My good friend and colleague Daniel has gone on record stating that he doesn't like falafel. This is a tragic yet understandable stance to take, and I don't hold it against him (much). In fact, I used to be in the same boat.
The problem is that the texture of most falafel is pasty and heavy. Despite this, the flavor of falafel is typically pretty good. What's not to love about chickpeas seasoned with cumin, coriander, and fresh herbs? Growing up in New York, I enjoyed ordering it from the halal carts, where, given enough yogurt sauce, hot sauce, and vegetables, you could distract your tongue just long enough to get some of the flavor of the falafel without really noticing the poor texture.
Thinking that part of the problem might be the way falafel is held in most carts (precooked, then reheated to order), I wondered if making it at home would solve the texture issues. Over the course of my late teens and young adulthood, I must have made falafel with various recipes a half dozen times or so, each with one of two results: falafel balls that slowly disintegrated into the hot oil as they fried, or falafel that held together but came out mushy and pasty.
What I was really after was falafel that was shatteringly crisp on the outside and light, fluffy, almost crumbly on the inside, while still remaining very moist. Light enough that they can be eaten completely on their own, without having to be shoved into a sandwich full of ingredients designed to distract you from their typical mushiness. (Of course, if you want them in a sandwich, they should hold up in there just as well.) I like my falafel to taste of chickpeas, but also to be packed with herb and spice flavor. Falafel that needs only simple condiments—tahini and hot sauce—to taste great.
The only real-world falafel I've had that comes close to the ideal I hold in my head is the falafel from Taïm. One of the keys to its deliciousness is the size of the balls. They tend to be quite small compared to typical falafel balls—just an inch and a half or so in diameter. This gets you a much better ratio of crisply fried exterior to moist interior. (There's a reason why we cut French fries into sticks instead of just deep-frying whole potatoes.) They also triple down on the herbs with a combination of parsley, cilantro, and mint; most recipes call only for parsley and cilantro.
I kept this in mind as I started testing more recipes.
Canning Canned Chickpeas
Falafel recipes can be broadly divided into two categories: those that start with dried chickpeas and those that start with canned. In the past, I'd leaned toward the canned-chickpea recipes, since the extra steps of soaking and precooking dried chickpeas felt like too much of a pain on top of the required deep-frying. Boy, what a mistake that was.
Turns out that dried chickpeas are essential to good falafel. See, canned chickpeas have already been cooked. Starch molecules within them have already burst and released their sticky contents, much of which get washed away in the cooking liquid, leaving the remaining chickpeas with very little clinging power. Try to grind canned chickpeas, form them into balls, and deep-fry them, and they completely fall apart in the oil. The common solution for this type of recipe is to add some extra starch in the form of flour.
Flour-bound falafel certainly holds together, but you end up with dense, pasty balls, like these:
By solving one problem, you create a brand-new one. But that's okay! some recipes seem to say. We'll fix that problem we just created with another solution: baking powder!
Using some baking powder in flour-bound falafel adds leavening to the mix, giving the balls lightness and airiness. It works. Your balls are no longer mushy and pasty. Unfortunately, they aren't really falafel-textured, either, instead coming out with the texture of, well, something that's been leavened with baking powder. More like a deep-fried chickpea fritter or muffin than actual falafel, like this:
I suppose you could solve that problem by adding other textural elements—bulgur wheat, nuts, other grains, et cetera—but at some point, working with canned chickpeas feels like plugging up holes in a dam and running out of fingers.
Dried chickpeas are the way to go.
Starting with dried chickpeas is an automatic improvement in flavor. Just like with making hummus, I've found that dried chickpeas have a cleaner, more straightforward chickpea flavor, while canned chickpeas can get a tinny, skunky taste to them. If you cook those dried chickpeas before making falafel, you run into the same issues you find with canned—they just don't bind.
The key to great falafel is to soak the dried chickpeas, but grind them while they're still completely raw.
I start by soaking chickpeas overnight in water, carefully draining them, then putting them into the food processor along with a ton of herbs, some scallions (which I find give you better flavor and texture than the more common combination of onions and garlic), some salt, and some dried spices (cumin and coriander). I pulse them until they turn into a coarse meal that just holds its shape. You can also push them through a meat grinder fitted with a small die.
Because the chickpeas need to be totally raw before the falafel balls are formed, the standard quick-soak method of bringing the beans to a boil and letting them sit for an hour will not work with this recipe.
So how do the chickpeas cook if you don't boil them? you might be thinking. I was thinking that the first several times I made falafel with this method. The trick is to remember that cooking beans is a two-step process. One step is adding water (hydration), while the second step is adding heat (actual cooking). To get tender, cooked chickpeas, you need to complete both steps. But nobody ever said they have to be done at the same time.
Just as I've found that pasta can be hydrated and cooked in two distinct steps, so can beans. I weighed batches of chickpeas that I'd soaked in water overnight against those that I'd soaked and then cooked in order to gauge how much additional water gets taken up during the boiling phase. I discovered that by the time the chickpeas have soaked in water overnight, they've actually absorbed pretty much all of the liquid they're ever going to absorb.
When you subsequently grind those chickpeas, form them into balls, and dunk them in hot oil, the combination of intense heat from the frying oil and the internal moisture already present in the soaked beans helps the falafel cook through in record time. It only takes about four minutes (which is, coincidentally, just the amount of time you need to get those exteriors crisp).
Because the soaked and ground chickpeas still have plenty of uncooked starch in them, they bind together quite well even without the aid of flour. Still, they can be a little bit crumbly. The trick is to grind them, then let the ground mixture rest for about 15 minutes in order for the excess starch to seep out of it, making it easier to form coherent balls.
Taking my cues from Taïm, I make sure the balls are quite small—about a heaping tablespoon of mixture for each.
Falafel is typically deep-fried, but I find it much easier to shallow-fry at home. I fill a cast iron, carbon steel, or nonstick skillet with a couple of fingers' worth of oil, then heat it up to 375°F before gently lowering the falafel into it. You may get scared that they're going to fall apart, given how loose the mixture is, but don't worry! I haven't had a falafel ball disintegrate on me yet, and you won't, either.
After browning the first side, I flip them over and brown them on the second.
As soon as they come out of the fryer, I sprinkle them with salt. (It clings much better to hot foods than foods that have cooled even a little.)
This is the kind of recipe that makes me feel kinda stupid (or at least very ignorant) for not knowing all of these years how simple and delicious it really is. I'd been so irrationally convinced that canned chickpeas must be easier to use than dried chickpeas that I'd never really stopped to consider that the opposite might be the case. I'm sure glad I did now, because, knowing how simple this falafel is to make (it's just a few minutes of work once you've had the forethought to soak the chickpeas overnight), it's going to go onto the regular dinnertime schedule.
Feeling a little stupid is a totally fair price to pay for deliciousness. (Keep that in mind, Daniel.)