Flatbread Science

Many experienced chapati makers have observed that I’m fiddling with tradition here. It’s true. Indeed I am varying the flours and the liquids in order to get to a softer, more toothsome homemade product. Don’t infer from that statement that I don’t think traditional recipes give good results, but ingredients and…ehem…the manipulators of those ingredients, vary highly from place to place. I should be using atta, traditional Indian chapati flour, but I can get any. As a result the all-whole wheat flour and all-water recipes weren’t delivering bread anywhere near as good as I remember from the real Indian meals I’ve had.

So why the white flour? Mainly because I want more gluten to develop in the dough. It’s not that whole wheat flour doesn’t have plenty of gluten in it, it does. Indeed it has everything in it, and that’s the problem. The bits bran that are in there — the ground pieces of the wheat berry husk — are hard and sharp, and they have a way of cutting up gluten networks as they form. That means a less elastic dough, one that’s more likely to rupture than expand and stretch when it cooks. So I dilute it with white flour to give me the flexibility I want while retaining much of the wheat flavor.

As for the milk, the fats and sugars add some tenderness. The yogurt does all that plus it introduces more flavor. As I mentioned, flat breads are not fermented, or if they are not for very long. Yogurt, however, is fermented, and by many of the same sorts of microbes (lactic acid bacteria) that are active in a long-rising breads. Thus you get the moisture, the tenderness and the flavor all in one handy package. It’s not necessarily traditional, but I tend to like the results. I’ll put up the photos shortly!

14 thoughts on “Flatbread Science”

  1. I love that you know that some folks will not like your changes. One thing my upbringing taught me is that different areas of a country do the same dish differently and your grandma probably made it a little different than mine. Neither is wrong and you should always figure out how to make it so that it makes you happy. That is the only “right” way to make food.


    1. Thanks Frankly!

      I understand the resistance since breads like this are so tied to culture. I hesitate to fiddle, but if not I don’t think anyone who can’t get atta will ever think this bread is any good! There are far too many recipes out there that call for nothing but (Western) whole wheat flour and water. The end product is tough and terrible. This way gives a much better result. Not perfect, but a fine compliment to a home-made Indian meal.


      – Joe

    1. Thanks Puff! I think the real deal has a better texture, but I can’t argue with your point! 😉

      – Joe

  2. I reckon you get better results if you use all wholemeal flour, but sift out some of the bran, it’s more like a nice soft atta – although chapattis aren’t supposed to be light and fluffy, they’re real people’s food, to eat when you’re hungry. Also I’ve found that the longer (within reason) you leave the dough before rolling out the better, 4 or even 8 hours is not too long.

    1. Wonderful advice, Jo, thank you. These did turn out quite tender, but I tend to be a perfectionist and compared them a little too much to what I eat at Indian restaurants, which definitely get atta shipped in. I’m very interested in your idea of sifting. I’m not sure I have one that’s fine enough to remove bran. What do you suggest? Cloth perhaps? It never occurred to me to try to do that. Thanks so much for your very thought-provoking comment. And I’ll try that long resting as well!

      – Je

      1. Nothing too sophisticated, just a normal sieve, to take out the big bits of bran which are real dead weight, but it leaves enough colour and texture in the flour.

    2. Sifting out the bran is what someone – racking my brains here, maybe Peter Reinhart? – recommends when making a Poilane type of thing. It IS good. Removes the biggest sharpest edges, but leaves the nice wholemeal flavour. Quite surprising how much large bran there is in wholemeal flour.

    1. Hey Linda!

      Using whole wheat definitely gives you more flavor, though it’s a problem from a texture standpoint, since it doesn’t give you the same stretch. That has implication not only for how it feels in your mouth, but how it rises. That being the case, I like it less for flatbreads than I like it for loaf-style breads, where its drawbacks don’t matter as much.

      – Joe

  3. I went to the Indian grocery today and got some atta. It was packaged as “wheat flour, chapati flour”. I had seen it on the shelves and wasn’t sure it as the right stuff, but when I asked for atta that’s what they gave me. Showed me the big bags it was repackaged from, and THEY had atta on them. So just be aware it might not say atta on the bag unless you buy 20kg of it.

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