“If you’ve only ever had dry supermarket pita,” writes Alon Shaya in his eponymous 2018 cookbook, “this is a different animal entirely: puffed up like a pillow, savory on its own, and ready to scoop up anything you like.”
That’s not to say that all supermarket pita is bad, just that, well, bad supermarket pita definitely exists. Which is a travesty, really, since the path to good fresh pita is not all that difficult. In fact, according to Shaya, if you’ve ever made pizza dough at home, you can just as easily make pita. And if you’ve never done either? Shaya’s recipe will take care of both—having studied with pizzaiolos in Italy and run several Italian restaurants before returning to his roots in Israeli cooking, Shaya uses the same dough for both iconic breads. “At the end of the day,” he told me in a recent phone call, “it’s a few basic ingredients”—flour, water, yeast—and any dough that you like for one will probably work “very well for the other.”
The big differences, Shaya says, are in the way that the dough—after it’s mixed, rested, and risen—is shaped and prepped for the oven.
For the full fluffy details, I asked Shaya to share his best tips on how to make pita bread at home. For his essential technique—and true hand-slapping tricks—read on.
What’s the best flour for making pita?
Alon Shaya: I think King Arthur bread flour is a really good brand. But I would urge people to look for local, artisanal flours to use too. At the restaurant [Saba in New Orleans], we have flour milled for us by local millers who get fresh wheat from a variety of small farms. It’s this really beautiful, high-quality flour that’s full of life and all of its natural minerals.
Joe Sevier: What would you suggest for people who don’t have access to a local mill or farmers market where they could find a similar product?
AS: Anson Mills is my favorite online source for beautiful flour.
JS: And what flour outside of white bread flour would you recommend for pita?
AS: We put a little rye flour in our dough at the restaurant, which adds a lot of really great flavor. Rye is very low gluten so using just a small percentage—about 5% of the total amount of flour [that’s about 27 grams or a scant ¼ cup of the total flour called for in Shaya’s recipe]—adds flavor, while the high-protein bread flour creates the dough structure.Alon Shaya
What are the critical moments of pita making?
AS: The first important step is the autolyse period, which is where you mix a small amount of the flour, the yeast, and a good amount of the water. This step allows the flour to hydrate and begins the formation of gluten. It’s a critical step because it really builds strength in the dough.
JS: I think a lot more people are familiar with autolyse now than at the beginning of 2020, so I have to ask: Can you make sourdough pita?
AS: I would urge anyone who has sourdough starter to experiment with that. Start with about 10% starter [that means the amount of starter you use should equal 10% of the weight of your flour], which will give the pita great flavor. Let the dough age for at least a day—even better, a couple of days.
JS: Would you use commercial yeast in conjunction with starter?
AS: This is where you can have a lot of fun and really experiment. Start by using a little bit of starter with a little bit of commercial yeast and work your way up to using only starter and no commercial yeast. If you’ve never worked with starter before, maybe try the recipe as is with just commercial yeast to get a feel for the texture and process. It takes experience and practice to make great bread with starter.
JS: So what happens after the autolyse period?
AS: Add the remaining flour and finally salt. I always hold off on adding salt until I’ve neared the end of the mixing process. Adding salt too soon can detract from the gluten formation and slow down your fermentation.
After that, it’s all about proofing the dough. You have to give the dough time to really age in the refrigerator [Shaya lets his dough age for about two days before shaping]; and then, when you pull it out, letting it come to room temperature is another important step.
JS: So what are you looking for in a properly proofed dough?
AS: When you pull on the dough, it should be strong—it shouldn’t just rip. It should stretch nicely. When you press on it, it should spring back. You’re also looking for a great aroma coming from the dough.
How do you shape pita?
JS: You mentioned that the big difference between making pita and making pizza is all about how you roll it out. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
AS: When I roll pita out, I like to use a small rolling pin. I find that’s the best way to make sure it’s very even, so you get a nice pocket as it cooks. With pizza I might toss the dough in the air and press on it with my fingers [to make dimples], but with pita you want the dough very even.
JS: If the portioned dough develops a bubble in the final rise, would you pop it before rolling it out?
AS: Yes. Pop those bubbles so that you get a nice, even, steady rise from the dough. Otherwise the bubble could inflate and burn in the oven or create a separate pocket, and you don’t want that.
How do you cook pita at home?
AS: I really like to use the broil setting—first I place some type of pizza stone or bread stone on the top shelf of my oven [Editor’s note: A heavy-gauge sheet pan or cast-iron griddle work too], and let it heat up for a good amount of time. That way I get a really intense heat—the closest you can get to using a wood oven.
JS: What about using convection?
AS: Usually with a broiler setting the fan doesn’t work, but if you can do both, definitely. The more intense the heat, the better.
AS: You don’t really need steam because pita cooks very quickly. You'’re not trying to build a hard crust, which is the primary goal of using steam in bread baking.
JS: Your recipe instructs the baker to “slap the pita down” on the baking stone. Can you explain that move a bit?
AS: You don’t want the dough to stretch too much [when you transfer it from the work surface to the oven]. So, if you hold out your hand and just kind of let the dough rest in your palm, then you can just kind of turn your hand quickly and drop the pita onto the paddle or the stone. That’s the best way I’ve found to get the pita from place to place.
JS: And then don’t walk away because it cooks really quickly?
Editor’s note: I’ll admit it took me a few tries to get the slapping method down. If you find the dough folds over itself whenever you try to slap it, don’t be discouraged, it’ll still taste great. If you’re worried about your slapping technique or accidentally touching the hot stone (which very much should be avoided), you can enlist a friend to open the oven door while you lay the pita down or use a peel to slide it in and then quickly close the oven door so the heat doesn’t escape.
From there you’ll cook the pita 1 to 2 minutes on the first side (until the dough is puffed and spotted) and then turn it over gently with tongs or an oven mitt and cook an additional 1 to 2 minutes (until the second side is blistered).
Can you make pita ahead of time?
AS: Before you portion the proofed dough to make pita, it can hang out for a few days in the refrigerator. But I would suggest you cook just a couple at a time. That way you’re getting the pita when it’s fresh and hot. I love seeing the steam rise out of pita as people break them open.
JS: If you were making pita for yourself, could you just pinch a portion off and leave the bulk of the dough in the fridge? [Editor’s note: Shaya’s recipe instructs portioning the dough into 6-inch rounds, just the right size for a pita sandwich, but you can divide dough into larger or smaller dough balls as you see fit.]
AS: Oh, absolutely! It’ll last there for about three days.
JS: So you can have a freshly baked pita for breakfast, and another for dinner, and another for lunch two days from now?
JS: Let’s say someone wants to bake the whole batch and store them. What say you?
AS: I would say just leave the cooked pitas in a paper bag on the counter top.
JS: And how would you suggest reheating?
AS: Put them in a very hot oven, like 500°F, for about 3 to 5 minutes.
Beyond swiping hummus or another dip, what are some of your favorite ways to serve pita?
JS: That sounds amazing.
AS: Yeah, you know, we’re seating a lot of people outside, trying to stay positive and keep creative until things can get back to normal.
JS: And until then, there’s always hot pita.
AS: Right.Alon Shaya
Originally Appeared on Epicurious