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There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for a dosa. Bribery by dosa was how my mom would get me to do anything I didn’t want to do, from cleaning my room to finishing my homework. I was a stubborn kid, but she’d promise me the crisp, tangy crepe, and I would cave every time. Not much has changed. I’ll take ‘em however I can get ‘em: stuffed or plain, dusted in fiery spice, dunked in cool coconut chutney, or even just smothered in ghee. Tell my friends and loved ones that I want to be buried in a shroud of dosa.
Guide to Dosa
What Is a Dosa?
Dosa of the Past
Dosa are savory crepes, found throughout South Asia, that date back more than a thousand years, if not much longer. According to K. T. Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion, ancient dosa were very different from the crisp and paper-thin versions we know today. Instead, they were thick, dense pancakes. In Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, Colleen Taylor Sen writes that they were made from fermented and ground native millets and pulses—a staple food for my ancestors in the Indus Valley, for whom the combination of pulse and grain provided a complete source of proteins. The fermentation process also makes dosa more nutritious and easier to digest.
Today, the term dosa applies to a griddled batter that can come in a wide variety of styles. Some are thin and crisp, while others are thick and spongy; the batter can be fermented or unfermented; they can be made from a single grain or pulse, or any number of combinations. Try them with just rice for brittle and lacy neer dosa, a combination of rice and semolina for a crispy and light rava dosa, or with a batter of hearty finger millet in a chewy and dense ragi dosa.
My favorite dosa is the one that goes by a single name, like Beyoncé or Madonna—the one people are referring to when they simply say “dosa.” Made from rice and a lentil called urad dal (also known as black gram), this dosa is crisp, chewy, and delicate. It’s sturdy enough to hold itself upright as a cone or contain a hearty filling, but still lacy enough to let light pass through. It has a sharp and sour tang, similar to that of sourdough bread, with the musky flavor of black gram and bittersweet fenugreek coming through. This is the “it” dosa and the most ubiquitous style, so it’s the version I’ll be focusing on here.
These dal-and-rice dosa are very versatile and can be served with any number of accoutrements or fillings. The most iconic version is the masala dosa, which is stuffed with a spiced potato filling and rolled into a log so massive it extends off the plate. Dosa can also be served plain, or simply sprinkled with “gunpowder” spice—a dry chutney of blended dried chilies, lentils, and seeds. I use them much as I would any other wrap, filling them with anything from juicy carnitas to cheddar cheese.
Like bread dough, dosa batter is fermented prior to being cooked; in the case of dosa, the fermentation is carried out by wild bacteria, which means the process can vary significantly from one day to the next. You can control the fermentation better by using an immersion circulator or a multi-cooker with a yogurt function (such as an Instant Pot), both of which will create a temperature-stable environment for the bacteria to thrive, but a perfect dosa goes beyond just mastering the fermentation. It requires time and practice, and developing an understanding of what your personal preferences are. Only by making and eating dosa can you build an ever-better sense of your ideal ratio of rice to lentil, how deeply fermented (and therefore tangy) you like it, and how the batter should look and feel. The good news is that even a less-than-perfect homemade dosa is probably better than what you’ll find at most restaurants, and definitely better than what you'll get from a boxed mix.
Understanding Dosa Grains and Pulses
The classic fermented dal-and-rice dosa we're trying to make owes its unique characteristics to the combination of urad dal and long-grain rice. Both contain starches that are made up of long chains of glucose called amylose and amylopectin. Long-grain rice contains a high percentage of amylose. The long chains of glucose in amylose pack tightly together into straight, stable rows, forming stiff, strong structures. It’s the amylose in long-grain rice that gives a dosa its crisp texture—too much, and the dosa will be dry and brittle; not enough, and it will end up soft and flaccid.
Like amylose, amylopectin is also made up of long chains of glucose. But in amylopectin’s case, those chains are branched, and form clusters that are more loosely packed than amylose. The amylopectin swells once soaked, blended with water, and fermented, forming a viscous gel that traps the carbon dioxide gas produced by the fermentation. When cooked, the loosely organized amylopectin starches ensure the crispy dosa retains some degree of suppleness and flexibility.
Different ratios of rice to dal lead to batters with different ratios of amylose to amylopectin, as well as different changes to those starches during soaking and fermentation. Knowing that the rice is more responsible for the crispy texture, while the dal contributes more to pliability, can help you determine what ratio of rice to dal you want for your batter. After testing a range of common ratios of long-grain rice to urad dal, from 1:1 to 6:1, I found that a 3:1 ratio of rice to urad dal was ideal for me. Some recipes suggest adding poha (flattened long-grain rice) and chana dal (split yellow peas) to the mix to improve the dosa’s texture. I tested the addition of both in various amounts, but tasters found no noticeable difference from the inclusion of either.*
Although the traditional mix for this style of dosa includes urad dal and long-grain rice, this recipe will work for any combination of grains and pulses, since they all contain amylose and amylopectin in sufficient quantities. The exact characteristics of the grains and pulses will vary, so a rye-and-chickpea dosa won’t have the same texture as a teff-and-soy one, but you’ll still get a delicious result. Think of it as taking inspiration from ancient dosa by making them with whatever kind of grain or bean is in your pantry.
