Native Flat Breads

The earliest form of wheat bread is made by grinding cereal grain(s), adding water, mixing to a coherent mass, and allowing this mass to rest and ferment for a period of time. Then small portions are taken, flattened into a sheet, and baked quickly on a hot surface, usually either the floor or the wall of a heated oven. The process is usually a sourdough type; that is, a portion of the fermented dough is retained at the end of the day's baking and mixed in with the next day's dough, thus inoculating it with the yeast and other fermentative microorganisms that produce ethanol, carbon dioxide, and organic acids as they metabolize and grow.

These breads are produced widely throughout the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Depending on details of formulation and production, they are called chap-pati, nan, roti, tamouri, tamees, korsan, shamuf, and several other names. The simplest formula consists of whole wheat meal (frequently stone-ground by hand in the kitchen), salt, water, and sourdough starter. At the other extreme, the dough also contains ground pulses, sesame seeds, shortening (either ghee or sesame seed paste), honey or other sweetener, and spices (anise, cardamom, curry powder, dill, etc). Although wheat is the major cereal grain used, ground rice, barley, maize, or sorghum are also sometimes included at up to 20% of the weight of wheat meal or flour.

Production may be either in the home or in small commercial establishments. Home production is done strictly by hand. Commercial bakeries have a mechanical slow-speed mixer and perhaps a set of motorized sheeting rollers. The oven is usually heated by building a wood fire inside it, raking out the coals when it is hot, and baking on the floor (hearth) of the oven. In the home, ovens have been seen in the shape of an urn, about 3 ft high with an 18-in. opening in the top and a small opening in the bottom for feeding the fire. When the sides of the oven are hot, the sheeted dough is inserted through the top and plastered (by hand) against the oven wall. Dexterity and practice is required for this, because the oven temperature approaches 500°F. The baked bread is removed with wooden tongs. In the commercial hearth oven, insertion and removal is performed using a wooden peel.

As is common practice in most parts of the world, the bread is produced, purchased, and consumed on a daily basis, so staling and development of mold is not a problem. The meat and vegetable dishes, in the countries where flat breads are common, tend to be stews and purées, and freshly baked flat bread is an ideal and flavorful accompaniment to such a meal.

A similar sort of bread called tortilla, based on maize, is common in Latin American countries and recently in the United States. The maize (corn, in U.S. terminology) is soaked in dilute lime (calcium hydroxide) for up to 24 h to remove the hull. The endosperm is ground, while wet, to make masa (dough), then shaped into balls, flattened, and baked as described above. These differ from the flat breads described previously in the way in which the grain is processed and in having no fermentation step. The leavening of the tortilla, such as it is, is by steam. Tortillas can also be made using wheat flour. Commercial flour tortillas are usually leavened by the addition of a small amount of sodium bicarbonate. Commercial production of tortillas, to accompany Mexican food specialties, incorporates a number of refinements; space does not allow a full discussion of these factors in this article.

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