Every New Yorker has heard that there’s something in the water. This mystical quality, the theory goes, is the secret ingredient in New York’s world-famous pizza and bagels, bestowing everything from coffee to beer with the city’s singular flavor. Some even whisper that water is as important an ingredient as pork bones in the bowls of ramen bubbling up around town.
Culinary reality or historic lore? It’s common sense that water, to some degree, shapes the taste of any food it’s cooked into, from baguettes to broth to bourbon. Where fact spills into fiction, however, is a matter of debate for bakers and brewers alike.
Any discussion of our water’s magical qualities must begin with bagels. Since their introduction by Polish-Jewish immigrants in the 1880s, bagels have become a day-starting staple across the boroughs and, alongside the Statue of Liberty, the city’s longtime mascot. Bagels finally made their way into mainstream American diets in the 1980s when frozen, bagged versions sporting distant expiration dates appeared on supermarket shelves nationwide. These flabby pillows Calvin Trillin derided as “round bread” would never pass muster here, but taunted New Yorkers who ventured out into America.
No one knows how the bagels-require-Gotham-water dogma was first uttered, but no doubt the diaspora of bagel-starved New Yorkers were its fiercest believers.
“I think what happened is these transient populations of New Yorkers got down to Florida and all of a sudden realized, ‘My flour and ingredients are the same—everything is the same—but, my God, this is not the same product,’” speculated Tom Lehmann, the director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking, who answers to the nickname of “the dough doctor.”
Wandering in these strange, sunny lands, expat New York bakers found themselves confronted with a peculiar horror: sad bits of bread masquerading with the label “bagel.” And when the bakers among them made bagels from recipes that had worked well back home, the legend of the magic water was born.
“Somebody along the way probably realized only one ingredient was not the same: the water,” Lehmann theorizes. “That person then gets on the phone and calls their Aunt Margaret to ship five gallons of tap water down from New York, which works just fine, and there you have your smoking gun.”
Yet the bagel myth is not quite as tidy as that. Yes, New York tap does bear characteristic differences from other places in the country, and, yes, those differences do bestow it with a particular propensity for bagel boiling and baking. Our water contains ideal quantities of calcium and dissolved minerals, which causes a process called “the calcium-ion effect” to kick in and strengthen the wheat protein, producing the chewy texture New Yorkers had come to expect.
However, anyone can make up for these differences and create a perfect profile of so-called New York water. If you’re a baker based in Oklahoma City working with that region’s soft, mineral-lacking water, for example, you can doctor the dough with calcium sulfate. Adding four ounces per 100 pounds of flour should do the trick, Lehmann said.
Another sticking point is the water’s pH. New York’s finest clocks in around 7.2 on the pH scale, or just about neutral (a pH of 7.0 is considered pure water). A more basic or acidic liquid disrupts fermentation and the way proteins in the mixture denature, causing the dough to become sluggish or throw off the flavor. Again, simply adjusting for this by adding acidic monocalcium phosphate or alkaline sodium bicarbonate to nudge the pH in the right direction should tip yeast production back into its optimal window.
“There’s nothing magical and mystical about New York water,” Lehmann concluded. “Yeah, the water absolutely affects the way a bagel performs, but other water sources can be made to be the same as New York water.”
One savvy bagelry claims to do precisely that. Brooklyn Water Bagel, whose first location opened in Delray Beach, Florida, in 2009, aims to bring authentic bagels not only to the bagel-starved nation but also to the world. Currently, 14 locations operate from Beverly Hills to Atlanta, with another 30 in the works and plans to expand to Brazil and Asia.
“The fundamental basis of our franchise is water,” said Steven Fassberg, the company’s founder and CEO. A native Brooklynite, Fassberg says he began baking bagels at age 12 before being transplanted to Florida in his early teens, where he longed to create a product that would sate his cravings—and those of other displaced New Yorkers. “At a very young age, my grandma would tell me about the water being key,” he recalled. “Eventually I wanted to see if it was just an old wives’ tale or if there was scientific proof to back it up.”
He began consulting with water scientists and water companies about the equipment and ingredients it would take to replicate New York tap. “We didn’t even know if it could be done initially,” Fassberg said. “Investors said, ‘If it’s so easy, why hasn’t anybody done it before?’”
