sourdough khobz ʿarabi

I have been baking a lot lately (original, I know). Usually this means I’m making either a run-of-the-mill sourdough loaf (following this excellent primer from the Kitchn) or this evergreen Smitten Kitchen buckle, swapping in whatever fruits are in season –– it is a particularly great way to use up the sad apples at the bottom of your fridge –– and substituting different spices based on pairings I find in Niki Segnit’s indispensable The Flavor Thesaurus. This week I made a pear & blueberry buckle with cardamom and ginger.

Recently, however, in preparation for an appearance on Tony Tahhan‘s wonderful #TetaThursdays Instagram Live series, and with a container of discarded sourdough starter growing by the day, I set about experimenting with techniques and recipes for making khobz ʿarabi (literally, Arabic bread, aka pita bread) using only discarded starter as the leavening agent.

If you are longing for fresh khobz ʿarabi and have some sourdough discard handy, this is the recipe for you! No yeast required. Recipe & details after the jump. (I’m still working on capturing great images of this recipe, so in the meantime enjoy this gorgeous shot from Tony’s IG page!)

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For thousands of years, bakers relied on bubbly sourdough starters to make their bread. This method uses fermentation to create chewy, flavorful, nutrient-rich loaves that sustained civilizations. In Egypt, bread is called “aeesh" (عيش), which is the Arabic word for life. In preparation for our #TetaThursdays conversation, @annygaul and I baked khubz arabi (pita bread)! We exchanged recipes and techniques. Her recipe (pictured above) calls for 1 part water, 2 parts sourdough discard (100% hydration), 3 parts bread flour, a drizzle of olive oil and some salt. You mix everything together the night before, knead for about 10 minutes, and bake the next day. The flavor is better than any commercial pita I’ve ever had! I prepared an earlier batch that incorporates a little whole wheat flour, which gives the loaves a nutty, slightly sweet flavor profile. I’m going to continue experimenting with different ratios using Anny’s base recipe. During our conversation, the impact of industrialization came up a few times. Where did couscous come from? How was it made? Who made it? Why did it flourish in some places, but not others? These are some of the questions Anny explored in a recent piece for ArabLit Quarterly, Light Enough to Travel. Through her research, Anny discovered that couscous used to be widespread across the region. It spanned beyond the Maghrib into Sicily, southern Spain, and the Levant! Over time, colonialism and industrialization, among other factors, led couscous to fade from the national fabric in some of these places. Whether it’s sourdough or couscous, techniques and flavors come and go throughout history. These historical events give context to cooking practices. Thanks Anny and everyone who tuned into our conversation!

A post shared by Antonio Tahhan طوني طحّان (@antoniotahhan) on

Sourdough Khobz ʿArabi

Ingredients:

For eight round loaves

120 grams warm water
240 grams sourdough starter discard
360 grams bread flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt

A few notes
My starter is made with wheat flour, so I kept the rest of the flour mix white. Each time I did this, I was using starter that had been fed in the past week or two, but was not especially fresh. In terms of  how hot the water should be, I aim for a temperature that is not too hot to the touch on the back of your hand for ten seconds, but then feels too hot after that time. It’s a rule I learned when I first starting baking on a NOLS course 15 years ago and it’s never steered me wrong. 

Directions

1. Mix all ingredients together in a mixing bowl until a shaggy dough forms. Transfer to a stand mixer and mix with the dough hook for 10 minutes. You can also knead by hand; the goal is to get your dough to pass the “windowpane test.” This is essential to ensuring that once the bread bakes and cools it holds together without cracking or breaking apart.

the chewy consistency we’re going for!

2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let it rise 6-8 hours (the dough should double in size).

3. Divide into eight pieces and roll them lightly into balls. At this point you can either dust them with flour and tuck them away in the fridge for up to 3 days, or you can simply cover them with a damp clean towel and let them rest for an hour.

The fridge technique develops the flavor and texture and also makes the loaves slightly easier to handle when you roll them out. But you can do without! If you are storing in the fridge, you can wrap them individually in plastic wrap or bags, or nestle each ball of dough in a muffin pan then cover the whole thing with plastic. If you have chilled the dough in the fridge, let it rest for an hour or two at room temperature, covered to keep it from drying out, before moving to the next step.

