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Staring through the oven door as pita bread bakes is the best part of making it at home. When I teach my baking class, the culinary students are always amazed as the pita breads blow up like balloons, seemingly about to pop. If not done right, though, the pitas won't puff and get that big pocket in the middle—a key element of a successful pita.
Baking pitas at home is absolutely worth the effort. Freshly made ones are in a completely different league from the ones bought at the store in plastic bags. They're chewier and more delicate, and they have a delicious, yeasty aroma that wafts out when you open up the pocket. It's also not a major time commitment: Pitas can be baked and sandwich-stuffed in less than two hours.
So how does that pita get its pocket, anyway? It's all about structure, moisture, and heat. When a thin disk of pita dough is placed on a hot surface in the oven, two things start to happen. First, the intense heat starts to dry and set the dough on the top and bottom. At the same time, it begins to turn moisture in the center of the pita to a blast of steam. When enough steam is generated, it builds pressure, pushing the pita out from the center and inflating it. Because the exterior has already started to set, though, it's strong enough to resist rupturing, keeping that steam bubble trapped within.
I also like to use some whole wheat flour in my dough for flavor. Whole wheat can be tricky, though, because it doesn't generate gluten as well as all-purpose or bread flour—and we need that gluten to make the dough elastic enough to expand around that central air pocket. I've found that using 20% whole wheat flour strikes the perfect balance, making the dough much more flavorful and nutty than one made with just all-purpose flour, while also not compromising its structure.
How do you get that pocket? Here are my rules.
Rule 1: Knead the Dough Well
Pita is a yeasted bread, which means it has to go through several stages: mixing, proofing, shaping, final proofing, and baking. To make pitas, start by simply mixing all of the ingredients together. As with all yeasted breads, make sure that your liquid (in this case, water) is at the right temperature for the yeast to wake up and start doing its job of fermenting the dough and producing carbon dioxide. Go with a temperature of around 105°F, and don't let it get higher than 120°F, or the yeast will start to die, and that's just cruel.
Mix until it forms what we bakers call a "shaggy mass." At this point, almost all of the flour is incorporated, and the mixture has almost become a dough, but is still rather ragged.
When making pita bread, I like to knead the dough by hand. That's in part because I like the feel of the dough (what can I say?), but also so that I can sense how much gluten is being developed. We want a well-developed dough with plenty of gluten, so that it will stretch out as it puffs in the oven. We also don't want the dough to be too dry, since it needs moisture to puff. If you knead the dough on a board, it'll seem very sticky, and you'll be tempted to add too much extra flour—which is not a good thing, since it will soak up and trap some of that necessary moisture. The best way to do it, therefore, is to knead the dough directly in the bowl. Make sure that your hands are clean!
To do that, lift up the top half of the shaggy mass, pull it toward you, then fold it over on itself. Next, use your fingers or the heel of your hand to push the dough away from you. Give the bowl a quarter turn, then repeat the process.
It's okay if the dough sticks to the bottom of the bowl, but if it sticks too much to the sides, you can use a plastic scraper to free it. Though it'll still feel tacky at this stage, you'll notice it becoming less so while you continue to knead, as the gluten develops and the flour becomes more hydrated from the liquid. Add only a very small amount of flour if the whole thing just seems too wet and sticky.
Keep kneading for about 10 minutes. What you're looking for is good gluten development: The dough should be soft but stretchy, yet not as tight as a wad of well-chewed gum. If you pull on the dough, you should feel some resistance.
Does all this manual labor sound massively boring to you? Okay—you can use a stand mixer instead, especially if you're doubling the batch. Use a dough hook and mix at low speed for eight minutes.
Rule 2: Roll Thin Pitas
Roll out the pitas to no more than a quarter inch in thickness. This is one of the most important rules, since the dough needs to be thin enough that the heat can quickly penetrate to the center, creating that blast of steam and expanding the pocket before the dough becomes too rigid. If the dough is too thick, it'll get overly firm before the heat of the oven can swell the center. The photo below shows what happens when the pita is too thick. No puff!
Rule 3: Use a Baking Stone and a Hot Oven
A very hot oven is a must in order to get that quick burst of steam inside. If the oven temperature is too low, steam won't puff the pitas, and you'll end up with duds. Turn the oven as high as it will go, and preheat the oven with a baking stone, which retains heat, thus aiding in the creation of steam. This needs to happen quickly—in a mere two to three minutes—so don't go running off when the pitas are baking. As soon as they puff, they're done. Over-baking will leave them hard and dry.
Rule 4: Don't Tear the Pita Before Baking
After rolling out the pitas, try not to tear the dough before baking. Doing so can create a weak point that may fail as the pita puffs, preventing it from fully expanding. Notice that the pita on the left here, which went into the oven with a slight tear, isn't puffing like the other:
Rule 5: Flip the Pitas Right Before Baking
Over the course of years of making pitas, I began to notice a tendency for the pita to end up with a much thinner top than bottom after it comes out of the oven. Eventually, I realized that this has to do with pockets of air rising to the surface of the dough during the final proofing step. The solution: Flip the dough right before baking and set it top side down on the baking stone. (This trick also guarantees an even distribution of air holes in ciabatta bread.)
Rule 6: Wrap Baked Pitas in a Towel
You know those pitas that crack when you try to open them up, making them impossible to stuff properly? It's because they've dried out too much. To prevent that, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel as soon as they come out of the oven. The cloth traps just enough moisture while also allowing the pitas to breathe; use plastic, and they'll sweat and get soggy.
Rule 7: Finish on the Stovetop
Try as I might, I never could get my oven to produce the beautiful charred look of a pita that's baked in a scorching hot wood-fired oven. Even the broiler is too finicky to yield consistent results, sometimes burning the surface. The solution? Char the pita in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop after baking. Not only do the pitas look a lot better that way, but the charring adds a layer of smoky flavor.
Now all you need is a big ol' plate of hummus.