While some think of “flatbreads” as exotic, hard-to-make crackers from foreign lands, many bread-loving culinarians realize that there are plenty of quick and delicious snacks from within all the varieties that are becoming rapidly available in U.S. markets and bakeries. The truth is, flatbreads have been popular for centuries all over the world simply because they are easy to produce and even more delicious to eat. From ubiquitous Italian pizzas to lesser-known Indian chapatti, the one food that connects almost all culinary cultures is the simple but flavorful flatbread.
In their infinite variations of shape and form, flatbreads share more than just the delicious aroma of sweet baked grain. Varying in thickness, but typically less than 2 inches high, flatbreads range from fluffy leavened breads to translucent crisp wafers. A substantial part of daily nourishment in many cultures, flatbreads are rustic, irregularly shaped slabs cooked in mass, rather than individually polished loaves reserved for the sophisticated elite. Flatbreads are cooked with a variety of different methods, and each type has its own unique flavor, from the clay-baked, smoky naan to the yeasty, oil-laden focaccia prepared in a conventional oven. While all are flavor-packed and filling on their own–some crisp and crunchy, and others soft and spongy–the unique shape of flatbreads makes them perfect hosts for flavorful dips, spreads, and toppings. A complete flatbread experience gives food lovers a taste of faraway lands without ever boarding a plane.
Developed during some of the earliest ages of mankind, flatbreads reflect the modest resources available around the globe at the time. Heat sources, grains, and techniques differ in neighboring countries. Where the sun is extremely strong in Algeria and Tunisia, flatbreads are sometimes baked in slabs buried beneath the dessert sand. Other cultures prefer open flames, cast-iron skillets, or more conventional ovens. Unlike most breads which rely solely on wheat flour, flatbreads are commonly made from a variety of grains, including corn, rye, oats, millet, rice, and buckwheat. In areas with harsh winters and poor harvests, such as Finland, rye flourishes where other grains would not grow and lends itself well to the bakers’ ovens. Adaptable to any environment, flatbreads remain a reliable source of sustenance for even the most rugged regions.
Flatbreads may seem intricate and exotic, but most of their recipes are quick, simple, and easily translated to succeed in modern home kitchens. Like conventional breads, flatbreads are prepared by combining a few common household ingredients, including flour (of varying types), liquid (in most cases water), salt, and sometimes yeast to create a malleable dough. When the dough is yeasted, it’s likely that it will go through the typical proofing and resting periods of most breads. Doughs without yeast–like traditional Israeli matzoh or Mexican tortillas–never proof, skipping directly to the shaping process before entering ovens or skillets. When it comes to baking, traditionalists may prefer indigenous stone or clay ovens for preparing authentic flatbreads, but standard ovens can easily suffice. Baking naan without a Tandoori clay oven? Home chefs can insert quarry tiles into their everyday ovens to reach the desired smoking-hot temperature necessary for this scrumptious snack. Even easier, Indian chapatti or Mexican tortillas cook easily in a cast-iron skillet or non-stick pan. Originally created as an economical food source in a world with an ever-present fuel shortage, thin savory flatbreads cook quickly, making them wonderful, wholesome snacking solutions for our modern, time-starved culture.
The staff of life in many foreign lands, flatbreads are cropping up in American households. The recipes have survived hundreds of years of baking heritage not only because they’re economical, but also mostly because they’re versatile and great to eat. Fast, easy, and nutritious, there are few snack foods that match flatbreads in convenience, flavor, and historical significance. Pick up a pita, nibble on some naan, or munch on some matzoh–remember, the whole world is with you on this one!