Why Do my Bagels Sink in the Pot and How to Make them Float?

What makes a bagel a bagel? The first, and likely most obvious aspect is its shape – round and with a hole. The next is its texture, glistening tough exterior followed by a chewy interior. Boiling your bagels is what gives it that distinct texture. When you’re boiling your bagels, there are a few things you want to look out for to get your bagel up to bagel status. Mainly, you want your bagels to float – not to sink to the bottom of your pot. 

Bagels sink because either the dough has been over-proofed and can not handle the boiling process, or because they boiled for too long or the dough was not rolled tight enough and did not proof properly. The bagels will ultimately stay at the bottom and flatten once removed from the water. Ideally, bagels should initially sink if the dough is ready and, then they begin to float within a minute or so.

Getting a bagel to float takes a little bit of know-how and experience. So, if you’re baking bagels for the first time, be prepared for a few failures even a seasoned baker can be a little off their game. In the end, we learn best from the mistakes we make – take it all in stride with the knowledge that next time you’ll be a lot closer to your bread, and in this case, bagel-making goals.

It’s All in the Proof

Proofing any kind of bread dough can be a little finicky. Sometimes you think you have a handle on your dough, you really know it – and then something changes; weather, flour, whatever. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it forces you to get to know the process and master some of the visual cues, as well as the little tests we can perform to point us in the right direction.

Testing your Yeast/Sourdough Starter

First and foremost, whether you’re using commercial yeast or a sourdough starter, you want to make sure it’s fresh concerning commercial yeast and fairly active in the case of a sourdough starter. Stale yeast or an inactive starter will result in a less than the formidable bulk rise and subpar results. It just won’t reach its full potential. 

There are ways you can test your yeast or sourdough starter, while not foolproof, the tests can give you an approximate gauge of how active the yeasts are. Here is a test for each:

Commercial YeastMany recipes suggest simply adding the yeast to the dry ingredients. When questioning the freshness of your yeast, however, you can try blooming the yeast in some water with a little bit of sugar to see whether it’s active or not.
Sourdough StarterMost recipes using a sourdough starter call for an active starter. It’s easy to lose track of how much time has gone by when you’ve fed your starter, and you’re waiting for optimal activeness. The easiest way to test if your sourdough starter is ready to be added to your recipe is to do the float test. Just add a teaspoon of starter to a cup of water. If it floats, paired with having doubled in size, it should be ready to use. While this is not an absolute test, it helps let you know that your starter is gassy enough to float and very likely ready to use.

So your yeast or starter is happy and active, you’ve mixed your ingredients, you’ve kneaded it and now the dough is ready for the first proof. The bulk proof. Proofing times vary according to the different recipes, so it’s best to follow the recipe. On average, however, most recipes call for a bulk proof of about sixty to ninety minutes. Staying within this timeframe means the dough has rested just long enough that you can begin to shape them. 

Shaping is a matter of preference; whether you ball them up and poke a hole to stretch or, making ropes and sticking the ends together. The choice is yours, but it is a good idea to make the hole bigger than you think it should be, anywhere from 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7 centimeters), or the width of your hand (don’t worry, it’ll shrink back).

The way I shape bagels: I like to to have the dough rolled into balls and let proof that way. Then i take each ball, flatten it, then roll it tightly into a sausage, then give it a good roll to stretch it out to the desired length, then wrap it around my hand with both ends of the “sausage” in the palm of my hand and then roll it down on the table to close the bagel. This will insure a good tight seal, a good tight dough that will proof very well and have lots of strength and the size of the hole will be big enough that it will not close after proofing or baking.

At this point, it’s a good idea to let the bagels rest. Next, you can quickly perform a float test on each bagel. All you have to do is fill a bowl or pan with room temperature water and see that each bagel floats. Gently pat them dry, place them on a tray and place it in your refrigerator for the final proof (which can be anywhere from 12 to 40 hours, depending on the recipe).

Finally, your bagels should be ready to boil. If you aren’t sure, you can take a little piece of dough from the bagel and drop it in some water. If it floats, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t, you may need to proof the dough for a little longer. Once you’ve removed the bagels from the refrigerator, allow them to sit at room temperature for a bit. Before committing to a batch, it’s a good idea to start with one bagel. Making sure the water has a rolling boil, plonk the bagel in. Right off the bat, it should sink but then float right up in under one minute. Remember to allow the water to get back to boiling in between batches you want the water very hot.

TIP: Make sure that you don’t put too many bagels into the boiling water. If you add too many bagels it will drop the water temperature and it will no longer boil. You want to keep the water with a strong boil at all times or as close to it as possible.

Also make sure you have lots of water and keep an eye on the water level as you will lose water to evaporation and a bit of plashing here and there, so top it off from time to time.

How Long to Boil Bagels

You don’t want to over-boil your bagels, as they will eventually sink and interfere with the optimal chewy texture. By over boiling, you end up with an overly thick and chewy crust. A classic bagel recipe will likely suggest boiling for 30 to 60 seconds per side at most, so the bagel isn’t in the boiling water for more than 2 minutes. 

In the boiling water, as long as your bagel initially sinks and shortly thereafter floats back up, your dough is ready. If, on the other hand, it doesn’t come back up or floats for less than two minutes, the dough is not ready to boil.

Boiling is meant to set the crust, a short boil will give the bagel a thinner crust allowing them to rise in the oven and making it fluffier on the inside. Boiling a bagel for a little longer sets the crust and hinders the bagel from continuing to rise in the oven during the baking process. This will impart a much denser, heavier inner bagel.

Summing it All Up

So there you have it. If you want to avoid having your bagels sink to the bottom of your pot, test, test, test! 

  1. Take the time to test your yeast or sourdough starter
  2. Test the bagels once they’ve been shaped and just before they go into the fridge for the final proof.
  3. Test the bagels right before you’re ready to boil them.

When in doubt…test! The more you know while you’re making your bagels, the better your bagels will come out.


Hi, my name is Amit. I started baking at a young age at my father's bakery. I hope I can answer some of your questions and hopefully you will find some hidden gems to help you out with your home baking skills.

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