In 2016, I achieved my lifelong goal of becoming a “regular” at a diner in my neighborhood. Every Thursday morning for over two years, I’d go to a spot called Milk & Honey and order an everything bagel with cream cheese on the side and a 22-ounce drip coffee. It was the perfect bagel and coffee pairing. Milk & Honey’s everything bagel included anise, which was peculiar at first, but that black licorice-y taste paired with a giant, hot coffee is a combination I’ll never forget.
But since then, I’ve moved to a different neighborhood, and I’ve yet to find a suitable replacement for Milk & Honey’s specific everything bagel and coffee pairing. That said, what if I’m searching for all the wrong things? What if my preference for an everything bagel and coffee is merely borne out of habit, and some other kind of bagel is the superior pairing with drip coffee?
To solve this bagel-coffee pairing conundrum, I reached out to food scientists, bagel experts and professional chefs — all of whom offered a plethora of bagel-coffee pairing philosophies.
The first school of thought comes courtesy of Jane Wilkins, a professional chef and flavor scientist. “If you enjoy bitter coffee, you may prefer to pair sweet bagels with it,” she tells me. “This will help balance out the flavors and create the contrast that the brain likes so much — for example a plain, chocolate or egg bagel would be a great choice for those dark and bitter coffee drinkers.”
Her argument boils down to the idea that bagel and coffee combos work best when the flavor of one is balancing out the flavor of the other. “For those who like their coffee sweet with more than a splash of cream, then pairing salty or savory bagels will be the way to go.”
To get highly scientific about things, I next turned to Bryan Le, a food scientist and author of the book, 150 Food Science Questions Answered. “Everything bagels and onion bagels contain flavor compounds known as cysteine sulfoxides due to the presence of garlic and onion, which are abundant in these amino acids,” he explains. “These sulfur-containing molecules are known to enhance savory flavors, but only in the presence of umami-intense molecules.”
Basically, it all boils down to the fact that, on a molecular level, the flavor compounds in a savory bagel “work together to improve the flavor profile of the coffee itself [by] reducing the coffee’s bitterness and off-flavors,” Le explains. “But too much of each can create too strong of a savory effect, so it’s all about dosage.”
Somewhere between the sliding scale of sweet and savory is Troy DeVille, a seasoned barista and bagel slinger in the Bay Area. “I’ve seen it all — every combination of bagel and coffee possible — and there’s only a few pairings that stand out enough to earn the claim of ‘best bagel and coffee pairing,’” he says.
At the more savory end of the spectrum, “onion bagels are the best of both worlds, since yellow onions are savory but still on the sweeter side — and get even sweeter when caramelized or cooked,” DeVille says. “I’d pair this with a robust flavored coffee prepared with a French press, as French press coffee extracts more of the oils and flavor from the coffee beans.”
Meanwhile, if you want to spice things up with an afternoon cup of joe and a bagel, DeVille suggests ordering a coffee beverage with lots of foam, and adding a slice of salmon to your bagel. “The salmon will pair well with a non-sweet cappuccino,” he explains. “Rather than feeling heavy and filling, the fat from the salmon will coat your tongue, giving the foam from the cappuccino a lighter flavor.”
In terms of sweetness, he can’t get saccharine enough. “I love strawberry cream cheese on my bagel with a caramel macchiato,” DeVille tells me. “The sweetness from the cream cheese and caramel are perfect together, along with the extra milk in the coffee.”
Such a flagrant violation of the flavor-balancing rules brings us to the third and final school of thought: Those who scoff at the very idea of allowing flexibility in the coffee and bagel debate. Nevermind your sweetness-bitterness scale, there is one answer and one answer only to this question. “The best bagel to pair with coffee is an egg-everything bagel with cream cheese,” says Sam Silverman, founder of BagelFest and Brooklyn Bagel Blog. “The crunchy, salty everything seasoning on an egg bagel — which is a little softer, sweeter and fluffier than a typical bagel — paired with the subtle mild tanginess, and silky smooth texture of cream cheese, are the perfect pairing with coffee.”
Silverman, however, does at least understand the argument for a sweet tooth balancing scale. “I’m personally not a fan of sweet bagels,” he concedes. “But for those who do like sweet bagels, the contrast of a cinnamon raisin or blueberry with a black coffee is excellent.”
Then there’s Tristin Thompson, a food scientist in Colorado. He acknowledges the sound scientific arguments made by Wilkins and Le, but predominantly believes that science points to one definitive coffee-bagel pairing. “Pairing bagels and coffee is about the complex relationship between the contrasting flavors and not just more of the same,” he tells me. “Which is why I choose a cinnamon bagel. The maillard browning on the bagel will pair nicely with the roasted coffee flavor notes. At the same time, you have the cinnamon sweetness that balances and checks those more bitter notes for a harmonious balance. However, I do love an everything bagel. Much respect.”
Though their answers varied, I now see that my beloved anise-everything bagel and tall, bitter coffee won’t be winning any awards for “World’s Best Coffee-Bagel Flavor Pairing.” At the same time, it’s exactly the kind of wacky combination that flavor scientists love to use for trial and error. “If you’re still looking for your favorite combination, just keep combining flavors that contrast, as they’ll elevate each other,” Wilkins concludes. “Our brain likes to be stimulated with different flavors and texture combinations, so experiment a little!”