Learn the science behind:
Crispy, spiced, papadums (or papads) make a great starter or side dish to a meal. But what is the best way to make these thin Indian ‘crackers’ – and why are they so crispy? Let’s figure it out!
Aside from its spices and wide range of flavors, Indian cuisine is known for its use of legumes and flatbreads. Papadums combine the two: they are flatbreads made of legume flours. It’s the crispier option, alongside the common chapati, slightly fancier naan, or buttery paratha. Since they’re not made of wheat flour they behave quite different from these wheat-based breads.
How do they become so delicate and crispy? The best way to understand is by making some of them yourselves!
- What are papadums?
- Making papadums is a 2-step process
- How to make papadum dough
- Drying papadums makes them shelf stable
- Cooking papadums makes them crispy!
- How to cook your papadums
What are papadums?
Papadums are very thin, very crispy snacks. They are their own category of foods, in English probably best described as wafers, or crackers.
Papadums are often made from milled legumes, such as lentils or chickpeas. But, depending on the region in India they’re from, they can also be made from potatoes, or rice and tapioca flours. Plain versions exist, but they often contain spices – most commonly cumin and chili – and salt.
First things first: Papadum terminology
India is a huge country, with a lot of different cuisines and languages. Papadums are part of the local cuisine in many different regions. There are subtle differences between papadums from different regions. Depending on the region, people may call them papadum, pappadam, appalam, or papad.
For simplicity, we’ll stick with the name papadums.
Making papadums is a 2-step process
Making papadums consists of two main processes.
- Making and drying the papadum dough. You transform a flour into thin sheets of dough. The dough is dried. Once dry, the papadums can be stored for months, if not years!
- Cooking the papadums. Just before eating, you quickly heat the papadum, transforming it from a rubbery disk into a light and crispy food. These need to be eaten quickly
Since these are two completely separate steps, you can space them apart by weeks, or even months!
Dried papadums can be stored for a long time. The low water content makes it a very inhospitable environment for spoilage microorganisms to grow.
How to make papadum dough
There are several distinct ways to make papadum dough. Which one you use depends on the type of starting material you use. We will discuss a few options.
Looking for a complete recipe? Scroll down to the end of this post.
Legume flours require hydration & time
You can make papadums from legume flours (e.g. chickpea, lentils, urad) by kneading the flour with water into a stiff, inflexible dough. Next up you rest the dough for all the flours to hydrate. As a result, the dough becomes easier to handle and it can be rolled into very thin disks, ready to be dried.
The lack of gluten makes them stiffer
Keep in mind that this dough will behave very differently from the dough for wheat-based flatbreads such as chapatis. The legume flour dough isn’t that extensible and flexible. This is because legume flours don’t contain gluten. Gluten proteins help build a flexible network in a wheat-based dough.
This also has an advantage though. Gluten is what makes a dough contract together again after rolling out. This papadum dough won’t do that!
Corn based tortillas have the same effect! They don’t stretch like wheat based doughs either.
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Potatoes need to be pre-cooked
Making papadums from potatoes starts by peeling and boiling the potatoes. Once cooked, the potatoes are mashed, and mixed with the other ingredients to form a dough.
Raw potatoes can’t form a coherent dough. Instead, the starches in the potatoes need to be activated through cooking. During cooking the starches unravel and start holding onto water. This is needed to then form a dough that can be rolled or pressed thinly without falling apart.
Use a batter for rice and tapioca flours
The non-legume flours, such as rice and tapioca, need a slightly different process again. These flours also contain a lot of starch. They also won’t hold together well when made into dough. As such, the starches in these flours need to be activated as well.
This is often done by making a thin batter of the flour with water. Next, the batter is cooked in a thin layer in a pan. You’ll end up with a thin strong piece of dough.
Drying papadums makes them shelf stable
By drying papadums you can store them for long periods of time. As we’ve discussed before, drying foods – thus lowering their water activity – can prevent the growth of spoilage microorganisms. But drying does more. Foods can also spoil because chemical reactions in the food result in the formation of off-flavors. By drying papadums, a lot of these reactions are slowed down as well!
Of course, it is important to keep dried papadums dry. Storing dry papadums in a humid environment may result in them picking up moisture again. They’ll become softer and soggy and won’t keep as long anymore.
Controlling the drying rate
It is important to control the drying rate of papadums. If you use heat, such as an oven, to dry them faster, papadums may start to cook. This negatively affects their quality. Drying them too slowly may result in the growth of spoilage microorganisms.
In warm sunny regions, papadums are often dried outside, in the sun. By rotating them during drying, you ensure that both sides dry. If your climate isn’t warm and dry enough, you can dry them inside. Ensure that moisture can evaporate easily, so don’t stack them on top of one another.
You can skip the drying step for some papadums, such as the chickpea papadums at the bottom of this article.
Thick papadums don’t dry well
The thickness of the papadum is very important for proper drying. During drying, moisture evaporates from the dough. In a very thin papadum, moisture doesn’t have to travel far. The maximum distance it has to travel is half the thickness of the papadum. As a result, a thin papadum can dry quite quickly.