Over the next six months, Fassberg and his team identified the minerals in, and pH of, New York tap, then neutralized a batch of Florida’s chlorine- and ammonia-kissed water and slowly began building it up to create a match, adding a quarter teaspoon of calcium here, a milligram of magnesium there. Like a scientist concocting margarine for butter or baby formula for mother’s milk, Fassberg pursued his idea of better eating through technology. Eventually, he created a minerally mix that he says delivered the bagels of his boyhood.
Nine years after those first experiments, the company now uses a 14-stage proprietary water treatment system to create a scientific stand-in for New York tap, burning through 31,000 gallons of the stuff per store per week. “We call the process ‘Brooklynizing the water,’” Fassberg said, adding that the proof is in the bagel. “We can take a difficult New Yorker who thinks he knows everything and convert him into saying, ‘Wow, this is a lovely and authentic product.’”
So how does water behave in other dough? Do bread bakers share this reverence for city tap?
Amy Scherber, owner of Amy’s Bread, believes water does account for New York City’s bagels ranking as the world’s best, but she’s less certain that there’s a miracle of the loaves. Before baking, dough is about 70 percent water, but the breads Scherber has kneaded into existence in other locales have mostly turned out fine (save for Florida, she said; there’s something not quite right about the water there—maybe she should try Fassberg’s facsimile). Even in Russia—where she abstained from drinking the tap water out of fear of gastrointestinal implosion—and Japan—where a complex water system and multitude of chemicals sustain crowded metropolises—her bread more or less turned out as she intended. “It’s just a basic ingredient so it works as it would anywhere else as long as the flavor is good,” she said.
Though she’s a fan of tap, Scherber swears by filtering. “I love New York City water, it has a good, pure flavor, but it’s important to filter when making dough,” she said. “It takes out the stronger chlorine taste and any particles that you don’t want.”
Ramen makers also stew over what’s on tap. “Water is different in every part of the world,” said Fumihiro Kanegae, a global ramen master at Ippudo Ny, below. “So if I use the same recipe here as I make in Japan, it would taste 100 percent different.”
“Water is over 50 percent of ramen and is the lifeline for our dishes,” he continued. Each day, Ippudo customers slurp through 900 liters of water used to make soup broths alone. To make sure these bowls of gloriously flavorful noodles remain consistent in locations throughout Japan, Asia, Australia and NYC, Kanegae reformulates his recipes and cooking process according to the water in question.
For making broth, ramen chefs prefer soft water free from excessive minerals since it speeds up the boiling process and extracts maximum flavor from marrow-yielding pork bones stewing in the ramen pot. New York City’s water enters the system with a naturally soft mineral palette, but when it exits the tap it has often picked up excessive sediment from treatment plants and old pipes. So Kanegae filters his water to return it to a soft state. “The key is being able to understand the properties of the water in a particular location and adapting around it,” he said.
When it comes to beverages, filtration is again essential. “People often fail to realize that 98 to 99 percent of every cup of coffee is water,” said John Moore, the vice president of sales and marketing at Dallis Brothers Coffee, the storied centenarian of a business that distributes premium coffee and caffeine contraptions to restaurants all over town. “There’s no question that water influences how coffee turns out.”
A good cup of Joe contains a mixture of what’s known in chemistry as suspension and solution—or both whole and dissolved particles. Ideally, water for the crowning cuppa would contain 150 parts per million of particulate minerals before it hits the beans. If already laden with too many chemicals and minerals, the coffee has nowhere to go in the solution, like undissolved sugar crystals clumping at the bottom of a cup of cold water. On the other hand, if the water is “overly aggressive” it will pull from the coffee too quickly, missing important flavors and elements. Coffee makers refer to the process of finding this sweet water spot as “extraction.”
For the most part, New York’s water performs pretty well for coffee brewing, though filtration is still necessary for removing any sediment and debris that find their way into the pipes through construction sites or burst mains. Carbon filtration further removes chlorine, improving the coffee’s taste. Dallis Brothers’s satellite operations in New Jersey, on the other hand, require pricey and time-consuming reverse-osmosis units to strip the water down to a neutral pH so brewers can then reinject the appropriate minerals for optimal coffee. “Maybe New York’s water is slightly on the aggressive side,” Moore said without irony, “but you can get a great cup of coffee from it.”
