If you put six Indian cooks together you will get nine opinions on how to make naan. And all would likely be right.
Naan originated in Persia and the word translates to “bread”. Which is quite proper, given that just like bread, there are countless variations in its preparation. What is usually agreed is that it is a leavened bread and that is about where the consensus ends. This is no agreement on how they should be cooked, or what it is made from.
Most of us have only eaten naan cooked in an Indian restaurant in a tandoor. Given that this bread has been eaten for centuries in India and that tandoors are more prevalent outside India than in it, you would have to assume, rightly, that there must be other ways to cook them. Naan can be cooked in an oven, over hot coals on your barbecue, or, as this recipe describes, on a griddle. If you have a wood-fired pizza oven, then that would be a great way to cook it. You could cook it like damper and just place the dough directly into hot coals. Of all the cooking methods available to you, please don’t deep fry them.
Whilst there is agreement that it is made from a leavened dough, the ingredients vary wildly.
Leavening is to add something to a dough that causes a reaction that releases, usually, carbon dioxide. That forms tiny air-pockets that lighten and soften the mixture. Whilst there are many leavening agents, including baking powder and fruit salt, it was a gift from the Portuguese that produces the naan we know today. That gift was yeast.
I discuss their influence in the cuisine of Goa. Suffice to say that using naan to mop up a very hot curry owes much to them. Think chillies and yeast and thank the Portuguese.
There is no agreement on the flour to use for naan. Variously I have seen general purpose flour, whole wheat flour and wholemeal flour all used. I have tried to make naan with gluten-free flour, but not too successfully. I have tried using rice or coconut flour, equally unsuccessfully. In simple terms, naan cannot be made without gluten. Coeliacs do not despair – there are recipes forthcoming for breads made with rice flour, maize and other gluten-free produce.
This recipe uses atta, a whole wheat flour made from hard wheat. These wheats have a high protein and gluten content and make a strong dough. Atta is readily available from good supermarkets or Indian grocers.
The next main ingredient is the liquid added to the flour to make the dough. Opinions abound. These include milk, water, yoghurt or a combination of some or all them. This recipe uses whey, which is the by-product of making paneer. Our recipe for paneer will produce more than enough whey to make the naan described below. No whey? Try a mix of half water, half yoghurt.
Should you add seeds, such as nigella or carom? Should they be mixed into the dough, or sprinkled after cooking? We use neither, but your personal preferences will dictate otherwise. Whatever you do, be careful in their use, as a little of them goes a long way. Think half-teaspoon quantities for the complete recipe.
The last point of contention is how to serve the naan. In some places, they brush the naan with water to stop it drying out. We use melted ghee, which is very common. Garnish with seeds, as mentioned above? Garnish with finely chopped coriander stalks? Up to you. Just be subtle.
What is absolutely agreed by all cooks is that from pan to plate to mouth should be as fast as possible. Naan tastes its best straight from the stove, oven, pan, whatever.
This is the recipe for my grandmother’s tawa naan. Made with atta, whey and yeast and cooked on a griddle. Brushed with ghee and nothing else.
If you should have any left over from entertaining, be warned that they usually become doughy and chewy the next day.
- 250 ml whey - (see notes)
- 1 tsp jaggery
- 7 g dried baker’s yeast
- 2 tbsp gingelly oil - (see notes)
- 2 cups whole wheat flour - (atta)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp gingelly oil - to oil bowl
- 2 tbsp ghee - melted
- Warm the whey, then combine it with the jaggery and yeast in a large mixing bowl. Allow it to proof for five minutes, or until bubbles begin to form.
- Once the yeast is activated add the oil, flour and salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.
- Begin kneading in the bowl or on a floured work surface, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. The dough should not be dry, but it should be workable without it sticking to your hands. Knead for about 10 minutes.
- Remove dough from bowl and set aside. Wash bowl, dry, then oil the bottom and sides. Place dough back into bowl and flip so that the oiled side of the dough is up. Cover and place in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size, about three hours.
- Preheat the griddle or pan over a medium-high heat.
- When dough has risen, punch it down Divide the dough into six balls. On a floured work surface, roll dough into a rectangle. To create the tear-drop shape, hold the dough up by a shorter end of the rectangle and stretch downward before placing on the very hot griddle.
- Cook two minutes on the first side, until the bubbles form in the naan. Flip and cook the second side for another minutes. Remove from griddle and brush with the melted ghee. Repeat with remaining naan.
- If you do not have whey, use 125ml each of warm water and yoghurt.
- A normal sachet of dried baker’s yeast contains 7g or is equivalent to around 2 teaspoons.
- Gingelly oil is Indian sesame oil. It is very different to the Asian sesame oil. Substitute with vegetable oil if unobtainable.
- Atta is a whole wheat flour and is readily available from good supermarkets or Indian grocers. If unavailable, a durum wheat flour will substitute.