However, the thicker the papadum becomes, the farther moisture has to travel. What’s more, the moisture on the outside will evaporate first. It will be harder for moisture to travel through this outside layer. Moisture within will be trapped.
Cooking papadums makes them crispy!
Dried papadum doughs are fragile – they break easily – but they’re not yet crispy. They won’t shatter when you bite into them. To achieve crispiness, you need to cook them.
Cooking papadums happens very quickly. No matter the method you choose, it will take less than a minute to cook one. A few things happen during that time:
1. Moisture evaporates
Even though dried papadums are already quite dry, they still contain a reasonable amount of moisture. It is why raw papadums are a little rubbery. To make a papadum truly crispy you need to evaporate even more moisture.
A very different product, but the same concept: crispy chicken skin. You dry out the skin so much that it becomes crispy. A semi-dried piece of chicken skin will be rubbery, just like a raw papadum.
2. Proteins & carbohydrates cook
Papadums are full of carbohydrates (e.g. starches) and proteins. When you heat your papadum, these molecules ‘cook’ as well. Proteins denature. That is, they permanently change structure, contributing to the cooked texture.
Also, those starches that haven’t yet cooked when making the dough, will now cook and contribute to the final papadum structure.
How to cook your papadums
There are several ways to cook your papadums. The 3 most common ways are:
- Frying in oil
- Baking on top of a gas stove
- Cooking them in the microwave
Method 1: Deep frying papadums
You can fry papadums by dropping them in hot oil: at least 160°C (320°F), preferably 180°C (355°F). Just leave them in there for a mere few seconds.
What happens when deep frying papadums
But what about the science? What happens during frying?
When you drop a papadum in the oil it will sink down. Immediately, a lot of bubbles are formed. This is the moisture from the papadum that’s evaporating. Since a papadum is so thin, the remaining moisture within evaporates almost instantaneously. This also what causes the uneven, bubbly surface of the papadum.
Not long after, the papadum rises back to the top and starts to turn brown. The moisture content in the final papadum is low enough for it to be crispy. If you’ve added spices to the dough, these will have developed flavors as well.
It literally takes seconds to fry them.
Take care now. Once the papadum starts to brown it can burn rather quickly. Since all the moisture evaporates so quickly, the papadum can get hot very fast. As a result, it can burn.
Method 2: Baking over a gas stove
If you’re an experienced papadum maker, you can bake them about a stove flame. However, this is quite a tricky method.
Again, the heat of the flame will cause moisture to evaporate and the papadum to crisp up. However, initially, that heat also causes the dough to soften. When deep frying this is not a problem since it’s fully submerged in oil. However, if you’re holding the papadum above a flame, it may cause the papadum to bend. Some parts may now burn, whereas other parts don’t get hot enough to crisp up.
Baking papadums above an open flame requires very good control of the heat of the flame. You have to be careful you don’t put it too close to the flam. And it requires good judging: do you notice when it is done? That said, the slight char on the papadum does give it a unique flavor. A flavor that you won’t get with any of the other methods.
Method 3: Microwaving papadums
There is another way to prepare papadums, that doesn’t involve any oil or fire: cook them in the microwave. Simply cover the raw papadum with a paper towel. Place it in the microwave for about 30 seconds – 1 minute (depending on your microwave). And voila, you’ll have a crispy papadum!
How does a microwave do this? Well, a microwave is great at heating up water molecules quickly. So, that little moisture in your papadums evaporates rather quickly. Just as it would in the oil or over a gas flame.
Again, the thickness of the papadums is crucial. In very thin papadums, it is very easy for the microwave waves to heat and evaporate water quickly. The microwaves don’t have to penetrate deeply.
A disadvantage of using a microwave is possible uneven cooking. Microwaves tends to have ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ spots. This can result in some parts cooking whereas others are still raw. Luckily, you can overcome this by slightly moving the papadum within the microwave.
Why doesn’t the microwave make a soggy papadum?
You might have learned that not to put crispy foods in the microwave. They will turn soft and soggy. Whereas this is definitely true for pizza or samosas, it is not for papadums. But why?
Foods like pizza and samosas contain a lot of moisture. The only part that does not contain much moisture is the crispy crust. By microwaving the food, the moisture other parts, for example, a soft juicy samosa filling, will move to the drier crunchier areas. As a result, the crispiness disappears.
Papadums, on the other hand, barely contain any moisture at all. Therefore, moisture can’t move from one place to the other. Since a papadum is so thin and dry, it can only leave the papadum as a whole!
Now that you know how and why they work, give making them yourselves a try using the recipe below. Or, just buy the ones in your local grocery store, and experiment with different ways to cook them! In any case, you’ll have a fun fact to share during the meal!
Bhavna’s kitchen, Papad or papadum art, 2017, link
Kachi’s kitchen, Is it a pappadam or an appalam?, 2011, link
Mayeeka, How to make aloo papad and aloo sev, 2012, link
Mayeeka, Easy rice papad recipe, 2019, link
Niska Madhulika, Besan papad, link