewy caramelized crust. An egg cream is a combo of milk, seltzer, and vanilla syrup. No egg. The name was originally Yiddish “echt keem” for “pure sweetness.”
I haven’t yearned for the latter two things much in the years since, but bialys? I have wanted them, so I was thrilled to work on this recipe to try to achieve that tastiness and texture, but with sourdough leavening and more healthy whole grain flour. I studied a lot of recipes. A few were flour-water-salt-yeast, but most had a couple of teaspoons of sugar and one had 1/2 tsp of onion powder. In the end, knowing there’d be flavor from the whole grain flour and the sourdough leavening, I went with the simplest dough.
40% whole grain yecora rojo flour. Whole grain tastiness with a strong gluten-chew.
The bialys I remember were dusted with rice flour. One recipe suggested that, and many more suggested cornmeal. I tried both and had no preference. If you use parchment paper on your baking sheet, you probably don’t need either.
For the traditional onion-poppyseed filling, the only variation I found was that some recipes added bread crumbs to the mix. I skipped the bread crumbs, but if you’d like to learn more about using them, and also see the recipe that inspired my secondary filling: dates and goat cheese, check out this Hot Bread Kitchen recipe. For the dates-goat cheese filling, I didn’t use honey and I added rosemary to the mix, but you may prefer their version. I also plan to try dates, rosemary, and brie cheese at some point.
I outline a fermentation schedule for doing a morning bake in the recipe below. I prefer the bulk fermentation be “no knead” and overnight at room temperature, but you can stretch and fold the dough if you want and also retard it after the first rise if you want different timing.
An early test bake where I retarded the pre-shaped dough overnight. The results were delicious but more sour than I was looking for.
In the recipe below, the final proof takes place with the pre-shaped balls. Then you’ll shape the dough and fill it about 20 minutes before baking. I tested proofing after shaping and filling the dough, but the bialys ended up domed (left). The bialys on the right were a test bake with just a bench rest, no final proof, and they were a little flat.
Two test bakes: Bialys on the left had a final proof while shaped and filled. They domed too much. Bialys on the right had only a bench rest, no final proof. They were a little dense.
Bialys are delicious, chewy bread circles with a depression in the center that’s traditionally filled with onion and poppyseeds. These bialys have a hearty whole grain component and a large sourdough pre-ferment. Choose between the classic onion-poppy seed filling or a date-cheese-rosemary filling, or make a mix of both.
1 large onion diced
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
1-2 tsp poppyseeds
pinch of salt
10 dried dates
2 ½ oz goat cheese (half a small log)
1-2 Tbsp chopped rosemary
1 Tbsp honey (optional)
The instructions below are for baking bialys fresh in the morning with no refrigeration of the dough. Other schedules are fine too, of course. For example the dough can be mixed in the morning instead of at night, then pre-shaped into balls and refrigerated overnight to shape and bake the next morning. (Retarding the dough like that will make a more sour bialy.) The timing here works for a cool kitchen, 65-70F. If you’re making this bread in much hotter ambient temperatures, you can use very cold water in the starter and dough mix; or you can use less starter. For example, halve the starter build components to total 130g ripe starter, and add that missing 65g flour and 65g water to the dough ingredients.
The Morning Before Baking
Feed 20g of sourdough starter with 120g flour and 120g water. Leave covered at room temperature to expand throughout the day. By evening it should be somewhere between doubled and tripled. If it’s looking sluggish, put it somewhere warmer. My starter took 11 hours at around 70F.
Making the Filling
This can be done the night before or during the two-hour final proof the morning you bake.
Onion Poppyseed Chop the onion and saute in olive oil. When translucent, remove from the heat, add the poppyseeds and a pinch of salt. Mix well and transfer to another container to cool. You may want to mince the cooked onions into smaller pieces after they’re cooked.
Date Goat Cheese Mince the dates (seedless) and mix with chopped rosemary and crumbled goat cheese. Cover and store until ready to use.
The Night Before Baking
Mix the ingredients for dough. Let the dough rest for about five minutes and then fold it a bit until it’s smooth. Place it in a lightly oiled in a bowl, cover, and let it ferment overnight at temps of 65-70F.
The Next Morning
Lightly flour your countertop, scrape the dough out onto the counter, press out the air, and divide the dough 14 pieces (weighing approx 95-100g).
Roll each piece into a ball and place them next to each other with about 1 inch between.
Cover the dough balls with a damp tea towel or baking pan, and let rise for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. (Replenish the moisture on the towel if it dries out.)
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly dust with rice flour or cornmeal.
Using a bench knife, scoop up a proofed dough ball and gently stretch it outward into a disc with your fingers thinning out the center of the disc but leaving the edges thick and untouched. Place the shaped dough on the baking sheet, and repeat until all the dough balls are shaped.
Spoon about a tablespoon of filling into the hollow of each bialy, then brush the exposed dough with water.
Let the dough rest while you preheat your oven to 475F for about 20 minutes.
Load the first baking sheet into the oven on the middle shelf.
Bake the bialys for 10 minutes, followed by 2-3 minutes of broiling still at 475F to caramelize the filling. If 500F is your oven’s only broil option, keep a close eye on the bialys.
Place the baked bialys on a cooling rack and return the oven setting to bake.
Brush the second baking sheet of bialys with water again, and load them into the oven, following the same instructions above.
Bialys can be kept wrapped at room temperature for 12-24 hours, and then they should be refrigerated. The staling effects of refrigeration are remedied by toasting, which is the ideal way to eat bialys anyway.