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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.

              1. This is getting to the point of "secret ingredients which we have no idea about". The NY water is the source of good bagels and pizza, but then no one knows what impurity we are talking about. Sorry, but this just sound bad to me.

                1. NYC tap water is actually mountain water & is delicious! Better than most bottled!

                  1. I've never had NY tap water, but, having lived in a few different cities, the difference in water quality between, say, Chicago and LA is palpable (LA water actually does have an, ewww, texture to my palate.).

                    Growing up in Chicago, I never saw the filtered water dispensers outside every grocery store, or actual "water stores!"

                    In fact, the first time I tasted southern CA water, I actually spit it out. So, I can definitely imagine a pizza crust made with LA or SD tap water being, if not worse, at least different than NY crust.

                    1. My opinion is water does affect baking products...especially bread and pizza. Having eating all over the United States and enjoying various baked goods only confirms this to me. Since it effects bread, then I assume the same is for beverages as well.

                      Sam Fields (RIP), owner of Pechter Fields Baking Company in Harrison, NJ....Arguably the largest commercial bakery in the NY/NJ area at one time, told me they specifically chose the Harrison location to build their bakery due to the water source....after testing the water all over the NY/NJ area.


                      Here's a discussion on water and Grimaldi's Pizza and the view of others.


                      1. "... or are there specific regional variations/natural components to water that strongly impact certain foods and beverages?"


                        Yes, pollution.

                        1. Here's the "water story" from Abita Spings beer:

                          Let's start with the water. It's the reason the Abita Brewing Company is located in beautiful Abita Springs, Louisiana. While most other breweries must filter and chemically treat their water for the brewing process, Abita does neither. We take ours straight from the source. Our water is drawn from a deep artesian well in the Southern Hills aquifer system. Over 3,000 feet deep in some areas, it contains fresh water kept pristine in underground structures that are more than five million years old. Our water has been tested and shown to be free of man-made pollutants, including Tritium, a man-made radioactive isotope that marks all surface waters.

                          Since its days as a Choctaw Indian settlement, Abita's spring water has been a cherished natural resource. The Choctaws used it for medicinal purposes and tourists at the turn of the century flocked to the springs to "take the water" and recuperate from yellow fever.

                          A story is told of a young Spaniard named Henriques who lived in Louisiana during the late 1790s. While hunting along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, he met a beautiful Choctaw girl and persuaded the chief to allow them to marry. After bringing her home to New Orleans, Henriques watched his wife grow pale and weak and soon he realized that she was very ill.

                          None of the local doctors could cure her so Henriques finally consulted the Choctaws’ medicine man. The young woman was carried to the spring and left there with only a hammock, food and a dipper to drink from the spring. When Henriques returned, to his amazement, his wife was totally well and the water’s fame as a curative began to spread.

                          Word of the wonderful water spread to neighboring communities and in 1887, the first railroad arrived to the area. Boarding houses, hotels and restaurants were soon constructed to accommodate visitors. In 1903, the town of Abita Springs was formally organized and later chartered in 1912.

                          1. well, i can tell you all that florida water is crummy -- esp. in drought times. yuk!

                            i can also tell you that highlands, nc spring water was the best water i've ever tasted. it was the first thing i'd do when getting there in the summer….go to the stream, and drink the beautiful water. my mom's biscuits were also more fabulous than usual.

                            1. If you want to learn something about the quality of water anywhere, I have two tests. One is to make tea with it, the other is to shower and wash your hair with it.

                              Bread? Bad water will surely make worse bread; does this mean the better the water the better the bread?

                              1. I used to work with a fellow who brewed very good beer. His "secret" was that once a month he would drive an hour to get water from a specific spring, one which has been favored by brewers since colonial times. The reputation is well deserved, even here in upstate NY where we have very good tap water in general.

                                As for NY pizza, I can't say for sure that NY water has some magical balance of mineral content that makes it ideal for pizza dough and other baked goods. But having lived much of my life in the Northeast I can say without reservation that virtually all the tap water I've had throughout the South and the Southwest has tasted awful to me. Now, there might be great water from some mountain springs in the South that would make a wonderful pizza crust. But it doesn't surprise me at all that bad tasting water doesn't make good tasting dough.

                                My personal experience has also led me to believe that distilled water works better than even the best tap water or springwater for infusions like tea and soup. I suspect this is due to more than just the fact that it's a blank canvas flavorwise; I think it may actually be drawing out more of the crucial flavor-bearing components because it has nothing dissolved in it already. A flavor vacuum, so to speak, that goes beyond mere neutrality. But that's just conjecture and I count it as a belief rather than a proven fact.

                                Anyhow my opinion is that yes, water makes a huge difference in the final quality of certain foods and beverages, and at least some difference in most others. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever. Are there some cases where hype and advertising enter into it? I'm sure there are those too.

                                But I've had enough hands-on experience with over the years to agree that in many cases it is indeed all about the water.