Creating a bagel board is an art, but it absolutely involves smoked salmon and sable, smoked fish salads, an abundance of cheese, onions, tomatoes, and as many toppings as your heart can dream up!
If you didn’t already know, hosting brunch is all the rage. The trendiest of the trendy folks adhere to the strict policy of ‘go big or go home’ and around these parts that translates into one thing: an epic bagel board. And I’m going to share my best tips and tricks so you can recreate this at home!
Okay, now before we go talking smoked fish and toppings, you have to start with a good base. Find yourself the best damn bagels you can in your area. This may be a bit of a challenge, but I know you can handle it. There are three main things you’re looking for:
- BOILED BAGELS. I repeat: they must be boiled. This is what will lead to that crispy exterior (without toasting them!!). Basically boiling a bagel will lock in the moisture and create a thicker crust. And we like thick crusts. Light, airy, chewy bagels will be gifted to the garbage pail.
- On a related note, we don’t like too much crust. By this I mean if you are faced with the decision to choose between a NY-style bagel versus a Montreal-style bagel, run the other way and head back to the States, because NY bagels are where it’s at. What’s the difference anyway? Montreal-style bagels are boiled with honey (so they’re sweeter), smaller in size (that’s no good!), and are overall crispier on the outside holding a more dense bread inside. They’re finished in a wood-fired oven which is cool and all, but… Murray’s Bagels they are not.
- The bagel must have seeds on both sides. This is crucial. You simply cannot have an everything bagel where the seeds are only on the top. What if you only eat half a bagel? What do you do with the bottom? Nothing, because if you’re smart you’ll follow my advice and only buy bagels with seeds on both sides, yo!
Trust me, guys. This will all be worth it in the end.
Prepare for bad breath
Okay next, smoked seafood! There’s no other way to say this: your breath is gonna stank. Yes, you will need a mint or some mouthwash after breakfast, and every time you burp you will be reminded of what you ate, but it is so, so worth it. My best advice for first time smoked seafood buyers:
- If you can find a place that will hand slice lox or nova (explanations for what these are and how they differ below!), pay the extra money. You’ve already decided you’re going to build an epic bagel board, not merely host a mediocre Sunday gathering. This calls for the good stuff, and the good stuff is decidedly hand sliced. If you’re lucky enough to be in NY, there’s no place finer than the infamous Russ & Daughters. Prepare to wait, perfection takes time to slice. I live in the suburbs of CT, about 45 minutes from the city; when I can’t make it in to R&D for a smoked salmon fix, I instead go to the Greenwich, CT location of Mt. Kisco Smokehouse.
Is smoked salmon the only fish you should pick up? Absolutely not.
- Sable – It took me a few years to experiment and figure out what I like best, but let me be the first to tell you that smoked sable is the bomb. It’s ethereal, delicate texture is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. And don’t even get me started on the buttery flavor. It receives a 10/10 on the wow factor from this smoked fish lover.
- Smoked seafood salads – this is going to be a game changer for you and your guests. Why buy 1 sliced smoked fish when you can have multiple smoked fish and a few smoked fish salads?! My favorites are whitefish salad (so much easier than buying a whole fish and de-boning it!), tuna salad, and of course, salmon. All smoked, all delicious, and all catering to personal preference. I cannot say enough good things about the smoked seafood salads at Mt. Kisco Smokehouse. If you’re at Whole Foods, Fairway, or Costco, pick up a large container of ACME smoked whitefish salad. You won’t regret it.
Know your bagel brunch terminology
Schmear? Nova? Gravlax? Isn’t a bialy just an onion bagel? No. Read below to increase your knowledge on these classic Jewish staples.
- Schmear = simply put, it’s cream cheese. There is a correct way to order a bagel, and I’ll help you out with that further down, but for now can we just relish in the fact that schmear is both a thing (cream cheese) and an action (“schmear my bagel with extra schmear, please and thank you!”)
- Lox = salmon that has been brined or salt-cured, but is never smoked. This is what you traditionally think of as going on a bagel with cream cheese.
- Nova = same as above, except that it’s also cold smoked.
- Gravlax = okay so you’re standing in a smokehouse or bagel shop and you notice a smoked salmon that is mostly black on top. That’s likely gravlax. It’s topped with a blend of salt, sugar, and dill, and is freakin’ fabulous. Because let’s be honest, salmon and dill were made for each other.
- Belly lox = holy salt lovers unite! This is mostly in reference to Russ & Daughters which sells a variety of different smoked salmons, but only one lox — belly lox. If you’ve never tried belly lox, bring a bottle of water with you. This is saltier than most people can handle and definitely not typical of appearing on a bagel sammy. So think twice before ordering this — though it has its place! — because you need to prepare yourself for a salt-forward flavor.
