Fire baked pita bread? Don’t buy! Make your own!

Although it is traditional to eat burgers in a bun and hot dogs in a roll, my experience of living in the middle east has given me a preference for using pocket bread – AKA pita – to serve as the “host” for those grilled pieces of meat. The fact that pita can also accommodate sheesh and kofte makes it an all-purpose sandwich bread. So what about baking pita yourself?

Firstly I should say that, in my experience, it is very hard to buy good pita bread in the west. The pita bread that they sell in supermarkets is produced with shelf-life in mind, rather than taste. It has less gluten than bakery-fresh pita. This makes it somewhat healthier, I suppose. But it also makes it far less soft – and thus far more fragile. As soon as you try to cut it open, it tends to fragment or even crumble.

And if you manage to cut it open without bits breaking off or flaking off, it starts to break when you actually try to put anything inside it. Heating it up slightly – whether in a microwave, regular oven, grill or open fire – can help it survive the ravages of cutting and filling, but it is at best an imperfect solution.

Also, pita bread bought in the supermarket is just not as good as the kind of fresh baked-the-same-day pita bread that you can buy in the middle east. It just doesn’t have the taste!

Now of course if you live in a big city – especially one with a diverse cosmopolitan population – you will be able to find places where they sell fresh, real pita bread. But what if you don’t? Or what if you want to try something more adventurous for your next barbecue? After all you’re going to have a nice fire going anyway. What if you want to have a go at making and baking pita bread yourself in your own barbecue?

There are two parts to baking pita bread: the preparation and the actual cooking. We’ll start with the preparation.

How to prepare the dough for baking pita bread

The quantities below are for making 12 pocket pita breads of about 5 inches diameter. You can change the quantities according to your needs.

 

First the ingredients:

  • 1½ teaspoons of active dry yeast
  • 1½ cups of water
  • 5 cups (600 grams) bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil

 

Preparation

  1. Put the water into a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 30 seconds.
  2. Add the yeast to the water and stir gently, but making sure that it is all mixed.
  3. While the yeast is reacting to the water, put the flour into a mixing bowl and add the salt and olive oil.
  4. Then pour in the mixture of water and yeast and mix them all together using (clean) hands, a wooden spoon or a blender/mixer until they form a single ball of dough that comes away from the sides of the bowl and can hold together on its own surface tension.
  5. Sprinkle a small amount of flour onto a clean, flat surface such as a large wooden board and transfer the dough ball to the surface. (The flour is just to stop it sticking: you do not have to use much.)
  6. Knead the dough for 8-10 minutes. This can be done with your knuckles, the palms of your hands or both. You should knead it into a moderately flat lump, then when it is wide enough and thin enough, fold it over on itself and do it again. Also, rotate it a quarter turn, and repeat the process, so that it is folded different ways. You may, if you like, also flip it over, once in a while, and work it from the other side. (If you are using an electric mixer, after you have got the dough ball, you can simply run the mixer at a lower speed for 10 minutes to get the same effect as kneading.)
  7. Spray, brush or rub a suitably sized lidded container with olive oil and place the dough ball in the container and flip it over. Alternatively, you can rub or brush some olive oil directly onto the surface of the dough ball. The important thing is to make sure that the dough ball is covered with olive oil.
  8. Then, close the container and leave it for at least an hour at room temperature or overnight in the fridge. It will be ready only when it has doubled in size.
  9. When the dough ball is double the original size, put some more flour onto work surface and divide the ball into three equal parts. Then divide each of these into four parts, rolling them into soft, elastic balls. (The best way to shape them – according to some patisseries – is not just to roll them but to stretch some of the dough this way and that like a skin covering the rest and then, when the ends meet up, to squeeze them together. But this technique is optional.)
  10. Let these balls rest for at least 10 minutes. Longer is fine too. No harm will come to them.

Baking pita bread

Pre-heat a pizza stone in your wood, charcoal or gas barbecue. Heat the stone gradually with the fire, don’t wait until the fire is raging hot. One way to do it is to make the fire at one and/side and put the stone at the other. If you have a gas barbecue, you can put the stone on one side and heat the burners on the other side, avoiding subjecting the stone to direct heat.

Meanwhile, put some more flour on your work surface and roll out the pita breads to about ¼ inch thickness. If my calculations are right, they should be about 5 inches across. But I may be wrong. Do not worry about making pockets, these will create themselves in the heat and you will see this in the way the pita breads puff up and rise in the middle.

When the barbecue and pizza stone are hot enough, put one or two pitas on the pizza stone, close the hood and let them cook until they puff up. This should take anything between two and four minutes. It depends on how hot the barbecue is, but three minutes is the average. Bear in mind that the barbecue cools off noticeably when you open it.

Remove the pita and put new ones using a large spatula or – ideally – a pizza peel (such as one from American Metalcraft in the USA or Non Consumables in the UK)

As the soon as the pita is cool enough to touch (i.e. before it has got cold) slit it open wide enough to insert the cooked burger patty, hot dog (sliced down the middle, lengthways), kofte or sheesh and you’re done – ready to eat!

And what about making pizza, instead of baking pita?

This can also be done in a BBQ grill or smoker. Pizza dough and pita dough are actually the same thing. The only difference is that when you spread it out larger and add weight to it, the dough doesn’t rise as much when it cooks through and therefore doesn’t form a pocket. Apart from that, baking pita  and making pizza are essentially the same.

So, if you want to make pizza, just use the same mixture as above, split it into larger balls, roll it out bigger and cover it with tomato paste (purée), grated cheese and whatever toppings you want to add. Cook it the same way, but you may have to give it slightly longer.

With pizza it is best if the stone is not over the direct heat. This avoids burning the tomato paste and other toppings.

Bon Appetit!

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2 comments
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