* For an extra-crispy batter, you can also substitute parboiled rice for some or all of the long-grain rice. Parboiled rice goes through a process called retrogradation as it cools, in which the amylose resets even stronger than before; this will create an even crispier dosa without the need for more rice.
Soaking the Rice and Dal
The first step in making the batter is to soak the whole grains of rice and whole urad dal separately. Soaking softens the rice and plumps up the urad dal, so that they’re easier to grind into a batter.** There are a couple reasons for soaking them separately. First, some grinding methods don’t work well when the rice and urad dal are processed together, and will leave you with a gritty batter. Second, soaking them separately allows you to harvest a concentrated bean liquid from the lentils, which is then blended into the batter to speed up the fermentation process. That’s because the urad dal begins fermenting immediately; even after just a few hours of soaking at room temperature, a film of bacteria will develop over the surface of the water. This early colonization is key and must be cherished, as it will ensure a successful fermentation of the batter later on.
During the soaking stage, a few grains of fenugreek are usually added to the lentils. Fenugreek—the primary spice used to give industrial pancake syrup that unforgettable fake-maple flavor—is believed to speed the fermentation process by making the batter more alkaline. To test this theory, I soaked and fermented three batches of batter: one with fenugreek, one without fenugreek, and one with baking soda, an alkaline ingredient. The batter with fenugreek fermented better than the batter without, but the batter with baking soda smoked them both, doubling in size in half the time. As a happy bonus, the baking soda helped with browning, for a more restaurant-style dosa. In my recipe, I’ve added baking soda to the batter to help with fermentation, but I've also kept the fenugreek for that characteristic dosa flavor. However, for a dosa made with nontraditional grains, like teff or buckwheat, I’ve found it’s best to skip the fenugreek so the flavor of the grain can shine through.
** For what it’s worth, I also tested fermenting grain and pulse flours, which would allow you to skip the process of soaking and grinding. The resulting texture was less than ideal due to the finer texture of commercially milled flours, but it’s a viable option if you don’t have a blender or wet grinder.
Grinding the Rice and Dal
After soaking, the rice and lentils have to be ground into a smooth paste to make the batter. Most Indian households rely on a wet grinder—a type of motorized food processor with two conical stones that rotate over a stone plate—to make idli and dosa batters. (Idlis are steamed breads made from a thicker version of the batter used for dosa.) A wet grinder can grind a very smooth batter with minimal liquid, making it perfect for lower-moisture idli batters. Because dosa batter is wetter than idli batter, a blender can work, too, but I was curious to see just how the various methods compared.
To find out, I tried breaking down the soaked rice and lentils in a wet grinder, a standard blender, and a high-powered blender. I found that all three work equally well, though there is one key difference.
Using the wet grinder requires grinding the soaked rice and lentils separately, then combining them after, since it doesn’t have the power to break them both down at once. (If you try to grind them together, you’ll end up with an unpleasantly grainy batter.) It turns out the same is true of a standard blender: If you want a smooth batter, you'll need to process the rice and lentils separately. Only the high-powered blender I tested, with its more robust motor, had the brute force to turn the rice and lentils into a totally smooth batter all in one go.
Because both blenders worked as well as or better than the wet grinder, there’s no clear benefit to using one for dosa—though a wet grinder is super fun for making your own chocolate, chutneys, and curry pastes, so it’s still a great splurge for any cooking nerd. Just use whatever you’ve got.
Fermenting the Batter
While both the rice and the lentils will ferment, it’s the lentils that ferment most readily; rice requires an inoculation of cultures to get going. The lentils in the mix are therefore responsible for kick-starting the lactic acid fermentation of the batter—the same type of fermentation responsible for yogurt, pickles, and sauerkraut—allowing the starches in the rice to become metabolized as well.
Because we’re letting nature do its thing, there’s a lot going on in a dosa batter. It’s not the sort of controlled culture you’re working with when making bread with a commercial yeast. Until Serious Eats springs for an in-house microbiologist, I can’t identify every organism responsible for the bubbles and burps in a dosa batter, but I do know that it’s lactic acid bacteria that’s leading the pack.
The fermentation of dosa batter really gets moving at about 80°F (26°C) and kicks into high gear at 110°F (43°C). Any lower, and you risk unfriendly bacteria taking over and spoiling your batch, while a higher temperature will indiscriminately kill them all. The sweltering climate of South Asia offers ideal conditions for dosa fermentation, but, with the central air in my Manhattan apartment, I have to look for some help.
