February 19, 2011
I've written a fair bit about Indian cooking of the curry variety, but this time around, I'm writing about a different type of Indian cooking: American Indian, or Native American,* if you prefer.
Frybread is one of the most basic recipes in American Indian cooking. The Navajo version is probably the most famous, and many sources cite the Navajo as the tribe among which Indian frybread originated, but many other tribes have their own versions, each with numerous variations. All Indian frybreads have some some things in common. Essentially, they require one to mix flour, a bit of salt, baking powder, warm liquid of some sort (water, or milk, or both), and maybe some sort of oil into a dough. The dough is shaped into flat, round or oval shapes and fried in very hot oil.
When we vacationed in Arizona a couple years ago, we encountered, and quickly became quite fond of, Navajo frybread. There were frybread stands here and there, both in town and out in the more rural areas. Not too far from where we were staying, we found a little strip-mall restaurant that featured a menu mostly served with or on frybread. Frybread topped with scrambled eggs, several different types of chili and frybread, frybread tacos, frybread with cinnamon sugar, or jam, or honey... we tried all of these, and probably some others I'm forgetting, and they were all delicious. I'd tried some other versions of frybread many years before, but I barely remembered them; they hadn't made much of an impression. The Navajo Frybread was unforgettable, and for awhile now I've wanted to try making it myself.
In seeking out a recipe for Navajo Frybread, I found no lack of contenders online. Everyone from Emeril Lagasse to Smithsonian Magazine offered up a version, as did most of the major recipe sites and a number of tribal sites, not to mention the webpages of any number of individuals and organizations. They were mostly pretty similar, which was good, as this provided some basis for comparison. A few included atypical ingredients such as cornmeal, eggs or shortening, but most did not. I ended up focusing on what looked like the most basic recipes for the traditional Navajo version of the recipe and studied them to come up with the most typical ratios of various ingredients. The various recipes differed most in terms of the amount of liquid used. Some specified the dough should be fairly dry, others suggested a stickier dough. I decided to go conservative with the liquid, then adjust upward from there to try to find the right texture.
I started with 3/4 cup of water, the smallest amount of liquid suggested in any of the recipes I consulted. I thought that would likely be too little liquid, and I was right. The dough wouldn't really even come together with that little water. I added another 1/4 cup, and that was better, but still not right, so I added yet another 1/4 cup - for a total of 1 1/4 cups - and that ended up being too much, with the dough being wet and very sticky. I added in a bit more flour to make up for excessive water, and while I eventually got the dough to a manageable texture, I knew at that point the frybread probably wouldn't turn out well. A lot of the recipes - including most of the ones I followed most closely in designing my own - warned quite clearly about over-working the dough, and having to repeatedly mix in more water, find the texture not right, then add more flour, then more water again... well, I was pretty sure that was more than enough kneading to qualify as over-working.
Sometimes it sucks to be right.
Some of the recipes I studied called for rolling out pieces of the dough to make individual servings of frybread, while others stated one should flatten and shape the dough entirely by hand. This appeared to be the more traditional technique, so I went with this. That was a mistake. The dough was stiff enough that shaping it by hand was not an easy task, so the dough got even more over-worked from my attempts to squish, stretch, pinch and otherwise shape the dough, but eventually I got several flat, round (well, sort of round, anyhow) pieces of dough ready to fry.
All the recipes stated to fry the bread in very hot oil, with suggested temperatures ranging from 350 to 375 degrees. Traditionally, Navajo Frybread is often cooked in a cast-iron skillet, but knowing how much oil can splatter all over the stove top during frying, I wasn't about to keep with that tradition. Instead, I used a Dutch oven. I got the oil to about 370 degrees, then tossed in one of the rounds of dough to fry. After a couple minutes on each side, the first one was done, and I continued with the others.
