Some food, some drink.
Pita’s not a p.i.t.a. Arabic flatbread step-by-step.
Abstract: About two years ago, I got damn sick and tired of buying what passed for “fresh” flatbread at the supermarket. After a bit of inquiry and research, I discovered a dough recipe for Arabic flatbread that makes a wonderful, puffy and soft “Greek” pita, as well as a readily-stuffable variant for pocket sandwiches and toasted chips. This post documents the pita-making process from start to finish, and contrasts the two techniques that yield different but equally-tasty results.
Purpose: The (allegedly) slower pace of rural
life is meant to be a positive trade-off for the lack of convenience
of the big city. I live in rural Kansas, almost three hours from any
Middle-Eastern Grocer; so any flatbread I'm liable to get here is
going to be found at the supermarket; where they sure as hell don't
make pita on-premises, meaning that it's almost always pushing
the limits of its shelf life.
At the point that I'd had enough and decided that I'd try baking my own flatbread, I was looking for a good Greek pita recipe to compliment some grilled gyros. At this time I wasn't doing much food blogging, but I was doing plenty of food blog reading. A must-read for me even today is Kalofagas.ca. As far as I'm concerned, Peter is the Greek food ambassador to North America. After firing an email in his direction, I got these words of wisdom in response-
“...take a look at some Arabic/Lebanese pita bread recipes and take it from there.”
Well, crap there's the problem; I didn't even know what to call the stuff. I started searching again, this time for “Arabic flatbread” recipes that would allow for plenty of puff to the dough, yet still remain soft and able to be wrapped around a whole mess of fillings. The recipe I found (surprisingly) turned out to be an enriched yeast dough (i.e. containing dairy and sugar) that also hedged a bit of last-second leavening from baking powder. I've made this recipe repeatedly since, and aside from taking the whole operation from the oven to the gas grill, the only real tweaks are a few minor changes to ingredients coupled with some variants in technique. This versatile and simple recipe for flatbread has the potential to yield two very different pitas based on method. Because I know some of you are visual like me (i.e. can't do it until you see it) I took extra photos this time to accompany the observations.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
- Place all ingredients in the order listed into the bowl of a stand mixer. Attach dough hook and set to stir. Knead 10 minutes. If dough isn't holding together as a single mass (i.e. too wet) add flour as needed in the last 2-3 minutes of kneading. Finished dough will still be slightly sticky.
- Cover, let rise in warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
- Preheat a gas grill on high heat with a baking stone for 20 minutes. Continue with all burners on high for baking.
- Divide dough into 2 in diameter balls, about 2.25 ounces (by weight) each.
- For thicker, pocket-less pita (Sometimes known as Greek pita), roll the dough ball into a 5 inch round using plenty of flour, let rest for a couple of minutes and finish rolling to a 7 - 8 inch round. Transfer the round to the hot stone with a pizza peel, top-side down. Bake for 2 minutes, leaving the grill open. Flip, close the grill and finish the second side 2 minutes more. Move to a wire rack to cool.
- For a pocket-style pita (suitable for chip-making and stuffing), roll the dough ball into a 5 inch round using plenty of flour, let rest for a couple of minutes and finish rolling to a 7 - 8 inch round. Let the round rest for 3 minutes more (the top will start to dry out) and transfer the round top-side down to the hot stone. Keeping the grill closed, bake for 90 seconds on each side. The bread should puff up like a balloon. Move to a wire rack to cool where the bread will collapse to form a lovely pocket.
Store in sealed ziptop bags after cooling.
- Dough is easy if you're
organized: Measure the flour by weight
(Fig. 1) to ensure a predictable dough consistency, and stage everything (Fig. 2) before proceeding.
need to worry about gradual addition of ingredients,
(Fig. 3) just dump it all in the mixing bowl, set the timer as soon as the dough starts to come together, (Fig. 4) and let the dough hook do its thing.