4. Roll the balls of dough into thin rounds (lightly dusting the surface you’re working on helps). This is, for me, the hardest part. You really want the dough to be flat (no thicker than a quarter inch) and as even as possible. For me this was the step that was trickiest (and least successful) when I began and started to improve after I worked through several batches; it’s one of those things best learned by doing. I used a combination of flattening gently by hand and then finishing with a rolling pin, trying not to handle the dough too much to leave it as even and intact as possible.

5. Once rolled out, let the rounds sit, covered again with a clean damp towel, for another hour or two. Meanwhile preheat your oven as high as it can go, aiming for somewhere around 550 degrees F. Preheat a baking surface along with the oven: you can use a baking tray/cookie sheet for this, but my best results have been with a cast iron pan. I have heard pizza stones work well too, though I don’t own one.

6. Once your rounds are rested and the oven preheated, place them one at a time on your baking surface, turning over each one so that the side that was resting face down on the countertop is face up in the oven. This is a tip I heard from numerous experienced bakers and I think it does make a difference.

The bread is finished when it puffs up into a pocket. For me this generally takes only between 60 and 90 seconds, so keep an eye on it! Wait until it has fully inflated before removing it from the oven.

7. Once the bread is done baking, wrap it in a clean dry towel placed on a cooling rack. You can stack the loaves together. Cooling this way helps keep them from drying out.

A bit about process & rationale

Most sourdough recipes for khobz ʿarabi or pita bread either call for commercial yeast or for very fresh, bubbly starter, so my goal here was to develop a recipe that didn’t require yeast (hard to find these days) and could function with only leftover/discarded starter as a leavening agent. My main tasks were to develop a recipe for the dough and then to learn as much of the technique as possible for preparing and baking it.

I began with this recipe to get a sense of rough proportions, and it turned out ok but not spectacular: the finished loaves were prone to breakage, didn’t always puff up in the beautiful pocketed form I was hoping for, and didn’t always retain a nice chewy texture upon cooling. But it was a good starting place in terms of ratios and I adjusted from there.

On advice from Tony, who was also working on recipes (along with his starter Umm Kulthum, pictured here) and reading up on all the best practices in sourdough, I decided I wanted to work towards a recipe with 1) measurements by weight, in the form of baker’s percentages, and 2) a slightly wetter dough, which should help maximize steam and gluten –– important for that puff of the pocket.

I also really wanted a set of ratios I could remember without writing them down. After a few batches I settled on a recipe by weight that called for one part water to two parts starter to three parts flour (1-2-3!).

Next was figuring out the little tips and tricks that produce the right kind of bread. This one is not easy –– everything has to be just right for the bread to expand into a pocketed round in the oven and cool off while staying chewy and tasty. Most of my experience with this kind of flatbread was from watching Moroccan bakers make it at home, either in wood burning outdoor ovens or on a griddle, so the physics of this bread –– which aspires to be more like the flatbread you find in the Levant, and what might be called ʿaysh shami in Egypt –– were entirely new to me.

I relied heavily on this helpful list of rules and asked for lots of advice from folks who’d made oven-based khobz ‘arabi before (h/t Marya Hannun for her pointers!). I also took some great tips about technique from a discussion on my Facebook page (h/t to Tylor Brand for the suggestion about refrigerating the dough). A the muffin tin trick for resting balls of dough in the fridge was my mom’s idea.

A few questions I have moving forward and variations I’ll be trying out in the coming days: how much wheat flour is too much? What other flours might work? How does regular white flour compare to bread flour?

Depending on the humidity of the day and timing I also often found my loaves were drying out a bit, so next time around I may experiment with storing and rolling them out with the help of a very light amount of olive oil rather than a dusting of flour.

Thanks to everyone who helped me test drive this bread, and please let me know in the comments if you have any tips, improvements, or questions. A particular thank you to Tony for inviting me to join #TetaThursdays and providing crucial assistance while developing the recipe!

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