I mostly chalked up my seeming inability to make decent naan to my lack of a tandoori oven or any other means of emulating solar fusion in my kitchen.
Not that I didn’t try. I’d crank the oven as high as it goes and preheat it forever with a baking stone inside seeming to absorb and radiate all the heat my kitchen could muster up. But my little circles of dough would just poof up like pitas, and brown modestly and taste, unsurprisingly, like pita bread. Which is fine and all, it’s just nothing like the pillowy soft, flaky wedges of seared, blistering flatbread that’s basically the best part of eating at Indian restaurants.
Every time I have naan like that, I’m reminded of the first time I ate in the Desi corridor on Devon Ave in Chicago with my friend Rachel. A minute or two after we sat down with plates loaded from the buffet, she started nodding as she chewed—not looking at anyone or anything, just: yes. Then she stopped eating for a minute, turned to me and said, "This bread is pretty awesome."
I finally achieved what I consider to be "pretty awesome" naan by baking it on the stovetop in a dutch oven. I’d tried that before—both in a normal nonstick skillet and in a dutch oven–but it just ended up underdone in spots, sometimes burning but not blistering, and chewy instead of pillowy. It was also always, for lack of a better way to describe it, too bready. Apparently the problem was that I was just too shy about letting the dutch oven get hot enough to melt my pastry brush into a solid nub of smoking black plastic. If you don’t want to sacrifice a pastry brush to the cause, the traditional way to gauge whether it’s hot enough or not is that the oil will be smoking, and not like a little modest smoking, full-on, disable-the-smoke-alarm-and-turn-on-any-fans-available smoking. My mistake, it turns out, had been turning the heat down when the oil started to smoke, thinking it would impart an unpleasant burnt flavor to anything cooked in it. I was obviously forgetting that naan often has a quite pleasant burnt flavor.
The recipe I sort-of used, which I found at Porcini Chronicles (and which they credit to Yamuna Devi’s book The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking) was was also slightly different than the ones I’d tried before. If I’d actually looked at the recipes I’ve used before—not just for naan, but any bread I’ve ever made with my sourdough starter, I would have known right away that there was no way it was going to work as written. My starter is roughly equal parts flour and water by volume, so it’s about the consistency of a thick pancake batter. The one they used must have been 90% water–or they just copied the amounts wrong. (Notes below about how to substitute for starter if you don’t have one, and a post soon about how I cultivated mine).
To explain, the ratio of starter:flour for a typical, slightly sticky dough is 2:3. This recipe called for 1/2 cup starter and half cup yogurt for 3 cups of flour, or a liquid:dry ratio of roughly 1:3. Instead of thinking about that for the ten seconds or so it would have taken for me to figure that out, I just dumped all the ingredients into the bowl. Whee! I am so smart.
There was obviously too much flour. Scraps were flying out of the bowl as I mixed. I had doubled the recipe, so I checked again to make sure I hadn’t done it wrong…and I hadn’t. So, I just kept mixing and then started kneading it into a dough the best I could, but, I mean, the recipe actually said you could add flour if the dough was too sticky.
I did manage to get it to start to come together like a dough, but too sticky? It wasn’t even sticky enough to keep the seeds in the dough—they were scattering all over the place. And it was so stiff it was almost impossible to knead.
There was a moment when I wondered if maybe this was the key to delicious, soft, flaky naan: a super stiff dough that only a real Indian grandma would know how to handle. Maybe, I thought, I should just go with the recipe no matter how crazy it seemed.
But the recipe was telling me two different things: on the one hand there were the amounts, on the other the suggestion that it might be sticky.
I choose sticky. I ripped a gap in the dough and poured some more sourdough starter into it. And I kneaded that in. And then I did that again. And a third time. I probably added another cup of starter, and none of the flour I’d left out. Eventually I had a supple, smooth dough.
Each time I added more starter, the ball would initially be a big sticky mess. Rolling up the stray nigella seeds, I felt like a giant with a tiny katamari. This, I thought, is not "a science." The whole idea that cooking is "an art" and baking "a science" relies on so many flawed assumptions: the idea that science can’t be improvisational and cooking is, the idea that art isn’t often extraordinarily, painstakingly precise, the idea that you can’t just throw some flour and water and yeast together and come up with great bread.
So, I think the following is roughly what ended up in my dough, but if you’re looking to recreate it, just aim for something dough-like, get a pan really, really hot, and don’t get too caught up in the details.
Recipe: Sourdough Naan
- 1 c. sourdough starter*
- 5 T. ghee or vegetable oil, divided**
- 1/2 c. yogurt
- 2 1/2 c. bread flour
- 2 t. sugar
- 1/2 t. baking soda
- 1/2 t. baking powder***
- 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (1 t. reg)
- 1/2 t. kalonji/nigella/black onion seeds, or poppy seeds (optional)
Combine everything but 1 T. of the ghee or oil and knead until it forms a smooth, elastic dough (at least 6-8 minutes). Place in an oiled bowl, turn to coat, cover and let rise 4 hrs. or until a depression doesn’t heal immediately.
Preheat a cast iron pot on high with the lid on. Add about 1/2 t. ghee or oil and spread around a little—I recommend a spatula rather than a pastry brush. The oil will smoke. You want it to smoke. You probably also want to use the kitchen exhaust fan if you have one.
Divide the dough into 6 pieces, and roll into a circle approximately 1/4" thick—you can roll them all first or roll each one as the others bake. Either way, keep the on deck balls/circles covered with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out too much.
Remove the lid of the pot and drop the dough flat onto the bottom. Cover and bake for 30 seconds. Flip and bake 30 seconds more. Remove, and repeat with the remaining circles.
You could try baking it super hot too, but don’t blame me if it comes out like pita.
I also threw half of the dough in an oiled zip-top bag and left it in the refrigerator for a week, removed it an hour before baking so it could warm to room temperature, and made another batch that was just as great. A little more sour, because my yeast were faithfully producing acid and alcohol the whole time, although slowly because of the cold temperature. You could probably let it go up to 10 days, or maybe more, which means you can make the dough anytime and have beautiful, fresh naan with very little immediate effort any night of the week.
*You can always substitute equal parts flour and water and some instant yeast. For 1 cup of starter, use about 2/3 cup flour, 2/3 cup water, and 1 t. yeast.
**Don’t substitute butter or olive oil. The milk solids in the butter will burn and olive oil has a lower smoke point than vegetable oil.
***The original recipe called for 1 t. baking soda, but I’ve had too many bad experiences with my acids not being adequate, especially when doubling recipes so I used half baking powder. Chemical leavening isn’t strictly necessary in yeast breads, but I think it’s part of what made this recipe so soft and light. I nearly forgot it in a second batch I made—I had already started kneading, and as soon as I sprinkled the soda and powder on and kneaded it in I could feel the change in the dough. I imagine much of the chemical leavening is lost in the kneading, shaping, and rolling and in the long rise, but I’m sure there’s still some left by the time you bake.