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It's all about the water - what exactly does this mean?

When talking about New York pizza and bagels and (at least historically) when talking about Kentucky bourbon, the local water is often mentioned as a key factor.

Regarding the historical Kentucky water - in parts of the state the natural water sources were high in limestone which was considered an important feature for bourbon (as well as horses). However, regarding New York pizza and bagels I often hear that no amount of copying the recipe will matter if you don't have the water (down to the issue of flying in New York City tap water). So my question is - what exactly is in New York City tap water that is of such value to baking?

Are these discussions on the value of water tied to the lore of these products (Guinness is another product that has a 'water story'), or are there specific regional variations/natural components to water that strongly impact certain foods and beverages?

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  1. Must be all the "special additives" coming out of 100+ year old pipes, just a "mystical" marketing strategy. I lived in NY for awhile in the mid '70s and early '80s. I also heard things like California cheese is no good for pizza etc., you can't get authentic ethnic food outside of the tri-state area, that type of thing. I was transferd to Philly in '83 and heard pretty much the same saw there. I'm not taking away the uniquness of these areas or their culinary superiority on some things (I think NY pizza is the best, along with the mid-atlantic and New England seafood)but there is a certain amount of chest pounding and unfounded claims involved also.

    1. I've actually never heard that about NY pizza. As to bagels, there has been a long-standing puzzle about why you can't get decent bagels outside NY and many opined that it must be the water. That's certainly possible but it turns out that it is most likely the fact that in NY, the bagel shops can make fresh bagels all day long because there is a steady demand. People tend to buy one bagel and eat it soon after purchase. In the suburbs, people buy a dozen or so bagels and eat them over several days. So those bagels would turn to rock in a day or so, and they have to add dough softeners to them. Whereas the NY bagels don't need to have dough softeners and thus have the chewy texture that bagels outside NY lack.

      I happen to love the taste of NYC tap water but that's just personal preference.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Just Visiting

        Actually the starting point for my question came from a recent article from the NYT about a bagel place in San Francisco (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/26/din...). In the second sentence there is a line, "The water may not be New York’s, but some argue that the bagels are as good." In the rest of the article there is no mention why the water would or would not impact the San Francisco bagels.

        So perhaps the line was just a throw away to the myth, but either way - it's why I asked.

      2. its the terroir of pizza.

        actually, there was a test done once on TV that i've mentioned before here on chowhound. the blind test showed the participants could ID the pizza made with new york water crust.

        1. Don't know the specifics of why, but water makes a difference in everything. IMO Toronto H2O is some of the hardest, vilest tasting municipal water out there. Drinking tea, pop, and beer in St. John's was like a revelation for me- the stuff made with that water was like nectar from the gods compared to our local stuff. To boot, one wash of the face with any other American city's water while visiting and the change in skin texture/tone is almost instantaneous- it's like an infomercial miracle! On the original point, it's also why i think bread/bagels taste better in Montreal, irrespective of recipe differences.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Smorgasbord

            Where does Toronto get its water? I'd assumed from that big lake nearby, but I could be wrong. I grew up drinking water from Lake Erie, so Toronto's didn't seem unusual to me the last time I was there. It was no where nearly as vile as the stuff that passes for potable liquid in Orange County, California.

            Different city waters have different mineral contents, which probably does affect the final products. I'm lucky to get the same water San Francisco does most of the time (Sierra Nevada snow melt), but in dry years we have local well water added to it: I can definitely taste the difference.

            1. re: Smorgasbord

              I have lived in two different locations with horrible hard water and yes, washing in "soft" water is almost magical so I would think hard vs soft water could effect food prep.

            2. I have heard those claims too and have no idea if there's a factual base, but I have heard master bakers recommend using bottled water when making bread, since variations in local waters may interfere with yeast activity.