Homemade pitas are wonderful things to have in your repertoire. They are a good introduction to yeast breads, don't take much work time, and are good for everything from accompanying hummus to making healthy sandwiches that don't fall apart when you add lots of veggies. Oh, and the ones you make can be eaten warm out of the oven (an incredible treat!) and won't have any preservatives that you might prefer to avoid.
Back in the 70s, pitas were pretty much a novelty food in most parts of the country, so when I saw a recipe for them in an Arizona paper, I knew I had to try it. A few tweaks later and I had a recipe and a method that has stood the test of time. These are good any time of the year, but I especially like them in the cold winter months, as they are a great soup accompaniment--and it's nice having the oven keeping the kitchen extra toasty too.
Probably the biggest drawback with pitas is that they do require a bit of space for the approximately two hours of rising time. You could reduce the recipe included below to cut down on this problem, or you could find some flexible spaces to spread the fat little pockets as they puff up and then have them ready in the freezer for a lot of meals. I have included some hints that may give you some ideas for your own solutions to the space concern.
2 pkg dry yeast (about 1 2/3 T)
2 t sugar
1 to 2 T oil
2 1/2 c warm water
1 1/2 T salt (yes, that IS tablespoons, not teaspoons!)
about 6 c flour, preferably bread flour if available (if desired, use 2 cups whole wheat flour and 4 cups bread flour)
more flour for the work surface
1. Combine all but the flour in a large bowl.
2. Gradually stir in the flour, beating well. The dough will be sticky.
3. Turn the ball of dough onto a very well floured board or counter. Knead until smooth and elastic, perhaps 5 minutes or so.
3A. If desired, you can put the dough back into the bowl and cover it, allowing it to raise for about an hour. Punch down before going to the next step. I have found that this extra rise is not necessary, but it is nice to know that you can put the dough aside for awhile if you aren't quite ready to shape it at this point.
4. Divide dough into four even parts and then cut each into 4 to 6 pieces, depending on the size of pitas you wish to make.
(See below for suggestions on ways to assure even sizing.)
5. Shape each piece into a small ball and then flatten with a rolling pin to about 1/4 inch thick.
Place the flattened dough balls on a well floured cloth or other floured surface and cover with a cloth.
6. Allow the balls to raise about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until they are very light and somewhat puffy.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
7. Gently lift each pita onto an ungreased pan, turning each one upside down. These will puff but not raise further, so they can be almost touching on the pan.
8. Bake the pitas about 5 minutes, until they are puffy and just beginning to brown. Remove from oven and cover with a cloth until completely cooled. Store tightly covered, preferably in a heavy plastic bag.
Storing and Freezing
As with all homemade breads, these do not have preservatives, so they do not maintain their freshness as long as those you buy in the stores. They can be refreshed by heating a few seconds in the microwave. They also freeze well for a few weeks to a few months.
To freeze, place the pitas in a heavy plastic bag, removing as much air as possible. To keep them from sticking to each other, you may want to put a piece of waxed paper between each one. I like to double bag breads like this, to be sure they do not dry out. To thaw, do not open the bags. Remove from the freezer and allow to sit at room temperature for a few minutes (or longer if you are thawing a large number all at once).
- For step 4: Roll each quarter of the dough into a fat rope. This usually works well to cut the pieces evenly. I use a pair of kitchen scissors for all this cutting. If you find it difficult to get each pita as evenly sized as you would like, you can weigh each quarter and then figure out how much each individual ball of dough should weigh. (Yes, I have done this in the past!)
- If you have troubles with the dough springing back instead of making nice flat discs in step 5, cut all the balls and then let them sit a few minutes before flattening them.
- I have never had lots of counter space in my kitchen, so I have found that a card table set up next to my kitchen table provides just the right amount of room for the pitas to raise. Since they don't really expand outward, just up, they can be placed almost touching, another space saving help.
- I have a twin size sheet that I have made a part of my kitchen linens. I spread this sheet on the counter or a card table (because it gives me more space for spreading out the rising pitas) and sprinkle a very small amount of flour over half the surface. This is where I place the pitas as they are formed. When they are all on the sheet, I bring the edges up and over the dough balls to cover them while they are raising. If you don't use a sheet or other cloth, be sure the surface where the pitas will be raising is very well floured. If you don't do so, the discs may stick to the surface when you try to lift them onto the pans, often resulting in pitas that do not puff.
- When the pitas come out of the oven, I place them back on the sheet and immediately cover them again. This helps keep the steam in the pitas, ensuring that they will puff up.
- What happens if some (all) of your pitas don't puff and make pockets? You now have flatbreads, something you intended all along, right? :)
- If you do have problems with most of your pitas not puffing, some of the things you might want to change:
You might be rolling the pitas too thinly. A quarter inch is just about right.
Your success will be improved if you use bread flour. Though I don't know the full "scientific" reasons, I believe the higher gluten content provides more of a structure for the dough to separate into the desired pocket formation.
Be sure you are flipping the pitas as you put them on the pan. Even though you have covered them with a cloth, the top will have developed a slightly dried "crust" that will hold in the steam as these bake. Putting the less dried surface against the pan is likely to cause that surface to stick to the pan and allow steam to escape. (Please note: this is my own personal observation, with no scientific verification, but I stand behind my position!)
As noted above, if the pitas stick as you lift them off the surface where they were raising, they also are far more likely to turn out "flat" instead of with a pocket
- If you have accessibility to outside, take the cloth you used for the pitas and shake it out before putting it in the laundry--kind of like our grandmothers used to shake the dust out of their throw rugs!