Let’s face it: whenever we go for an Indian meal, naan bread is usually part of the order. The light flavour and soft texture make this a popular choice for scooping up the remains of our chosen curry. But it seems that the naan is actually seen as more of a luxury rather than an everyday staple.
Originating from India, the naan, a word that just means ‘bread’ in its original Persian, is a flatbread that is baked in a clay oven rather than over a flame like the chapati. This gives it a crisp surface, a fluffy centre and a unique charred taste.
Is there a secret ingredient? It seems there is – patience.
It seems one of the biggest questions when it comes to making the perfect naan bread is the type of flour to use. The two main choices are plain flour and white bread flour, which is higher in protein. Some recipes say to use one, some say to use the other. It is definitely possible to make a successful naan with plain flour as many recipes show us. Ultimately, it is entirely up to you what type of flour you use. But in order to get their characteristic texture, opting for strong flour is best, which is why white bread flour is such a good option.
Although they’re known as flatbreads, naans get their bubble texture from yeast, like many other foods. Some recipes also include baking powder on its own, or to top up the yeast. The benefit of including baking powder as well as yeast means you won’t need to leave the dough to rise for a long time. Two thirty minute slots will be plenty. But the key trick here is to let the dough rise twice. This will increase the puffiness and soft texture.
What makes the texture of the naan even more special is yoghurt and a touch of water. By adding these two ingredients you’ll get more tang, richness and maintain that soft chewy texture. A little extra fat is also a welcome element, and the easiest way to do this is by adding a bit of melted butter.
We all season our food to our own individual preferences. For naan bread, sugar is a great sidekick for the yeast and salt is vital for adding flavour. As for toppings, it is entirely up to you. Garlic butter is a very popular, tasty choice and of course, coriander for adding that special flavour. Many recipes also suggest adding a big spoonful of melted ghee to finish.
How to cook it
The main word to remember here is ‘stretchy’. Instead of rolling out the dough completely, it’s better to stretch it with your hands. Think of a pizza chef curling and bending the pizza dough in the air – it gets a long, stretchy texture, which is perfect for naan bread. As with any dough, do it by feel. It should be soft and sticky, so if it feels dry, just add more liquid.
Now not everyone will have a tandoor at home so the cooking method will have to be compromised. You could use an oven but the bread tends to go quite hard and crispy. The best way to replicate the high heat is with a very hot pan. You only need to put a few drops of water in there – this will work like steam. If you don’t, the bread will crisp up like flat-bread – you want the texture to be soft and spongy. You can use the oven to keep your curries warm instead.
As for the unique charred flavour, it’s all about the flame. A gas flame works perfectly to get the crispy, bubble texture on top. With that and your chosen toppings, it will look like a naan, smell like a naan and definitely taste like a naan.
The perfect naan bread recipe
1 tsp dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
150ml warm water
300g strong white bread flour (plus extra)
pinch of salt
½ cup of natural yoghurt
2 tbsp melted ghee or butter (plus extra)
1 tsp vegetable oil
½ tsp baking powder
nigella, sesame or poppy seeds (optional)
Put the yeast, sugar and two tablespoons of warm water into a small bowl and stir well. Leave it aside for around ten minutes until the mixture begins to froth.
Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and stir in the yoghurt, and yeast mixture to it, plus the melted ghee.
Mix gently with a wooden spoon until the mixture starts coming together. Gradually stir in the water to make a soft, sticky mixture that is just firm enough to call a dough, but isn’t dry. Tip this out onto a lightly flour-dusted surface and knead for about five minutes until smooth and a little less sticky.
Put this in a large, lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover this with something like a clean tea towel, leave in a draught-free place, for example, an unlit oven or an airtight cupboard, for about thirty minutes until it has doubled in size.
After thirty minutes, add some oil to the dough and knead in until smooth. Cover and set aside again for another thirty minutes.
Tip the dough back out onto the lightly floured surface and divide into four balls. Roll each portion of the dough into a teardrop shape and gently stretch the shape with your fingers to get a naan that is less than 5mm thick.
Meanwhile, heat a non-stick frying pan over a very high heat for five minutes and put the oven on low. Prepare the melted ghee and any seeds to garnish.
Brush one side of the naan with water and place it in the pan, water side down. When it starts to bubble, turn it over and cook until the other side has brown patches. Turn it back over and cook until there are no doughy bits left.
If you are using a gas flame, use long tongs to hold the uncooked side over the flame to give a charred exterior. Brush the charred side with butter, sprinkle with seeds if you want them and flip gently. Then transfer this to the oven to keep warm and repeat with the other dough.