Leavened and Unleavened Flatbread with Recipes
This traditional baking technique lets you turn out fresh bread just before mealtime.
Flatbreadsplay to my strengths as an improvisational kind of person. While sourdough baking is technically challenging in ways that don’t work for me, I enjoy making flatbread at least once a week.
Flatbread is any bread that’s level and flat after baking. It draws us into different cuisines around the world. Tortillas are a common flatbread in the Americas. Greek, Lebanese, and other Mediterranean flatbread cuisines abound with fabulous tasting dips and salads that naturally pair with flatbreads. Israelis and Palestinians alike agree that hummus and flatbread bring joy to life.
The flatbreads I make at home are often pita-sized, oven-baked, and spread with a light topping. I advise you to start with small, 2- to 3-ounce flatbreads in the pita class because they’re easily manageable. You can adjust baking time while you’re working, ensuring that each flatbread turns out exactly the way you want it. Instead of producing flatbread pizza, which is difficult to fully bake in a domestic oven, I use less-dense toppings. My favorites include the following combinations: olive oil and salt; olive oil, fresh rosemary, and pine nuts; caramelized onions with cheese; olive oil with za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend); a thin paste of pickled jalapeños; or a thin paste of spicy ground lamb with cayenne. Let your imagination and culinary preferences be your guide.
Image by AdobeStock/Malisa Nicolau
I often keep bread dough in the refrigerator so I can break off a handful of refrigerated dough, roll out two pitas, and bake them in a cast-iron frying pan on the stove shortly before we’re ready to eat. Add chicken kebab and tzatziki (a grated cucumber and yogurt dip), and a Greek dinner is well underway. My teenage daughter used to love meals from our neighborhood Greek restaurant until I started making them at home, and then she switched loyalties.
Flatbreads have a long and impressive history in many traditions around the globe. Their improvisational nature is captured in the Gospel of John 21:9. In John’s telling, after Jesus rose from his grave, he went to the Sea of Galilee, where friends were fishing. Jesus hailed them from shore, and then helped them find fish. When they returned to shore with their catch, they “saw a charcoal fire there with fish on it, and some bread.” Presumably, they then cooked their fish along with bread on that same fire. The fishermen would’ve mixed flour with lake water, then patted or rolled out disks of dough, and placed the flattened disks onto the embers, turning them several times as needed. If you fish, you, too, can bake your catch on campfire embers along with flatbread disks. Hardwood embers work best.
If you have internet access, I suggest you explore videos on YouTube for inspiration, and to find dishes to accompany flatbreads. Start your search with the words “pita,” “Lebanese saj,” “Greek pita,” “chapati,” “village chapati,” “tandoor oven,” and “Tajikistan bread.” These videos act on me like dance music: I watch, and instantly want to get into the kitchen to bake!
Flatbreads are made with either leavened or unleavened doughs. As a rule, Indian chapati is an unleavened bread made with fine whole-wheat flour (called “atta”), while pita is made with a white yeasted dough. You can use sourdough bread starter to make flatbread dough. Nothing is written in stone, because flatbreads are a flexible, living tradition. Don’t get too caught up with names and recipes – just practice rolling and stretching, the skills most vital to flatbread bakers!
Image by William Rubel
Because flatbread recipes are less structured than those of loaf breads, and the baking systems more varied, we can be relaxed in our approach. I’m often thinking of ingredients and directions to follow while actually mixing and baking. This means you can follow your family’s preferences and try new ideas – because there’s no right or wrong. For instance, many Indian women add baking powder to their chapati, and Lebanese women add sugar to their pita.
The home baking tradition thrives within the flatbread world, and millions of people bake flatbreads for their families every day. I encourage you to experiment with different grades of partially sifted wheat flour, especially if you mill and sift your own flour. In my opinion, the best flatbreads are made with flour that’s neither completely whole-wheat nor totally white.
Leavened dough recipe
Use this recipe to make pita and other Mediterranean-style leavened flatbreads. Pita is commonly made with standard bread or pizza dough. Each pita made with this recipe should be roughly 6 inches in diameter, weigh 2 to 3 ounces, and puff up into a ball while baking to create a hollow center.
Yield: 8 to 12 flatbreads.
- 3-1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon unbleached white flour
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1-1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon warm water
- In a medium mixing bowl, working by hand or using a mixer with a dough hook, combine flour, yeast, and salt. Add water, and work until dough is mixed. Continue kneading with the dough hook, or transfer dough to a counter and knead by hand until it’s soft, smooth, and stretchy. Dough should be moist but not sticky.