- Bialy = this is what happens when you simply bake the dough instead of boiling it first. Bialys are typically round and flat. The space where there’s a whole in a bagel is instead filled and topped with onions and/or poppy seeds on a bialy. And rather than taking a swim in the jacuzzi first, bialy go straight for the oven. This results in a less crusty exterior and a dense, firm inside. Kossar’s has a reputation for making the best. While I enjoy a good bialy, my heart will forever lie with everything bagels.
What’s with all the other stuff on your bagel board?
Variety is the spice of life, people. You are likely to have a couple purists — bagel, cream cheese, lox, repeat — but you may host someone who likes to branch out and try new things.
Case in point, my 5 year old daughter, Nora, who specifically asks for food she’s “never tried before” when eating out. God, I love her.
So here’s what I like to include on my bagel board to please everyone:
- a variety of bagel flavors, but I always go heavy on the everything bagels, as they’re usually the most popular
- at least 2 types of smoked fish, but 3 or 4 is better if your budget allows — this can help educate your guests (and yourself) on which type of fish you prefer via a side-by-side smoked fish tasting
- 1 tub of scallion cream cheese and 1 tub of plain cream cheese
- 2-3 smoked seafood salads or a whole smoked whitefish
- thinly sliced raw red onion
- fresh vine ripe tomatoes (heirlooms, when they’re in season!)
- sliced muenster cheese (shout out to my husband’s family for introducing me to this 16 years ago!)
- fresh dill or local arugula micro greens
- capers, because of course
Make sure to lay out plenty of knives and spoons for scooping and spreading, and a few forks to pick up the oily smoked fish.
When is it okay to toast a bagel? Never.
Okay, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. There is exactly one time when it is acceptable to toast a bagel, and that is when it has been frozen. Why would you ever eat a frozen bagel? If you’re like this girl who can’t make it into NYC every day and buys bagels in bulk, slices them, throws them into freezer bags, and pulls them out for her children at 5:30 pm when she realizes she has made NO PLANS FOR DINNER and they will otherwise starve.
Toasting frozen bagels is kinder than letting your children starve. Just make sure you let them know this is a sub-optimal way to consume ’em. Fresh is always best!
How to confidently order a bagel sandwich
What can I get for you?
Don’t panic. You’ve got this.
Everything, scallion cheese, tomato, onion, lox.
Then quickly move down to make room for the next customer and pay. Easy! Unless you specifically ask for your bagel toasted — don’t do it, see above if you’ve forgotten this important rule — it’ll be served fresh, as was intended.
And I swear to God if you walk into a bagel shop and ask them to scoop out your bagel, this relationship is over. Don’t worry about carb intake! Maybe go for a long stroll around Central Park before, during, and/or after eating your whole non-scooped out carb-centric delight. See? Problem solved.
What do you drink with a bagel sammy?
I suppose this one is open to interpretation. Most people will probably go for a hot coffee. Me personally? I am a typically an iced coffee kinda gal every single day of the year, regardless of temperature. However, with bagels all I really want is a tall glass of orange juice. Fresh squeezed when possible. Splash of champagne **totally optional.
**Note: splash of champagne is not optional.
So now that you have all the tools necessary to create an epic bagel board, the last step is to get out there and just do it. I believe in you. Your friends and family believe in you. Brunch god(dess) status is totally within arms reach. It’s time.
If you make this Bagel Board, please let me know by leaving a review below!
How To Create an Epic Bagel Board
- 1 dozen bagels assorted (go heavy on everything bagels)
- ½ lb scallion cream cheese
- ½ lb plain cream cheese
- 2.5 -3 lbs of smoked fish figure about ¼ lb/person, though some may want more or less; I like an assortment of lox, nova, sable, etc.
- 1 lb of smoked seafood salad such as whitefish, salmon, or tuna (assorted is better!)
- 1/2 lb thinly sliced muenster cheese or other cheese
- 2-3 vine ripe tomatoes thinly sliced
- 1 large red onion thinly sliced
- 1 4 oz jar of capers, drained
- fresh dill or other greens for serving
- Slice bagels in half, then place on a platter or in a basket.
- Place cream cheese, seafood salads, and capers in small bowls, then arrange on a large cutting board or serving platter.
- Arrange the remaining ingredients, making sure to spread the ingredients around the board so everyone can reach, regardless of whether they're sitting!
- Let guests assemble bagel sandwiches as desired.