If you have a warm spot in your home near a radiator, or in the oven with the pilot light on, that gentle heat will be enough to ferment your batter. Depending on the sunshine and humidity, the batter can take anywhere from eight to 48 hours to ferment. If you don’t want the whims of nature messing up your meal planning, though, reach for an immersion circulator or a multi-cooker with a yogurt mode, such as the Instant Pot. Carefully controlling the temperature can help you achieve more predictable fermentation times and more consistent results.
My preferred method for fermenting dosa batter is with an immersion circulator. It lets me have control over not only the temperature but also the time by giving me a full view of the fermentation, which I can't get with a closed multi-cooker. By setting the bath to 110°F, the upper end of the ideal temperature zone for fermenting the dosa batter, I’m able to get the fastest possible fermentation without allowing things to go crazy.
Because an immersion circulator heats a water bath, the batter needs to be held in some type of container. I use jam jars or metal hotel pans, which are heavy enough not to float. By filling each jar only one-third of the way, I leave enough room for the batter to grow as it ferments. Then I lightly cover the containers with plastic and wait for the batter to double in size. To ferment your batter in a multi-cooker, fill the cooker’s insert with batter one-third of the way full, set it to the yogurt mode, then let it double in size.
The fermentation time will vary depending on the vessel and volume of batter, but six hours is a good starting point. For the best texture and flavor, I let the batter rise like this twice, stirring in between to release the built-up gases. This is similar to allowing a bread dough to proof twice, punching it down in between—in both cases this double fermentation allows a more complex flavor to develop, yielding an intensely tangy batter.
What's more surprising is how this process improves the final texture. That’s because allowing the batter to double in size twice fills it with even more tiny air bubbles. These billions of air bubbles give the batter a light, meringue-like texture, which cooks up both crisp and chewy. Of all the variables I tested, this second fermentation had the most significant impact on the quality of my dosa—more so, even, than the ratio of rice to urad dal. If you’re impatient, you can always cook up a couple dosa for snacking after the first rise to tide you over until the batter is really good and ready.
Making Dosa: Step by Step
So, now that we’ve got all the technicalities out of the way, here are the basic steps for making dosa.
Step 1: Soak the Rice and Dal
In two separate containers, soak the long-grain rice and urad dal with water. The urad dal gets a few grains of fenugreek at this soaking stage, for flavor and to speed up fermentation. I allow them to soak until the grains of rice easily break apart when rubbed between my fingers.
Step 2: Grind the Batter
Next, drain the rice and dal, discarding the rice-soaking liquid but reserving the dal liquid for blending and thinning out the batter. Then grind the rice and dal using either a high-speed blender, a standard blender, or a wet grinder (together in one batch if you’re using a high-speed blender; separately if you’re using a standard blender or wet grinder). Once they've ground down until completely smooth, combine the rice and dal batters—if they aren’t already combined—before stirring in salt and baking soda to really kick the fermentation into high gear.
Step 3: Ferment the Batter
Once the batter is blended, ferment it either in a warm part of your home, in a 110°F (43°C) water bath, or in a multi-cooker using the yogurt setting. After the batter has doubled in size, stir it to release the built-up gases before letting it ferment for a second rise. When fermentation is complete, stir the batter again to release the gases and evenly distribute tiny air bubbles throughout. You can griddle it up immediately or keep it in the fridge or freezer for later.
Step 4: Cook the Batter
Unfortunately, the only way to achieve the huge dosa you find at restaurants is with an industrial griddle. One day I'll have a dedicated dosa griddle in my home, but until then, I stick to a 10-inch cast iron griddle pan—that’s all the pan my stove can handle. If your burners are large enough to take on more, feel free to go bigger, but keep in mind that even heat is key.
If your pan is well seasoned, you won’t need to add any oil to it, but add some if you’re not confident in its unstickability—just don’t overdo it! Once the batter hits the hot pan, it should stick just enough to give you the traction you need to spread it out even and thin. You can use the back of a ladle to spread out the batter, but I've found it’s easiest to do what the dosa pros do and use the bottom of a metal measuring cup. A nonstick or crepe pan won't work, because the slick surface doesn't allow you to spread it thin and even. Once the batter is set to the touch, drizzle on a bit of ghee, and continue cooking until the bottom is light golden brown.
If you want the full masala dosa experience, you can fill it with a spiced potato mixture and serve it alongside some coconut chutney and sambar. I rarely get that far and usually eat them with whatever I have around. After my endless dosa testing, I can confidently tell you that they make excellent grilled cheeses, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, breakfast burritos, and, when no one is looking, an epic pizzadilla.
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