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The Science of Fluffy Naan (+ Guide and Recipe)
Before ever trying to make naan ourselves, we bought a bag of pre-packed naan, which was immediately also our last time we did so. It was a true disappointment. They were dense and slightly tough, a far cry from the light and fluffy naan we’d eaten before.
The positive side of the experience: I started properly digging into how to make my own naan. Not being able to find the food you’d like to eat is probably the best driver for trying it out yourselves!
Over the years I’ve made a lot of different naans, some better than others, none yet perfect. Once I tried a variety of methods some general principles arose, once that you could call the ‘science of naan’, if you’d wish to. So let’s dig into those.
What is naan?
Naan is a type of flatbread. In this post, we’re specifically referring to ‘Indian’ naan, although even that term is still very broad. But Indian naan isn’t the only naan. In a lot of other areas, similar names (e.g. nan) for similar bread types show up. Food travels, there generally isn’t just one version.
In India there are countless types of flatbread. What sets naan apart from a lot of others, is the fact that it’s fluffy. Whereas a chapati is quite flat, and paratha is layered, naan is made up of one fluffy layer, probably more similar to a pita bread than a chapati. It gets this fluffiness from the presence of some sort of leavening agent. Traditionally this would have been yeast. Nowadays, recipes using baking soda or baking powder aren’t uncommon either (yeast has been used in bread for millennia, baking powder and soda are pretty recent inventions, being ‘only’ 100 years or so old).
Naan most likely originated several centuries ago, in the royal courts of what is now the northern region of India. The use of yeast and more refined (white) flours, as well as the fact that it is baked in a tandoor oven, more on that later, made it quite exclusive. Even nowadays naan is still often considered a restaurant food, as opposed to something made at home.
Baking Naan in the tandoor
An important reason as to why naan is still often seen as a restaurant food, is that a ‘proper’ naan is baked in a tandoor. Replicating this ‘true’ tandoor experience can be tricky.
A tandoor is a type of oven, developed centuries ago in southern and western Asia. The tandoor oven is a ‘vertical oven’. They could be made by digging a pit in the ground and covering the walls with clay. Alternatively, above-ground clay pots could be used. Nowadays, you can buy various types of well-insulated units, made out of metal or clay, that you can easily install in a restaurant, no need to dig a hole.
Heat from the bottom
What makes a tandoor unique are its shape and location of the opening. A tandoor has the shape of a rounded cylinder, standing up vertically. You heat the oven from the bottom, traditionally by building a wood or charcoal fire on its floor. Nowadays, you can also find gas powered tandoors, the heat will still come from the bottom of the pit though. At the top of a tandoor sits a round opening, this is where you add your food. Meat for instance is roasted on skewers placed within the searing hot (can easily be >400°C/750°F) oven.
Opening at the top
As opposed to European style ovens, bread cannot be baked on the floor of the oven since that’s where the heat source sits. Instead, breads are baked on the walls, of the oven. Skilled tandoor bakers slap pieces of dough against the wall of the tandoor using a special cushion, a gadhi/gaddi. There the bread sits until it’s completely cooked, which only takes 1-2 minutes, and removed with a hook.
You can’t turn it!
This style of cooking has a few beneficial consequences. First of all, there’s no way to rotate or turn the bread. Once the bread starts to cook it will no longer be sticky enough to slap onto the wall. As a result, you can only cook in one direction. This results in a nice contrast between the two sides of the bread.
The side that sits against the wall of the oven gets quite even heat. The clay holds onto heat and will remain warm for a long time, cooking the bread. The heat will then activate (or speed up) the action of the leavening agents and it will evaporate moisture within the dough. As a result, you’ll see bubbles popping up all over the bread. These bubbles are directly exposed to the heat of the coals at the bottom of the pit. The intense, direct heat causes the browning and slight charring of the puffy side of the naan.
Imitating a tandoor
Making naan without a tandoor isn’t impossible, but it’s going to give you slightly different results. If you want to get as close as possible, try to imitate those two types of heating, the high temperature, and don’t flip the naan (which breaks all those bubbles).
A way to do so that’s commonly advised is by using the grill/broil function in a ‘conventional’ oven. Place the naan on a pre-heated hot stone in the oven under the grill. The stone serves as the ‘wall’ whereas the grill is the ‘fire’.
My personal preferred method uses a flat griddle (e.g. a tawa) and a gas stove. First bake the bottom of the naan on the tawa, which should be very hot. Once the bottom is cooked, take the naan from the griddle and turn it upside down above a neighboring burner, using the gas burner to create that nice char on the top.
Alternatively, you can also go for a less ‘authentic’ appearance (which still tastes good) by baking it on top of the flat griddle and flipping it midway. You won’t get that characteristic ‘puff’ on one side, but the bread will still turn out soft and delicious.
Ingredients to make naan
Naan is traditionally made with white wheat flour, but you can make it with whole wheat flour as well. The main difference will be that the naan can be denser, possibly less puffy. As mentioned earlier, the other required ingredients for naan are either yeast or baking powder a/o baking soda. These help create those air pockets and puffiness in the naan.
Aside from more general ‘bread’ ingredients such as salt, a little sugar, water and some oil, a lot of naan recipes contain yogurt as well. Yogurt can serve a few functions. If you use it with baking soda, it provides the acid that the soda needs to become activated and leaven the bread. Yogurt also creates a softer bread texture, helping to create that fluffy consistency, even in yeast leavened breads, and contributes to the overall flavor.
Spice it up
Naan can be made as such, just made from a simple dough. In restaurants, you’ll often find a version with some other flavorsome ingredients added in. Garlic naan is popular and so is naan with added nigella seeds or coriander. You might also come across stuffed naan, where the center of the naan has been filled, e.g. with paneer. Overall, naan is very versatile, just like most other flatbreads!
Food Timeline, Naan, (from: A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, K.T. Achaya [Oxford University Press:Delhi] 1998 (p. 170)) link
Interested in buying a tandoor? You can buy them online, here are just a few we used in our research (we haven’t actually purchased from any of these): luxury tandoors, Home Tandoor, Ran Chander Tandoors, Gulati.
Steven Raichlen, Naan (Indian flatbread), NYT, link
Great Insight. Curious learner can further refer this entire book on chapati https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/science-technology-chapatti-indian-flatbreads-anamika-banerji-laxmi-ananthanarayan-lele/10.1201/9781003018131