- Cover dough and let rest until doubled. Proof in a warm place if your kitchen is cold. You can also refrigerate the dough in a covered bowl to use sometime during the following week.
- Proceed to “Shaping the Dough.”
Image by Adobestock/V.R.Murralinath and William Rubel
Use the following recipe to make chapati, an unleavened flatbread in the North Indian tradition. The same shape as pita, this bread is usually made with finely ground, whole-wheat flour known as “atta.” Indian bakers sift to create a flour that’s almost – but not quite – white, and they often brush their chapati with ghee (clarified butter) right after baking to keep the bread moist. To follow Indian culinary traditions, serve chapati with dal, a porridge made with lentils or split peas.
Yield: 8 to 12 flatbreads.
- 3-1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon fine whole-wheat flour
- 1-1/4 cup plus 1 to 3 tablespoons warm water
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour and water. Stir in higher water measurement if you’re using whole-wheat flour, and lesser amount for white flour.
- Turn dough out onto a board and knead until supple. You’ll find the white flour dough to be surprisingly stretchy. Let unleavened dough rest 5 to 15 minutes before shaping.
- Proceed to “Shaping the Dough.”
Shaping the Dough
After the dough has risen (for leavened bread) or rested (for unleavened), it’s time to shape it into disks. Do this just before you intend to cook the flatbread. Standard American pie rolling pins tend to be too large in diameter for making small flatbreads, but you can try working with the smallest-diameter rolling pin you own. A 2-foot length of 1/2-to-1-inch-diameter wooden dowel will also work.
- Place dough on countertop and form into a log. Cut off pieces weighing 2 to 3 ounces each.
- Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your hands to shape the dough into a small, round ball, and then flatten it into a squat disk. Place the disk on a floured surface, and sprinkle flour on top. Position a dowel or small-diameter rolling pin in the center, and then roll it toward the edge. Repeat, moving the pin or dowel around the dough in a circle, and always working from the center out. If the dough springs back after you roll it, let it rest a few minutes before continuing. Finished disks should be 4 to 6 inches in diameter and no more than about 1/4 inch thick. Before baking, add optional toppings.
In an oven. Wood-fired and tandoor ovens reach super-high temperatures that are ideal for baking pizza and other flatbreads. But millions of people make chapati every day at home using domestic appliances.
You can preheat your home oven to its highest temperature, and then bake your flatbreads on a sheet on the top rack. The bread is likely to puff up into a ball. (You can prevent puffing by scoring the bread with a fork before baking.)
If the bread is fully baked but you’d prefer it to have more color, slide it under the broiler until lightly browned.
In a frying pan or griddle. Most home cooks bake pita and chapati on the stovetop in a frying pan or on a griddle. I like to use high heat to give the bread some color, as it looks better to me.
Place the rolled-out dough disks inside a hot frying pan or on a griddle. When you begin to see small bubbles forming on the top surface – usually within 10 seconds – it means the dough has set on the bottom. Turn the disk and continue cooking to set the dough on the other side. The bubbles will turn golden- or dark-brown. Keep moving the bread around on the cooking surface. You’ll develop your own technique regarding how often to turn and flip it. If the bread doesn’t want to fully puff up in the pan, you can improvise a way to cause a steam reaction within the dough by using one of the following options.
- Place a cotton towel on the glass tray of your microwave to keep the bread from sticking, and cook the bread until it puffs up into a ball – about 20 seconds on high in my 1,500-watt microwave. You can then return bread to the pan to deepen its color.
- If you have a gas stove with open burners, place the par-cooked bread directly over a high flame. Use tongs to flip the bread so it doesn’t burn. You’re likely to be rewarded with lovely, puffed-up bread.
- Slip the partially cooked disk under the broiler of your gas or electric stove. Be sure to allow enough room between the shelf and the broiler for the bread to expand.
In a campfire, barbecue grill, or fireplace. You can cook breads from start to finish on embers, but the best technique involves first partially cooking the dough in a hot frying pan. When the bread has just set, put the dough disks directly on embers. If you’re burning pine or other softwoods that don’t produce lasting embers, try placing the dough disks beside a flaming fire to puff them into a ball.
Eat flatbreads immediately, or wrap them well and store in an airtight container in your freezer for up to a month.
William Rubel is one of the world’s preeminent bread historians. He writes about bread, hearth cooking, and traditional foodways, and is the founding editor of Stone Soup, a magazine by and for children.
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