Has it really been since February since I posted? Geez! Since then I’ve eaten my way through New Orleans and Cincinnati, have tried more local restaurants (and found some gems), and have recipe-tested/created for Barilla and Ball Park brands. Today, I want to talk about a staple of the West…Navajo Fry Bread.
The lure of fried bread, need I say more? Doughnuts, NOLA beignets, French toast, Indian Bhatura, Chinese fried dough covered in sugar, Thai pan-fried Roti bread, Greek fried bread stuffed with feta, Irish fried potato bread…the list goes on with a variety of recipes from around the world. There’s some sort of novel decadence in an unpretentious meal or snack served with fresh-cooked, puffed, pillow-like bread that has been fried in a couple of inches of hot shortening. Especially when it’s fried on the spot and served hot out of the oil. Some of these breads are traditional yeast-raised, some chemical-raised, and others cooked unleavened. I would love to do a whole series of articles on this subject, but let’s narrow down the topic to a doughy treat synonymous with Western Indian culture – Navajo Fry Bread.
Fry bread is delicious, tasty, and while full of pesky calories, so hard to resist. This plate-sized treat made magically of flour, salt, baking powder, dry milk, water and lard, can be served savory (as Navajo Tacos, for example), or sweet (drizzled with honey, topped with powdered sugar). Fry bread is almost irresistible, especially when you’re surrounded by the aroma of sizzling dough.
I’ve wanted to learn how to make fry bread for Navajo Tacos for years now. I remember my husband’s foster sister making these at family gatherings, kneading the dough, using baking powder to leaven, pulling off lumps of dough and patting them out so quickly her hands were a blur. Recently a good friend of mine brought her mom over to teach me how to make these little treasures, hands-on in my very own kitchen. Lois had just moved from Shiprock, NM, to Denver (lucky for me!). The first thing she looked for in my preparatory ‘mise en place’ was a cast-iron pot, but I had pulled out my plug-in wok for the hot oil. She said cast iron is best because the heat evenly distributes and it gets VERY hot. I was trying to avoid the mess of my range getting splattered with little drops of oil splashing out (the wok’s sides flare out and up, keeping the oil inside), so next time I may break down and pull out my Le Creuset.
The second point that Lois made is…YOU ABSOLUTELY MUST USE BLUEBIRD BRAND FLOUR… Thankfully, they brought me a 5lb bag of my very own. Lois humored me, allowing for specific ingredient measurements, though she said it’s best to use your fingers to get the exact right amount. I watched closely as she mixed the ingredients, kneaded the sticky mess into a beautiful, glossy, stretchy, large piece of dough. We placed the dough in a bowl, put a kitchen towel over it, and went for a walk, allowing the dough to rest and rise. After an hour or so, we came back home and she got to work. It was absolutely amazing watching her pull lumps off the dough and work them into perfectly round circles. She showed me how to thin the dough, spreading from the middle outward. We poked holes in the thinnest parts of the disk so that the oil would splash over, making the fry bread puff up light & airy once they were slipped into the hot grease.
Everyone at home gravitated to the kitchen, attracted by the activity and the promise of delicious fry bread topped with creamy pinto beans, cheese, taco meat, lettuce, tomato and salsa. Needless to say, we enjoyed our Sunday afternoon with full tummies and naps in hammocks afterwards.
I love the history of how fry bread came about. It’s a food of sustenance, meaning it came about because of necessity. It was created from rations given to the Navajo by the government when they were moved off of their land and onto barren reservations in NM. Their traditional foods no longer plentiful or available, the people created a wonderful fry bread that would become part of their culture, a symbol of Navajo cultural pride. It’s a food where the name becomes extremely important because of history and not taste…fry bread versus fried bread.
Here’s the recipe below – Enjoy!
- 5 cups bluebird flour (unbleached flour)
- 3 Tbsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups reconstituted milk (from dry milk & cool water…follow package directions)
- Solid vegetable shortening, or oil, enough to be about 2″ deep when melted/poured into pot
- Cast iron pot
- Mix dry milk and cool water well.
- Sift dry ingredients thoroughly. Add milk slowly to dry ingredients. If the mixture is too “mushy”, add a bit more flour.
- Knead dough. Dough should initially be sticky, but with continued kneading, will turn into a stretchy and smooth large ball. Allow dough to sit in a glass bowl, covered with a dish towel, for 30 minutes.
- Pull off a golf-ball sized lump of dough. Pat into a round disk. Beginning with the edges, continue to flatten and thin the lump into an almost perfect circle, pulling and patting dough into a larger, round flat 9″ disk that you can almost see through. The thin dough makes the fry bread light and airy once they hit the hot oil or lard.
- Poke a couple of holes (2 max) in the dough where it is most thin. Once the dough is placed in the oil, this will allow the oil to seep over the top of the dough, allowing it to expand more.
- Heat the shortening (lard) or oil until very very hot (turn heat up to highest level)…melted lard or oil should be about 2″ deep. A cast iron pot works best for heating oil evenly and keeping it hot. Slip the dough into the bubbling shortening or oil. Watch the edges closely…after about 90 seconds it should start to get golden brown. Turn over and fry the other side. Take out and drain on paper towels placed into a large round mixing bowl. Cover the mixing bowl and allow the dough to sit for a few minutes before serving.
- Top with honey and powdered sugar for a sweet serving, or with taco meat, pinto beans, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and any other taco topping you can think of!