troubleshooting pita bread

May 13, 2018

I've made pita bread three times in my life- four if you count the batch that's basking in the morning sunlight next to me as I type this. The first time I made it was eons ago, in high school, I think. It was made solely to be immediately made into pita chips (I was going through a major Stacy's phase). I don't remember how the bread itself turned out, but I do remember that the chips were mediocre at best. The second time I made pita bread was last month. I used a recipe from Molly Yeh that is printed in her yogurt-themed Short Stack.

My goal as a baker (and as a human) is to be constantly improving and expanding my skill set. I'm pretty good at making the same things over and over and telling myself I'm "practicing". So when I received the yogurt short stack cookbook in a cooking-themed subscription box I get (CrateChef, if you were wondering. I'd recommend it!) and saw the recipe for yogurt pitas, I figured they'd be a good way to take a small step outside of my comfort zone. Molly mentions in the book that they freeze well and I'm always on the hunt for foods I can make on Sunday and reheat throughout the week. Plus, the recipe looked quite simple. Perfect, right?

Wrong. Though they browned up quite prettily in the oven, my pitas did not puff up one dang bit. And the puffiness is kind of the calling card of the pita. It was a huge bummer for me because the process seemed to be going really well- the dough felt like it was supposed to and I followed the recipe to the letter of the law. See now this is why I only bake things that I know will turn out well! 

Kidding. If at first you don't succeed, and all that, right? As it turned out, the dense "pitas" were still pretty tasty, especially sliced in half, toasted, and slathered with butter. We ate some for dinner that evening with a Sudanese bean dip and it was a great meal. The yogurt in the pitas gave them a wonderful tanginess. Who knew failure could taste so good?

my perfectly un-puffy pitas
That said, the minute I realized my pitas didn't turn out the way they were supposed to, I knew I wouldn't be able to bake anything else until I got the recipe right. It's like when there's a fly buzzing around your head- you know it's harmless and you should just ignore it and concentrate on whatever you're doing. But that small noise is just irritating enough that you give up and spend the next five minutes slapping things until you finally get the fly. That's me when a recipe doesn't turn out right. It buzzes around my head and I have to bake it again, the sooner the better.

Before getting out my rolling pin again, I spent some time googling to figure out how I could make sure my next batch baked up correctly. And guess what? It worked! My third try (made a week after the failed batch) puffed up beautifully. In fact, I got so much joy out of seeing those puffy pitas that I was grateful the previous batch was dense. It forced me to learn a lot more about the science behind the puffiness of pita bread and also made me dance around the kitchen (literally) with pure joy when that first pita puffed up. If you've run into the same problem when baking pitas (or have been scared to even try!), I've compiled a list of theories about why my first batch was a dud and how to fix those issues so you can bake them up perfectly on the first try!

THEORY #1: Oven not hot enough
This is a common problem for many baked goods and one that I especially struggle with as my oven seems to run anywhere from 25-100 degrees cold, depending on the day. The recipe called for a 500 degree oven and I was feeling optimistic so I only preheated the oven to 525. I didn't check what my oven thermometer was reading until I was ready to bake the pitas. It was only at 400 degrees. I baked them anyways. Hmm. Obviously there are a few things I could've/should've done differently there. Noted! The next time I baked, I cranked my oven heat as high as it would go (550) and preheated well in advance. My research tells me high heat is extremely important for pitas, so if you have a standard oven, I'd recommend preheating at the maximum temperature. 

THEORY #2: Pitas not rolled out thin enough
I rolled my little pita disks out to about 1/4" to 1/2" thickness. When I googled "pita not puff" (lol), pretty much every article or cooking forum that came up instructed to roll out the pitas to 1/4" or thinner. Okay, strike two. The reasoning is pretty simple- it's in the science of the puff. When the pita is placed in a very hot oven, the heat coming at it from every angle begins to cook the outside of the dough. At the same time, moisture builds up in the middle of the dough, eventually causing a big puff of steam. Since the top and bottom have already become solidified, the steam is contained within the bread, causing the signature puff. If the disk of dough is too thick, the intense oven heat won't reach the center of the dough (and thus cause the steamy puff) until the outside of the dough is already baked so solid that it's too rigid to puff up.

