Oven-baked flatbread is the daily bread for millions of people from India to Tunisia, the Himalayas to the Caucasus. Travelling throughout these regions, we’ve learned to eat bread as the locals in many countries do—wrapped around a kebab, scooped into curry, or even dipped into tea.
Back home in Toronto, we often make fresh-baked flatbreads just for snacking or to accompany any meal. Our children love tearing off a soft, chewy piece just as they would rip into a baguette—no need for knives or supervision. And we love knowing that a stash of flatbread dough in our freezer means we can have fresh bread on the table (and its aroma in the house) on very short notice.
Oven-baked flatbreads are an ideal introduction to the world of breadmaking. Their irregular shapes and textures are part of their appeal, so beginners needn’t fear less-than-perfect loaves. They use everyday ingredients and have simple shaping and baking techniques. And you get instant gratification. Because they’re flat, and because they’re baked in a very hot oven, flatbreads bake very quickly, in five to ten minutes. They’re very rewarding for baker and guests alike.
Turn your oven into a tandoor
The three flatbreads we’re introducing here come from very different cultures: Northern India, Central Asia, and Georgia in the Caucasus. They’re all traditionally baked on the hot walls of a tandoor oven, which gives the breads a crisp bottom crust and a softer top.
What is a tandoor?
You may think of naan as the thin, stretchy, slightly oily flatbread served in Indian restaurants, but we’ve discovered that this particular style of bread is just one of a large family of naan made in India, Central Asia, the Middle East, and pockets of Africa. In these regions, the word naan, also spelled nan, non, nane, or none, refers to any bread baked in a tandoor oven.
Made of clay and shaped more or less like a barrel, tandoors stand vertically and are usually encased in mud, concrete, or some other supportive, insulating material. The fire—fueled by wood, dung, coal, or gas—burns fiercely at the bottom, heating the clay interior. When the tandoor is very hot, the cook dampens the heat, and then slaps the flattened dough against the hot inside walls of the oven. The hot walls give the bread a firm, well-browned bottom crust while the top bakes to a soft tenderness in the hot air circulating in the oven. When it’s done, the cook retrieves it with a hooked metal rod. It always seems like magic. Whenever we hear the clap and slap of dough as it’s shaped and then slapped onto the tandoor wall, we find the rhythm wonderfully spellbinding.
To mimic tandoor baking in a regular electric or gas oven, you’ll need a baking stone or some unglazed quarry tiles placed on an oven rack. The larger the baking surface, the better. The stone or tiles should cover the rack with a one-inch gap around the edge to let hot air circulate.
Sources for baking stones and unglazed quarry tile
Make sure you measure the inside dimensions of your oven before buying a baking stone or quarry tiles. You’ll want as large a surface as possible while still leaving a 1-inch gap around the border for air circulation.
Baking stones (sometimes called pizza stones or pizza bricks) can be round or rectangular and are usually about 1/2 inch thick. Cooking.com carries two 14×16-inch rectangular stones, ranging from $30 to $36. Sassafras Enterprises sells rectangular and round stones, ranging from $15 to $18.
For unglazed quarry tiles, check your local tile shop. Specify unglazed, natural clay, lead-free tiles, and let the salesperson know that you intend to cook on them.
Kneading develops good texture
You can make flatbreads from almost any leavened wheat flour dough; much of what distinguishes one flatbread from another is the flattening and shaping technique, not the dough itself.
To make the dough, we start with lukewarm liquid, dissolve active dry yeast in it, and then begin adding flour gradually, stirring always in the same direction. This unidirectional stirring helps develop long strands of gluten. During kneading, these strands get folded over and over to create the complex cell structure of the dough, which then expands and firms up during baking. Good cell structure is important for good texture, whatever the shape (or height) of the final bread.
When you’ve added about three-quarters of the flour, the dough will become too stiff to stir, at which point you’ll turn it out onto a floured work surface to start kneading. A good tip: Wash and dry the dirty bowl before you start kneading because, after ten minutes, the dough bits harden and are then difficult to scrub off. Make sure your kneading surface is solid and just below waist high, or whatever height is comfortable.
As you knead, add the remaining flour by keeping your work surface well dusted rather than by adding it directly to the dough. The dough will pick up as much flour as necessary as you knead.
The flour amounts in these recipes are just a guide. The more flour you add, the stiffer the dough and the drier the bread will be. Less flour and the dough will be softer and stickier. A firm dough is easier to handle than a very soft one, so beginners might want to take that route, but both will make delicious flatbread. Don’t worry about getting it exactly right—flatbreads are very forgiving—and just knead until the dough feels smooth and slightly moist, not too sticky.
We like to give our doughs a long, overnight rise at a cooler temperature (below 75°F) rather than a short rise in a warmer place because the slower fermentation produces more flavor. If a quick, two-hour rise suits your schedule, however, that’s fine, too.
You can make the dough ahead, let it rise, and then keep it refrigerated for a day or two. If you’re not ready to bake the breads once the dough has risen, push the dough down, put it in a plastic bag, and tie off the neck, leaving room for expansion. Refrigerated, it will keep for up to three days, though it’s easier to handle if baked within the first 24 hours. You can also freeze dough in a sealed plastic bag for up to three months. Doughs stored in the fridge or freezer are often quite wet, so knead briefly on a well-floured surface before cutting and shaping.
One or two hours before you plan to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator and heat the oven. To simulate a tandoor, the baking tiles or baking stone must be completely heated, and this will take about twenty minutes beyond the time it takes for the oven to reach its temperature.
Like any kneaded dough made with wheat flour, these doughs are elastic and will initially resist stretching. But if you let the divided pieces rest for ten to twenty minutes, they’ll be less resilient.
Once you start flattening a piece of dough, don’t turn it over. You want to avoid creating a floury surface on the bread. Flour the pieces well before you start shaping and keep the work surface lightly floured; if the dough sticks, detach it with a dough scraper or spatula. When using a rolling pin, roll lightly from the center out, giving the dough a quarter turn after each stroke to make an even round and keep the bread from sticking.
Bake in batches and eat them warm
The easiest way to get the shaped flatbread dough onto a hot baking stone is with a baking peel. A rimless baking sheet also works. Or you can use both hands to lay the dough on the stone or tiles. To use a peel or baking sheet, dust it lightly with flour, set the dough on it, letting one edge hang off the rim a bit. As you put the peel on the hot stone, the dough usually catches. Pull the peel out sharply and close the oven door quickly.
Flatbreads bake quickly. When the bottom crust lifts up slightly and the top has golden patches, it’s done. Let the breads rest briefly on a rack, for about five minutes, while they give off steam and firm up slightly. But don’t let them cool completely. Wrap the breads in a cotton cloth while they’re still warm, adding more to the stack as they’re baked and rested, and serve them as soon as possible. As they cool, they harden and dry out, becoming more cracker-like.
We think the best way to store these breads is in the form of unbaked risen dough, but if you have leftover baked flatbreads, wrap them tightly in plastic (once they’re completely cool) and store at room temperature, or freeze. To refresh them, microwave them briefly just before serving, or wrap them in foil and heat them in a 250°F oven until warm.