10 minutes the dough should hold itself together in an only
(Fig. 5). To get a predictable rise, a closed oven with the viewing light on (Fig. 6) removes the guesswork. The finished dough should be at least double the volume (Fig. 7).
to take it outside! You'll need a timer (super-important!) plenty
of staging space, a means to measure your dough potions(by weight or size), and a way
to retrieve and hold the bread coming off the stone.
(Fig. 8). Remove any accessories you don't want covered in flour and dough (Fig. 9), and preheat that grill!
you tear portions of dough off to work each flattie, pull the mess
over itself, trapping what doesn't look so nice behind pinched
finger and thumb
(Fig. 10). This helps to create an even texture and provides an easy way to remove excess dough from the opposite end. The finished ball should weigh about 2.25 oz (Fig. 11) and/or be about 2 inches in diameter (Fig. 12).
plenty of flour on the working surface, flatten the ball with the
heel of your hand moving out from the middle
(Fig. 13). When the dough refuses to flatten anymore, switch to a rolling pin, working out half-way from the center (Fig. 14). When removed to the staging area, the round should be about 5 inches in diameter (Fig. 15).
about 3 minutes' rest, the dough will have relaxed enough to roll
even flatter. Roll to a diameter of 7ish inches
(Fig. 16). If pockets are your goal, let it rest another 3-5 minutes in-place (don't pick it up). If no pockets are desired, it's time to bake.
fill up an assembly line, as you'll be working against the clock
(Fig. 17). You'll need plenty of pre-measured portions (1), a portion that's been rolled and resting (2), and a round that's ready for the stone (3). As you're waiting on a round to bake, you should have just enough time to fill up the missing spots with a replacement portions.
cook with my baking stone in an old pizza pan. I'm not sure if it actually
mitigates thermal stress on the stone or not, but the pan hasn't
really done anything since we got it eight years ago. If you want
a pocket, you're looking for a stone temperature between 500F-550F.
On my gas grill, that's all burners on high and the lid closed all
(Fig. 18). Place the top-facing side of the round on the stone (flip it). That bit of crust created during the rest will make sure the dough doesn't stick to the stone, allowing for all sorts of puffage (Fig. 19) from what was a very thin piece of dough (Fig. 20). Because we're working with more heat to get that pocket, expect a little char on your pita (Fig. 21).
sans-pocket variety of flatbread needs less heat to tame the duo of
leaveners in the dough. 450F
(Fig. 22) is the ideal, as the bread gets little lift but plenty of brown at this temperature. On my grill, the burners are still on high, but the lid stays open for the first two minurs of the four-minute ride. Instead of one big-ass pocket, lots of smaller bubbles form (Fig. 23). The resulting bread is browner (Fig. 24) and thicker on the edges than it's pocketed counterpart (Fig. 25).
Results: Although you could probably swing this
in the oven, I prefer my grill for two reasons: Firstly, these cook
so quick that the constant opening and closing of an oven can be a
bit clumsy; plus a fancy-schmancy oven's thermostat
constantly trying to self-regulate can confound a situation where
constant predictable heat is required. Second, the flour is a-flying
and a mess will be made. But, if you like to vacuum and dust, far be
it from me to tell you what to do...
I realize that this post is detailed; however, the intention is not to scare you out of making flatbread at home. On the contrary; after making these for the umpteenth time, I hope to have accounted for most of the variation in cooking, which should make for a straightforward and predictable experience. The single servings mean that even if you somehow manage to screw it up, you immediately get to try it again. The repetition is also a great way to build confidence in working with dough in general. It also doesn't hurt that even if mistakes are made, they're gonna taste great. This bread is hearty but is still even-textured enough that my kids really dig it. The flavor is just sweet enough so as to reinforce the nuttiness of the whole grain flour. It's also spades in versatility: Whereas the always-stale, store-bought flatbread varieties seem to be susceptible to blowouts when making even a simple sandwich, this recipe stays soft when kept in a zip-top bag and still retains enough flex (no matter which way you bake it) to accept just about any fillings you wanna stuff or wrap into it.
So yeah, I live in the sticks and decent bakery-fresh flatbread may be non-existent, but my discovering this recipe would never had happened had it not been for the “inadequacies” of rural living.