THEORY #3: Didn't let pitas proof after rolling out
My recipe didn't tell me to do this, but every other recipe or forum I've consulted has included this step. So I'll be doing it from now on! All you have to do is let the rolled-out disk rest for about 10-20ish minutes before baking, until they're slightly puffy. I cover them with a tea towel to ensure they don't loose too much moisture during this resting period.

THEORY #4: Pitas baked on wrong surface
The recipe I was following told me to bake the pitas directly on a cookie sheet, so that's what I did. Combine this with the fact that my oven was not hot enough (see theory no. 1) and my pitas were dead in the water. I have no doubt that a cookie sheet works perfectly well when you control for other variables, but if you're also nervous about your oven's variable temp or you just want to give your pitas an edge, bake them on a baking stone or at least a preheated cookie sheet. As I mention in theory no. 2, it's important that the pitas get blasted with heat on the top and bottom the instant they go into the oven. Using a baking stone leaves no question that this will happen. Make sure you preheat the oven for at least 45 minutes to ensure the stone is heated through. I bake my pitas two at a time on my baking stone, using parchment paper and a cookie sheet to slide them in and out of the oven.

THEORY #5: Dough was too dry
Moisture is crucial to the well-puffed pita. I cannot stress this enough! As I said in theory no. 2, the moisture building up in the center of the dough leads to the steam that creates the puff. Your dough should feel somewhat sticky and very soft when you've finished the kneading stage. Most bakebooks will call this feeling "tacky" which was a word that really confounded me when I first started baking. If you're also a little lost when judging your dough's tackiness, here's my best advice: I've come to the conclusion that tacky is the closest thing to stickiness without being sticky. I judge the level of tackiness in a dough in three ways: 

1. The dough is almost too sticky to knead, but is still kneadable (you'll think you need to add flour. resist!) 
2. When you poke the dough with your index finger, a little bit of dough clings to your finger as you pull it back.
3. How easily the dough folds on itself. When you fold it as you're kneading, the fold line should easily disappear. This is the hardest to explain, but you'll intuitively understand it as you knead.

When you're mixing a dough that needs to end up feeling tacky, it's often difficult to resist adding in a bunch of flour at the beginning of the kneading process. This is because the dough will feel insanely sticky at first. As you continue to knead, the flour absorbs the liquid, and the dough becomes stiffer. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, you shouldn't have any issues with this. However, if you're kneading by hand, sometimes it's just too dang sticky at the beginning not to add flour. I've run into this problem many times. Luckily, part of my pita research lead me to a very interesting pita-moisturizing hack. If your rolled-out disks are a little drier than desired, this technique is your saving grace. (and it's really easy! yay!) Three or four minutes before you're going to place your pitas in the oven, gently flip them over (this helps with the dispersement of air pockets in the dough) and lightly spritz each disk with water. That's all! The dough will absorb the extra water and puffy pitas will be in your immediate future.

THEORY #6: Finished pitas not wrapped in towel
This is an issue I didn't run into initially since my pitas didn't puff properly. However, it's an important final step when you do have success with the recipe. As soon as you take the pitas out of the oven you should be swaddling them in a clean kitchen towel. This may seem counterintuitive since you usually leave baked goods out in the open to cool so they don't become soggy. However, since the puffed pitas are so thin, you actually want them to reabsorb some of that steam so that they stay soft rather than becoming hard and brittle and unstuffable. I've done this with my last two batches and it's worked very well.

Now that I've reached the end of all my theories, I've also reached the end of my fourth-ever batch of pitas. I'm happy to report that this batch puffed up just as beautifully as my third batch- maybe even more so! I can't pinpoint one theory as being the most important, because I used them all in conjunction. Just follow all of these recommendations and you'll be golden. I've adapted the original recipe I started with to include these extra steps, and it is posted below. I love this recipe because the yogurt lends such a unique tanginess to the pitas.

