Why It Works
- Baking on pebble stones ensures you get a pocketless bread with the traditional dimpled look.
- A mixture of white and wholewheat flours gives you bread with a nutty flavor that is still tender and easy to stretch.
- A very soft dough, while sticky and requiring extra flour to shape, ensures a very tender bread.
Taboon is the name given to the clay ovens historically used by Palestinians, but also refers to its namesake flatbread. While taboon bread is uniquely Palestinian, similar breads are common across the entire Arab world, albeit prepared slightly differently and called by varying names in each region, with a history stretching back thousands of years. The earliest archeological evidence of bread baking can be traced to about 14,000 years ago—roughly around the time of the domestication of wheat—in what is today known as the Levant, the Middle Eastern region that includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and more.
Palestinians were historically a farming society for whom wheat and, by extension, bread were dietary staples. Within each village—sometimes within each neighborhood or family even—there was a special room that housed a taboon. The oven itself was built from clay kneaded with hay, then shaped into a shallow, truncated cone and left to dry. At the top was an opening through which food was inserted for baking, and underneath, in the floor of the oven, there was usually another smaller opening from which to stoke the fire. The top opening had a special cover to retain the heat inside and the oven itself was filled with riverbed rocks on which trays of food or bread could be directly placed.
To use a taboon, animal dung, hay, and other flammable materials, such as small olive branches and wood, would be packed around and set on fire. This would continue to burn, most often through the night, until only embers remained the following morning. The ash would then be dusted from the lid and the oven was ready for use. The thick mud walls and stones acted as a thermal mass that soaked up the heat from the fire, which was then stored and slowly released throughout the day.
The women of the family or village usually repeated the process of adding burning material to the taboon oven each night. In the morning they would gather and take turns to bake bread, and later in the day, cook entire meals on the residual heat. My grandmother, at the very end of a baking day, would sometimes place whole eggplants, tomatoes, and green chilies right on the rocks inside the taboon. Once they were blistered and cooked through, she would peel the vegetables, mash them all together with salt and some olive oil, at times lemon too. The smokey dip, in all its simplicity, was immensely satisfying.
Those days are long gone and taboons are less and less common, with metal and electric ovens supplanting this labor-intensive method. Although if you speak to anyone who has experienced a taboon oven, the nostalgia is palpable as they recall the unparalleled flavor imparted to the food from the clay and embers. Still, there are ways to replicate the shape and texture of taboon bread at home today; and even if the flavor is not identical, it is sublime.
Good taboon bread is soft and tender, dimpled from being cooked on stones and without the kind of hollow pocket inside that is common with many types of pita. That pocket is generated when steam expands to form a single large inner air bubble, but it's not the goal with taboon. There are several factors that play into the development of a pocket, including the dough hydration level, the temperature of the oven, and how the dough is rolled out. In my experience, there's one additional element that can help prevent the pocket in taboon: the rocks upon which the breads are traditionally cooked—they create an uneven surface and compress the dough in spots, making a single large air bubble less likely to form. The result is a sturdier bread that can support a heavier load of toppings, such as the cooked onions and roast chicken pieces in a dish like msakhan.
My preferred method for replicating a traditional taboon at home is to heat smooth river rocks or large pebbles in a cast iron pan, or even on a sturdy baking sheet, with the bread then baked directly on top, giving the bread its classic dimpled shape and helping prevent the development of a pocket. Using river rocks is by no means required, but it's easy enough to find these types of stones not only outdoors but also at art supply stores (see the recipe notes section below for more guidance on finding the right kind of rocks).
Traditionally, each baker would leave a small portion of dough for the next day’s bake—essentially, a sourdough starter. Today, commercial yeast is most often used to leaven this bread, but if you have a sourdough starter and feel confident in adapting the recipe, it would work perfectly fine and probably come closer to the original taste. As for flour, taboon was historically made only with whole wheat. Although healthier, it results in a more finicky dough and stiffer bread. Today, different proportions of whole wheat and white flour are used, with some even opting for white flour exclusively. In this recipe, the proportions allow you to still have the nutty taste from whole grains while enjoying one of the softest and most tender breads you can imagine.
To get to that point, however, it is important to make a very soft and well-hydrated dough. This means that it will be quite sticky to work with. Ensuring your hands, work surface, and the portions of dough remain well-floured throughout make the process much easier, especially as you come to shape and stretch the dough.
Palestinian women have over the generations perfected the stretching of the dough to enormous sizes by simply doing a back-and-forth toss between their palms. After years of practice, I can do the palm dance, but I cannot dream of getting to the size my grandmother would. Likewise, this recipe is not under the illusion that any of us can perfect that skill in a few tries. Instead, it calls for smaller taboon breads which you will be able to stretch with your fingers on a floured surface. Once you transfer the dough to the heated stones, you can carefully stretch it further for a more evenly rounded shape. Regardless of what shape (or thickness) you end up with on the first try, you will still find yourself rewarded with one of the best breads you have ever tried.
