The Food Lab: How To (Sort Of) Make Naan at Home
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So a couple days back, I asked a simple question on my Facebook page: Anyone else really like fresh baked naan?
Judging from the 73 thumbs up that it got, I assume the answer is yes. In many ways naan resembles really great Neapolitan pizza crust. It's a soft dough cooked at extremely high temperatures. When it's at its best, it should be puffy with a crackling thin, crisp crust spotted with bits of smoky char that breaks open to reveal airy, stretchy, slightly chewy bread underneath. Painted with melted butter (perhaps flavored with a bit of garlic) and sprinkled with good salt, it's so good on its own that sometimes I have to talk my curry down from its fits of jealousy.
And very much like Neapolitan pizza, it's best when eaten fresh, straight out of the oven. Unfortunately for us home cooks, the oven naan is cooked in ain't exactly your run-of-the-mill hotpoint. Four feet tall with walls two to three feet thick, weighing in at several hundred pounds, a tandoor oven is the primary cooking vessel for many traditional Indian and Pakistani dishes including naan.
Tandoor ovens are essentially just a well-insulated cylindrical container made of brick, clay, or stone. To cook in it, you start by building a large coal fire in the bottom. When properly preheated, it achieves air temperatures of around 1,000°F or more. It's this intense heat the causes naan to rapidly puff and char, just like Neapolitan pizza in a wood burning stone oven.
To make the naan, the cook will stretch out a piece of yeasted flour and yogurt-based dough into a rough disk shape, generally with one end fatter than the other. The disk is draped over a moist ball of towels, then the cook reaches into the oven and presses the dough against the inner wall until it sticks. From there, the heat of the oven does its work: air and water inside the dough rapidly expand, causing it to puff out. In under a minute, the bread is baked and it gets retrieved via a long metal skewer with a hook at the end (ever notice how your naan has always got a hole in it? That's from the hook).
Now listen. You could go out and buy yourself a tandoor oven (small ones run about $200 or so), but here's a better suggestion: Just grill it. It works so well for pizza, why shouldn't it do just as well for naan?
In fact, the only real key difference between pizza and naan lies in the dough. While pizza dough is lean—that is, it's made of just flour, yeast, salt, and water—naan dough is an enriched dough—that is, it's got dairy in it. This affects its texture in a number of key ways.
First, dairy, whether it's yogurt or milk (the two most common wet ingredients in naan), contains fat, which impedes gluten development in dough. Under normal, water-only circumstances, the proteins in flour, which resemble tiny balls of yarn, will unravel and get tangled up with each other, forming gluten, the protein matrix that gives bread its structure and chew. Add a bit of milk fat to the mix and the picture looks a little different. Fat will not only coat flour proteins, making them less likely to get wet and unravel, but it'll also physically get in the way of proteins cross-linking.
All this is to say that when you add dairy to your dough, you end up with a much softer texture—essential for naan. Unlike a pizza crust, which should have enough structure to stand out straight and stiff, naan should be very easily flexible. Crisp, but not crackery.
I made several batches of dough using different combinations of liquids ranging from 100 percent yogurt to 100 percent milk. Guess what? None of them was bad. I preferred the slightly tangy flavor of the 100 percent yogurt version, but there's no need to go out to the store to get it—whole milk works just fine.
Next question: What's the best type of flour to use?
At first, my assumption was that you'd want to use a relatively low protein flour. Perhaps cake flour, or maybe just regular all-purpose flour. The lower the protein count, the more tender your finished bread, and tender is what I was after for my naan. After mixing together my dough, dividing it into balls, letting it rise for a few hours and stretching it out by hand, I threw my cake flour naan onto the grill.
It wasn't ideal. In trying to inhibit gluten development, I ended up going too far, forgetting to take into account the fact that the dairy in there is already preventing a good deal of the gluten formation. Rather than puffing up properly, the naan stayed relatively flat, with a cake-like dense crumb and a crackery finish more akin to matzoh.
Turns out the opposite end of the spectrum is where I want to be: bread flour, with a protein content of around 14 percent is a good 4 to 5 percentage points higher on the protein scale than cake flour. What I got from this last batch of dough was this:
How do you like 'dem bubbles?
I was worried a bit about toughness, but I needn't have: The texture was downright perfect. Soft and mildly elastic, with just the right amount of chew. My favorite part of making naan is when you think that it's all anemic looking and needs to get darker, but then you brush it with melted butter as soon as it comes off the grill and all those pale brown spots suddenly turn golden and perfect.
Or actually, my favorite part of making naan is a minute or two after that when the first glorious bite enters your mouth. Yum.
What's that? You say you need another dish to go with the naan? Stay tuned tomorrow for another fake-tandoor-oven-done-on-the-grill dish.