If you want to read some of the recipes/posts I consulted to come up with these theories, here are my sources (in no particular order): KAF Flourish blog, Rose Levy Beranbaum via Smitten Kitchen, Chowhound home cooking forumSeasoned Advice forum on StackExchange, and Serious Eats.

For my next batch, I want to try this recipe from Serious Eats, which incorporates some wheat flour. In the meantime, here's my current go-to recipe. Thanks for baking along & I'd LOVE to hear about your pita baking tragedies and triumphs!

Yogurt Pita
Adapted from Molly Yeh (original pita recipe included in this post)

1 3/4 t instant yeast
1 T + 1 t sugar
3 3/4 bread flour (plus more for dusting)
1 1/2 t kosher salt (I prefer Diamond Crystal brand)
3/4 cup warm water (approx 105 degrees)
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3/4 whole milk Greek yogurt (I use Greek Gods plain yogurt)

In medium bowl or stand mixer fitted with dough hook, add yeast, sugar, bread flour, and salt. Mix to combine. Add in warm water, olive oil, and yogurt. Since ingredients at the same temperature mix together more easily, I like to bring my yogurt to room temp (I cheat by heating it in the microwave for a bit) rather than adding it straight from the fridge. 

Mix on low to create a cohesive dough. If using a stand mixer, increase the speed to medium(ish) (or whatever feels right & comfortable to you) and knead until you have a smooth and tacky dough, about 7 minutes. If mixing by hand, knead on counter or in bowl (helps with the stickiness issue) for about 10 minutes, until the dough is very smooth and tacky. Oil a medium-sized bowl, add dough, and cover to rise until doubled (takes 1 to 1.5 hrs for me).

If you'll be using a baking stone, start preheating oven to 550 or as high as it goes about 10-20 minutes before you think the dough will be done rising. If not using a baking stone, you can hold off on preheating the oven for a bit.

After dough rise is completed, turn out onto a clean surface. If you have a digital scale (highly recommend!) weigh the big piece of dough and divide this number by 12. This will be the approximate weight for each little dough ball. Mine usually comes about around 75 grams each. Using a dough scraper or kitchen knife, divide dough into 12 equal pieces. If you don't have a digital scale, no worries! Just eyeball it. It won't be a problem- your pitas may vary in size slightly, that's all.

Once you have 12 pieces of dough, form each piece into a round ball. Here's a one-minute video from KAF showing the classic technique of shaping small dough balls. It's actually really fun, and you'll be so impressed with yourself and the extremely circular dough you end up with. When you've shaped all 12 pieces, cover with a damp-ish kitchen towel and let rest for 20 minutes. If you haven't yet preheated your oven to 550 (or at least 500), now's the time to do it! If you're planning to bake the pitas on a preheated pan, you should put that in the oven at this time.

After the dough has finished resting, roll out each ball to 1/4" or thinner. I roll them out as thinly as I can. Cover the rolled-out circles with a damp tea towel and let rest for about 10-15 min, until they are slightly puffy. If you're planning to bake on a non-preheated baking sheet, you can put the rolled-out pitas on it for the resting period. A few minutes before putting the pitas in the oven, flip them (optional- to help with even air dispersement) and spritz lightly with water.

Now for the baking (finally!). If you're using a normal baking sheet, put them all in the oven at once. If you're using a preheated baking sheet or a baking stone, bake them a few at a time (I do two at a time). Baking time for these pitas can vary. Turn your oven light on and watch them as they bake so you can see when they puff (it's fun!). I've read that you should start checking them at 5 minutes, but mine never take more than 3 minutes to puff. It's honestly totally up to you and you'll quickly figure out how long your pitas need to be in the oven. Once you see a complete puff, give them about a minute-ish more and then take them out, wrapping the fresh pitas in a kitchen towel. I highly recommend eating one warm. So. Good.

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