To keep the bread soft as you are baking, have a large kitchen towel or two smaller ones ready. Place each bread as it comes out of the oven on the towel then fold the towel over to cover it, trapping steam and preventing the taboons from drying out. Continue, placing each bread on top of the one before it, making sure to keep them covered until you are ready to use or freeze them.
As for the uses, taboon bread is the primary component of msakhan, considered by many to be one of the main, if not the main, national Palestinian dishes. But the bread can be enjoyed in countless other applications. Like pita bread, it can be used to scoop up anything from labaneh and hummus to stews and braises. Because of its shape and texture, however, it also makes the perfect base for open-faced flatbreads. It is very common amongst Palestinians to drizzle taboon bread with olive oil and zaatar and then reheat it in the oven for crispy za’atar manaqeesh. But you can just as well spread it with tomato sauce and sprinkle it with cheese. Or you can put your favorite sandwich filling in it and roll it up. Or, if you’re like most Palestinians, you will simply dip it in olive oil and say it’s the best meal in the world.
- 500g bread flour, such as King Arthur (17 1/2 ounces, or about 4 cups, spooned), plus more for dusting
- 250g whole wheat flour (8 3/4 ounces, or about 2 cups, spooned)
- 10g Diamond Crystal kosher salt (about 2 1/2 teaspoons); for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 teaspoon (4g) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing hands and dough
- 1 tablespoon (12g) instant yeast, such as SAF; not RapidRise or active dry (more info here)
- 2 cups (475ml, 16 ounces) warm water, about 80°F (26°C), plus more if needed
In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly stir together the bread flour, whole wheat flour, salt, and sugar. Make a well in the middle and add the oil, yeast, and water. Using your fingers, gradually stir the dry ingredients into the wet ones until a very soft and sticky ball of dough forms; if dough feels stiff, work in water 1 or 2 tablespoons (15-30ml) at a time until it is soft and slightly sticky. Let stand 5 minutes, then knead until the dough comes together more smoothly, even if still sticky, about 1 minute. Repeat this resting and kneading process once or twice more until a very soft and elastic ball of dough forms; when ready, the finished dough will still be a little sticky.
Using well-oiled hands, gently shape the dough into a smooth ball, rub all over with olive oil, then set the dough ball in the bowl and cover with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap. Set aside at warm room temperature until dough doubles in size, about 90 minutes. In cooler months, this process may take much longer.
Once the dough has risen, gently punch down to release the air bubbles. With well floured hands, divide into 8 equal portions, shape each into a ball, and place on a well-floured baking sheet or work surface. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside until dough balls grow by roughly 50%, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, if using optional "river" rocks (see recipe note), spread them in an even layer in a 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet; otherwise proceed with empty skillet as directed. Adjust oven rack to middle position, set skillet on rack, and preheat to 500F° (260°C), or the highest the oven will go. Line a baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel.
Working with one piece of dough at a time, set dough on a floured work surface, durst with more flour, then flatten slightly with your hand. Using your hands, flatten and stretch the dough out to a roughly 4-inch round. Flip it over, sprinkling with more flour if it feels sticky, and continue to flatten and stretch until you have a roughly 8-inch round.
If using rocks, open the oven and pull out the rack halfway. Carefully transfer dough round directly to the skillet and lay it over the pebbles, carefully stretching it out to form a more circular shape. If you are not using pebbles, place dough round directly in the cast iron skillet and use your fingers to make indentations all over the bread (this will give it a similar shape and feel to having pebbles under it and also prevent it from rising and creating a pocket).
Bake until the bread develops a very light golden top, about 5 minutes. Using oven mitts or silicone-tipped tongs, carefully lift taboon from the pebbles and, if the bottom is not brown, flip over and return to the oven until lightly golden on the second side, about 1 minute longer. Remove taboon from the oven and place on the towel-lined sheet to cool. Allow the rocks and/or skillet to reheat for 5 minutes as you stretch out the next piece of dough, then repeat the process until all the dough rounds are baked. Serve right away as desired or store in a zipper-lock bag for up to 1 day at room temperature or up to 1 month in the freezer.
Optional: enough "river" rock pebbles, each about 2 inches in diameter, to fill a 10- to 12-inch cast iron skillet in a single layer (see recipe notes)
"River" pebbles can usually be purchased from any arts and crafts or homeware store such as Michaels or Home Depot. Just make sure they are natural stones that do not have any kind of coating on them; also avoid stones collected from nature as they can contain small amounts of water and pose a sudden cracking or popping risk when heated. To prep them, simply wash gently with warm, soapy water, rubbing away any sand, dirt or residue with your fingers, then rinse. Set aside to dry fully before using. I usually re-rinse them with water after every few bakes when they’ve accumulated a bit of flour on the surface that is starting to brown and burn.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This bread can be stored in a zipper-lock bag for up to one day at room temperature; it freezes well in a zipper-lock bag for up to one month. Bread leftover at room temperature can be drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar then reheated in the oven for crispy za’atar manaqeesh.