Discover more from Meze by Vidar Bergum
Soft and chewy flatbreads to go with just about any meal.
Lavash is a flatbread that sits at the very heart of the cuisines of the South Caucasas and Western Asia. It’s considered a treasure of Armenian cuisine, though it’s also widely popular in Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey – and is part of the cuisine elsewhere too.
The making of lavash probably goes as far back as the human history of baking. It’s a bread that’s so much more than a simple combination of ingredients. A few years ago, UNESCO rightly placed lavash on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, highlighting its “preparation, meaning and appearance of traditional bread as an expression of culture in Armenia”.
With a history going back millennia, there are probably as many ways of making lavash as there are tandoor ovens. Or tonir, as Armenians call it.
Join me in exploring the food and cultures of Turkey, the Middle East & beyond.
A general note on authenticity
I used to think that in order to be “authentic”, a recipe had to be an exact copy of how a traditional food is made. No substitutions, no adaptations. Since moving to Turkey eight years ago, travelling the country and eating the same foods in many different places, I’ve changed my mind.
There’s almost never one way of making something. Local cooks make substitutions and adaptations, too. The add and subtract. Recipes are very much organic, changing from place to place and over time. What matters for authenticity is the core of the dish: What makes it unique and different from other, similar dishes?
This will surely be the topic of a later post, but this is the spirit in which I make my recipes. I always strive for an end result that’s instantly recognisable to people who know the dish, but I don’t shy away from the occasional adaptation if it makes my life easier. I do my best to be open and honest about what I’ve done differently, though. In my view, the end result can still be “authentic”.
A few notes on making lavash
With that in mind, what is it that makes a flatbread lavash, and not some other nondescript flatbread?
Surely nothing can beat a freshly made lavash straight out of the tandoor, thin, long and oblong, blackened in places. Deliciously chewy, but still pliable (though crispbread versions do exist). While most of us don’t have a tandoor oven at home, all those things can still be achieved at home too, with a few modifications to the process. Indeed, while I haven’t personally visited Armenia (yet), I’d be very surprised if these adaptations aren’t already used across the country.
Traditionally, a piece of old dough is used as a starter and to leaven the dough. Armenians call this the ttkhmor. In ancient times, this was the way to achieve leavning. The original sourdough method, if you like. But it also helps in developing a more complex flavour and chewy texture. Most of us don’t bake lavash on a daily basis, however. Using a piece of old dough isn’t practical. Luckily, a pre-ferment with sourdough or commercial yeast yields very similar results.
The blistering hot walls of the tandoor oven that bakes lavash to perfection in just 30 seconds is harder to replicate at home. The high heat is crucial for a texture that combines slightly burnt, crispy spots with a bread that’s soft and pliable. If the heat isn’t high enough, you’ll end up with a dry crispbread which doesn’t even have darkened spots on it.
In the book Lavash, authors Kate Leahy, John Lee and Ara Zada suggest the best at-home solution is to turn a wok upside-down over a hot gas flame. I love my wok, but I’ve followed the advice of a Chinese friend and have never bothered with seasoning the underside, or even cleaning it properly. Cooking on it isn’t an option.
Alternatively, they suggest a 50 cm (20 in) griddle pan and stretching the dough to approx 33x23 cm (13x9 in) for a traditional oblong shape. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got no griddle pan of such size in my kitchen. My favourite pan – a sturdy black cast iron pan – is circular and 28 cm (11 in) in diameter. Simple maths tell me the surface area of it is roughly the same as the oblong shape.
This means two adaptions. First, since there’s no heat from above, the lavash needs to be cooked on both sides. Second, I’ve gone for a circular shape instead of the traditional oblong.
Finally, there’s the question of thickness. Armenian lavash is usually thin – thinner than wheat tortillas. But I’ve also been served lavash that’s been slightly thicker, so there isn’t just one rule here, either. The thinner lavash is certainly the better, though it also means more work in rolling out dough – and it gets more difficult to cook it to perfection without it turning crispy (though lavash can be crisp too!).
Even with all these adaptions, the bread that comes out at the other end is unmistakably lavash. The recipe below is adapted from the aforementioned Armenian cookbook named after this very flatbread. It makes fantastic lavash that go well with just about any South Caucasian, Turkish or Middle Eastern style food. It’s also great as a sandwich wrap. I usually keep a batch of these in my freezer.
At 41% wholemeal, it’s also filling, though you can substitute more white flour if you prefer. I like the depth of flavour and slight tanginess provided by the sourdough starter, but if you don’t have one, commercial yeast works too.
Bread/Side dish | Armenian cuisine | Yields 10 lavash
75 g wholemeal flour
100 g water
15 g active sourdough starter or ¼ tsp dried yeast
the starter dough
300 g lukewarm water
1 Tbsp oil or butter
150 g wholemeal flour
325 g white bread flour
10 g salt
How I make it
Mix all the ingredients for the starter dough. Cover and leave to rise for 1.5 to 2 hours. The mixture should be active, but it won't have risen much yet.
Add water and oil or butter to the starter dough. Mix well, then add the flour and salt. Mix until the dough comes together. You can use a kitchen machine, a wooden spoon or your hands. No need to knead it yet, the dough only needs to come together. Cover and leave to rise for 20 minutes.
Place the dough in the bowl of a kitchen machine and, using the kneading hook, knead on medium speed until fairly smooth, about 5 minutes. Cover and leave to rise until nearly doubled in size, 2–3 hours.
Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Cut into 10 equally sized pieces (approx. 95 g each). Roll each piece into a nice, round bun (see video below for the technique I use). Dust with a little flour and cover with plastic wrap or similar. Leave to rise until the dough pieces are fairly fluffy, around 1½ hours.
Heat a large (min. 28 cm/11 in diameter) thick bottomed frying pan over medium heat.
Using a rolling pin, roll a piece to the same size as your frying pan. Fry for about one minute on one side, and around 30 seconds on the other. The lavash should rise slightly and be speckled with dark (but not burned) spots all over. If your lavash burn or get crispy in this time, reduce the heat. If they look undercooked, increase the heat a little. It usually takes a piece ofr two to get the temperature right the first few times.
Wrap the lavash in dry kitchen towel(s). Repeat with the remaining dough pieces, making sure to brush away any flour from the pan between each lavash.
Eat or wrap the lavash in air tight bags and freeze them as soon as possible after they're cooled.
Shaping the dough balls
It’s not very important how you roll the dough pieces into round buns, but this is how I do it:
This lavash bread works really well with just about any Middle Eastern style food. It also works well as a slightly thick wrap bread, stuffed with ingredients you like.
Cooked lavash freezes really well. I use double zipper bags to keep them as fresh as possible. For best results, reheat for a few minutes in a hot oven, or for a few seconds on a hot pan, after thawing.
A couple more baking recipes from the region to try out.