The first time I watched someone make pita bread from scratch, I was totally enthralled. My roommate in my early 20’s, a cafe manager and avid baker, would make huge batches of pitas like it was no big deal. I’d never seen it in person, and found it totally magical: the rounds of flatbread dough are tossed onto a very hot pan in a very hot oven, and within a minute or two they puff up into perfect little balloons. It’s quite captivating, and even now having done it a few times myself, it still hasn’t gotten old.
So, the key feature of pitas is the hollow pocket that forms inside as they bake, perfect for stuffing with your favorite sandwich fillings. Why does pita dough puff that way, you ask? The key is to put fairly moist, thinly-rolled dough into a very hot oven. When you do that, a couple of things happen. First, the intense heat quickly starts to solidify the outer surfaces of the pita. At the same time, it penetrates to the center, turning the moisture inside the dough into steam. That steam expands and pushes outward from the interior as it forms. And because the outer surfaces have already baked a little bit, they are solid enough to stay intact as the steam pushes on them, forming the hollow pocket.
With that in mind, these are the keys to perfectly-puffing pitas:
1) Don’t work too much flour into the dough as you knead. Just dust it with barely enough to keep it from being completely unmanageable. Too much flour will soak up all the moisture you need to create steam at bake time.
2) Roll the dough out pretty thin. The NYT recipe says to go for 1/8”. I find that a little bit unattainable; 1/4” is also a reasonable goal, or somewhere in between. If it’s any thicker, the heat won’t penetrate to the center quickly enough.
3) Place the dough onto a pre-heated object of some kind in your very hot oven. A baking stone or cast iron skillet would be great options. I don’t have either of those, so I use a cookie sheet turned upside-down. (Turning it upside-down was my fiance’s suggestion; he thinks it traps more heat underneath, and it does seem to produce good results.) Also, don’t put the next batch into the oven at the same time you take the previous batch out. I have better luck if I close the door and let the pan reheat for about one minute in between batches.
And arguably, I’d say the fourth key is: if it doesn’t puff, don’t sweat it. Some won’t. This batch I made today was my best batch to date, and I’d still say about a third of the pitas have incomplete puffs. Doesn’t matter at all; they’re still delicious.
So, once you have your delicious puffy pitas, you need something to put in them! I love making hummus from scratch; the hardest part is finding out where your grocery store keeps the tahini. From there, you just whizz everything together in a food processor, adjusting proportions to your taste and adding whatever extras you want. My current favorite recipe is Tori Avey’s:
Tori Avey has done extensive research into the history of Middle Eastern cuisine; I definitely plan to try more recipes from her site in the near future. I’ve also used her tutorial on roasting red peppers (which, incidentally, are great to throw into this hummus if you have them on hand).
This recipe is a nice starting point with good proportions. I typically halve it, since two full cans of chickpeas make more hummus than I can eat in a reasonable amount of time. Or I should say, I halve everything except the garlic. Full disclosure: I love garlic. In the entire time I’ve been cooking, with all my numerous misadventures, I’ve yet to make a recipe that caused me to think, “Man, I put too much garlic into this.” (And I put a lot of garlic into things.)
But of course, this is the joy of making your own hummus – you can fine tune it according to your tastes. 😉
The point of making pitas & hummus this week is to have another way to enjoy your leftover chopped Greek salad. It’s a perfect pre-made sandwich filling; just add it to your pita along with some hummus and extra feta cheese for a quick & tasty dinner, lunch, or snack.
Deliciousness score: 8
Easiness score: 6
* Note: This recipe from the New York Times does require a free account to view. I balked at this the first few times they hit me with it, but eventually signed up and haven’t regretted it; their cooking column is pretty interesting, if a bit aspirational. This isn’t an affiliate link or anything like that; I just like their pita recipe.