As it’s first recorded reference indicates, naan bread is at its most authentic and delicious when barbecued in a searing clay oven, often fuelled by charcoal.
“Small, mud plastered ovens closely resembling present-day tandoors have been excavated at Kalibangan, and Indus Valley site. In about AD 1300, Amir Khusrau notes naan-e-tanuk (light bread) and naan-e-tanuri (cooked in a tandoor oven) at the imperial court in Delhi. Naan was in Mughal times a popular breakfast food, accompanied by kheema or kabab, of the humbler Muslims. It is today associated with Punjabis, and is a common restaurant item, rather han a home-made one, all over India.”
- from A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food.
In Afghanistan, the tandoor is called nanwaee, meaning “naan-maker”. Naan without a tandoor is like wine fermented in a steel drum. It isn’t quite right. Flash baking at a high temperature in a clay oven seals the juices, while imparting a smoky, barbecued flavour.
Made of clay and shaped more or less like a barrel, tandoors stand vertically and are usually encased in mud, concrete, or some other supportive, insulating material. The fire — fueled by wood, dung, coal, or gas — burns fiercely at the bottom, heating the clay interior. When the tandoor is very hot, the cook dampens the heat, and then slaps the flattened dough against the hot inside walls of the oven. The hot walls give the bread a firm, well-browned bottom crust while the top bakes to a soft tenderness in the hot air circulating in the oven. When it’s done, the cook retrieves it with a hooked metal rod. It always seems like magic. Whenever we hear the clap and slap of dough as it’s shaped and then slapped onto the tandoor wall, we find the rhythm wonderfully spellbinding.
Added on July 2, 2007. Pudina (Mint) Naan
A tandoor can reach temperatures of 900F, and different foods are prepared at different levels of heat during its operation. The highest range of temperature (650F and above) is usually for searing chunks of meat, naans are usually prepared at between 450F and 490F, and veggies like eggplant, sweet potatoes and peppers are cooked in the dying embers of the oven as it is cooling down.
We don’t own a tandoor. A charcoal grill would do a great job, we think, but we don’t own that either.
We’ve experimented with atleast half a dozen naan recipes, seeking the perfect balance of flavours. We also tried various methods of cooking the bread to achieve the best texture at home with the means at our command. We catalogue some of our experiments here.
We tried recipes with eggs and without, with baking powder, with yeast, a combination of the two, with bread flour, with whole wheat flour, with all purpose flour and a combination. Then we came across this rave review for potato pizza dough.
In our next attempt, we replaced the egg with potato. Those were the most flavourful and fluffy naans we’d made. Tastewise, we think we’ve hit the spot.
Texturewise, we’ve tried
1. Emulating the tandoor in our oven with pizza stones.
Result: If we took them out when golden, they weren’t cooked through. A few seconds late, and they were tough and burnt. After a few burn marks on our wrists, we gave up. No picture. Let’s just say they were scary-looking.
2. On our electric grill.
Result: Naans that were tough by the time they got the grillmarks.
3. Stove top in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan (we used our pressure cooker base).
Result: Soft, fluffy naans with a few charred spots. It’s convenient, and the results are consistent.
4. Part stove top, part broiler.
Result: Great naans – soft on the inside, seared on the outside. Tastes smokier than option 3, and has a more authentic look and feel. Unfortunately, it takes only a naan-o-second to take them from luscious to leathery, and another flutter of an eyelid to burn them.
The naans in these pictures have 50% bread flour and 50% whole wheat flour.
(6 medium or 8 small)
2 and 1/4 cups flour (bread flour, whole wheat flour, or a combo)
** We usually prepare naans with atleast 50% and upto 100% whole wheat flour. Besides being healthier and adding flavour, whole wheat flour absorbs more liquid than refined flour. That yields a less wet dough. Since this dough contains potato and can get quite sticky, we recommend using some whole wheat flour.
1 medium potato (preferably a drier variety like Russet)
1 and 1/4 tsps. active dry yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water (reduce water by 1 or 2 tbsps if using all white flour)
1 tsp. honey or sugar
3 tbsps. plain yogurt
3 tbsps milk
1 tbsp ghee or melted butter
1/4 tsp baking powder
ghee or melted butter to brush
nigella seeds (kalonji) – optional
1. Skin and cube the potato, add a tablespoon of water, cover it and microwave for 4 minutes. Mash it when it’s hot, and measure out 1/2 cup. That’s all we need.
2. Add the water to it. Check to make sure it’s not warmer than 105F (just a touch warmer than your hand) then add the honey and yeast, stir it and keep it aside for five minutes.
3. Meanwhile, assemble the remaining ingredients. Start with 2 cups flour, and add the rest only if you need to.
4. Mix everything together and knead it into a soft, pliable dough. The potato makes it sticky, and you may need more flour. Knead for 5-7 minutes until satiny and elastic.
5. Cover the bowl with oiled plastic wrap and keep it aside in a warm place until it doubles in volume (one to 1.5 hours. you may also keep it in the refrigerator to rise slowly overnight)
6. Turn the dough out on to well-floured surface, punch out the air out gently with your knuckles, and divide the dough into 6 or 8 portions (depending on the diameter of the pan you are going to use for cooking), plus one tiny piece (to be explained soon).
7. Start heating the pan you are going to cook the naans in, using medium heat.
Roll the dough out into thin discs and keep them one by one on a floured baking sheet covered with a damp towel until you’ve rolled them all. Or stretch them by hand into teardrop shapes. They fluff up, so the thinner you can roll/stretch them, the better. Do it gently, ‘cos it is a tender dough that breaks and sticks easily.
8. Take the tiny piece you kept aside, flatten it, and put it on the pan. If it gets charred within a few seconds or the pan smokes a lot, take it off the heat, and let it cool down a tad. If it does not show brown spots in 4 or 5 seconds, your pan’s not hot enough.
9. When you have the pan to the heat level you want (medium), put a disc of dough on it, it will start forming bubbles almost right away. After 2-3 minutes, brush it with ghee/butter, turn it over wait for the bottom to get blistery spots, then turn it over, and brush it again with ghee/butter, take it off after another two minutes, when both sides have some dark brown spots on them, and the bread is cooked through. If the pan is too hot, the naans will brown too quickly without cooking through.
Take it off the fire, and sprinkle with nigella seeds.
How we like it: Alternately, toast the naan on one side for two to three minutes on medium heat on the stove top until it gets brown spots on one side, turn it over, brush the uncooked side with ghee/butter, put it under the broiler on HIGH, wait for it to get bubbly and get a few dark brown spots. See warning above. Sprinkle with nigella seeds.
10. Wipe the pan clean with a kitchen towel after each naan. Make all the naans this way.
(For garlic flavoured naans, fry some crushed garlic in ghee/butter and use that to brush the naans)
Edited to add: This is our entry for Bread with Potatoes for Bread Baking Day @ Notitie van Lien.