The results didn't look much like the Navajo Frybread we'd had in Arizona, and while they tasted good, the texture was all wrong. Too chewy, not nearly enough puffiness. That's what comes from over-working the dough. The taste was right, though, and the bread had cooked through despite being pretty tough, so I knew I was on the right track. I decided immediately that I'd make up another batch of frybread, and tradition be darned, this time I'd roll them out. Maybe an expert frybread-maker can manage to shape them by hand without ending up with thick, rubbery frybread, but I clearly didn't have the right amount of skill. Or maybe some people just like their frybread to have texture similar to that of a mouth full of rubber bands.
In making the second batch of dough, I had a better idea how much water to use, so this time the dough came together with a minimum of hassles. After letting the dough rest, I divided it up into servings, then rolled them out. I started heating the oil while I rolled out the dough, and therein lay a near-catastrophe.
I was shooting for 370 degrees, but somehow the oil went from about 270 to way, way too hot within what seemed a couple minutes time. When I next checked it, the thermometer was registering past 400 degrees, and the oil was starting to smoke. I went to turn the burner temperature way down, and as I did, I heard a pop. I had a pretty good idea what had happened, and I was right. I could see shards of thin glass at the bottom of the Dutch oven; my thermometer had broken from being heated past its range.
That oil wasn't going to be usable any more, and with the oil that hot, that Dutch oven wasn't going to be available for awhile, either. Juli had originally suggested I cook the frybread in our Presto electric skillet, since that was large enough to cook two rounds of bread at the same time, so I went with that. Thankfully, we had just enough fresh oil to cover the bottom of the skillet in oil to a depth of about 1/2 inch. One advantage of the Presto is that you can select a specific temperature, so in short order I had heated the oil to 370 and put in the first two rounds. Right away I knew this batch was going to work out much, much better than had the first one. The rounds of dough immediately puffed up, forming the same big bubbles I'd remembered from the Navajo Frybread we'd had in Arizona. A few minutes later, we had another batch of frybread ready.
After one bite we both knew we had the recipe and technique figured out. This batch of Navajo Frybread was excellent... great flavor, and not the least bit greasy due to how quickly they'd cooked in such hot oil. The rounds were crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside, and flexible enough to bend around toppings to form a taco.
I'll write more about tacos made with Navajo Frybread, and some other good things you can do with the Frybread, in another post.
yield = 6 servings
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry powdered milk
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup + 3 tablespoons hot water
vegetable oil for frying
Mix the flour, milk, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and pour in one cup of water. Use your hands to mix the ingredients into a thick, slightly-sticky dough, adding in as much of the additional three tablespoons of water as necessary to get the right texture. Spray the bottom of a medium-sized bowl with nonstick cooking spray, then add the dough. Turn it over to oil both sides, lay plastic wrap directly over the dough and set aside. Let the dough rest at least 30 minutes.
After the dough has rested, roll the dough ball into a cylinder. Slice the dough into 6 evenly-sized portions, rolling each into a ball then flattening it slightly. Sprinkle a counter top or other work surface lightly with flour. Take one of the dough balls, set it on the floured surface, then flip it over. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to form a disc or oval about 8-10 inches in diameter. Shake off excess flour, then repeat with the rest of the dough balls, stacking them on a plate.
Pour oil into an electric skillet or Dutch oven to a depth of 1/2 inch or more. Heat to 370 degrees. Add one of the dough discs (or two, if there is ample room for them to not overlap) to the hot oil, being careful to not splash the oil. Cook for about two minutes or until lightly browned on the first side, pressing down on any overly-large bubbles that may form, then flip and cook another 1-2 minutes or until lightly browned. Using tongs, lift the frybread from the oil, allowing excess oil to drip off, then transfer to a plate or baking sheet lined with 3 layers of paper towels. Repeat with the remainder of the dough, then serve.
* Should anyone take offense to my use of the name "Indian" in reference to the people who were already living in North America when the Europeans arrived, I sincerely apologize, as no offense is intended. Most of the Native folk I've known have used the term 'Indian' in preference to 'Native American,' so that's the term I use as well.