Equipment is a whole different bag of beans. As coffee brewing technology has evolved into new heights of sophistication compared to the systems of 20 years ago that simply poured a stream of hot water over a bed of grinds, so too has it become more sensitive to water quality. Excess minerals can build up and damage tiny, delicate pipes, requiring acid baths to flush them clean or even putting the equipment out of service altogether. “Out in one of our factory warehouses we have a beautiful $10,000 espresso machine basically rendered useless because someone allowed sediment to get in,” Moore said. “I can’t tell you how many people try to save $250 by skipping filtration and then go on to spend $2,500 because their espresso machine is broken.”
Water is just as essential to another category of brewers—those who make alcohol.
Beer, for example, is a three-to-one business. In other words, for every barrel of beer produced, expect to use about three times as much water in the process. “Generally speaking, Brooklyn water is great brewing water,” said Garrett Oliver, world-famous brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of the Oxford Companion to Beer.
The water, Oliver says, accounts for one of the main reasons why 45 breweries operated on Brooklyn land just a century ago, though all were sunk by Prohibition.
Like Kanegae at Ippudo, Oliver filters his water to ensure it returns to its original soft state when it first rained down on the Catskill watershed. “This softness and neutrality to the water means it’s very versatile,” he said. Beers around the world are shaped by their watery foundations, Brooklyn’s included. London, for example, has high carbonate concentrations in its waters, making for its famously lip-smacking dark beers. England’s Burton-on-Trent, on the other hand, once served as the epicenter for pale ales and IPAs, thanks to its sulfate-rich wells that lent a nice, crisp flavor to their brews. Brooklyn Brewery does add a dash of gypsum to some of their pale ales and IPAs in a process called “burtonizing,” to achieve Burton-on-Trent’s original crispness. Besides that, however, Oliver doesn’t touch it. “I always like to point out that our beer is made from New York City water, because New York City water’s kind of awesome,” he said, referring to the boroughs’ high-quality, mountain-fed tap. “I don’t drink bottled water at all—who needs it!”
Also in Williamsburg, Allen Katz burns through “boatloads” of water at his year-old New York Distilling Company. For distilling, he uses unadulterated, unfiltered NYC tap water, but for proofing his gin and rye whiskey, he filters the water to remove the flavor and aroma of chloride and fluoride. “We always knew we’d use filtered water for proofing, but weren’t sure we’d use city water for distilling,” Katz said. “We were concerned that there would potentially be metals or other elements in the tap water that could adversely affect the copper that the distiller is made out of, but once we were sure that was not the case, we went with tap water for distillation.”
Distilling basically amounts to cooking. For gin, distilling involves cooking, vaporizing and then clarifying and re-liquefying a concoction of high-proof neutral grain spirits, NYC tapwater and botanical recipes tailored for either Perry’s Tot or Dorothy Parker, the company’s two flavorful blends. After sitting for a few days, the mixture enters the proofing stage, for which Katz uses a separate water line hooked up to a simple filtration system. “If we wanted to, we could proof the same product with filtered and unfiltered water and you’d notice a difference in the flavor,” he said. (Discovering how tap affects the rye, however, will have to wait. “That’s to be determined,” Katz said. “Our Rockin’ Rye will come out later this year.”)
Some distilleries choose not to filter their water. In Scotland, for example, whiskey assumes a telltale smoky or peaty flavor due in part to water trickling through the country’s peat bogs and picking up those natural characteristics of the land. Distillers in Kentucky and Tennessee tout the superior quality of their natural limestone-filtered water. “The context of pure versus filtered water is probably associated with more rural distilling operations than urban ones,” Katz said. “For us, filtering the water is the greatest assurance that what’s going to come out in our finished product is the truest representation of the botanical characteristics that went in.”
Do those characteristics, botanical or otherwise, live up to their reputation? It seems that New York City water both is and is not worthy of the credit so many eaters and advocates pledge allegiance to. Before reaching our conclusion, we’ll wait to check back with Steven Fassberg after he opens yet another Brooklyn Water Bagel outpost—this one in Times Square.
Rachel Nuwer holds a master’s in science journalism from NYU and a master’s in applied ecology from the University of East Anglia. Her go-to bagel is an everything with lox.
Photo credit: Rebecca McAlpin