[Photographs: Nik Sharma]
I love parathas, the flaky flat breads eaten in India and many other parts of Southeast Asia, but the stuffed ones are my favorites. It doesn’t matter if they’re stuffed with a mixture of spiced mashed potatoes, as in the recipe for aloo paratha I’m providing here, or they’re stuffed with mixed vegetables or shredded cheese; I love them all.
Parathas are as diverse as their fillings, textures, and even the techniques used to build them. They can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack—there are no rules here, and no one should judge you for how you enjoy them. My only motto is to eat them whenever you want but to make sure you enjoy them warm.
While I’m quite fond of parathas, I haven’t always been able to produce good ones. When I first arrived in the United States, my early rounds of paratha-making ran into a lot of trouble, particularly when I used any flour other than atta, the whole wheat flour used in India to make flatbreads like rotis and parathas. Atta is available online and in Indian grocery stores, but depending on where you live, it may be hard to find. And even if you can find it, I’ve sometimes come across bags of atta that have an off smell, indicating that they’ve started to go rancid. Consequently, the recipe I’m sharing today gives you the option of using atta or a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flours, which are more commonly available.
I later learned that there are several reasons why my early attempts to make good parathas failed, and they mostly have to do with the types of flour I was using.
How Atta Is Different From American Flours
While flours made from different types of wheat have different properties, which you can read about in the Serious Eats guide to flour, for paratha-making, the properties I want to focus on are the size of the bran contained in the flour and something called “damage starch values.” During the milling process, whole grains are broken up as they pass through various rollers, after which the endosperm, bran, and germ can be separated out. But something else happens during the milling process, namely the starch granules inside the grain can also become damaged.
The degree to which the starch granules in the final flour are damaged can drastically affect the way the flour behaves when combined with water. For example, an intact starch granule can absorb about 40% of its weight in water, while a damaged starch granule can absorb up to more than 300% of its weight in water. Scientists who study grains and flours measure this using a parameter called the damaged starch value. Wheat flours with higher damaged starch values will absorb a lot more water and, consequently, they’ll produce more pliable doughs and experience more starch gelatinization; they will also turn rancid much faster, and are more susceptible to degradation through enzymatic activity.
As I noted above, in India, parathas and other flatbreads like rotis and chapatis are made from atta, a stone-ground whole wheat flour typically made by passing hard wheat through manually run machines known as chakkis (large-scale commercial manufacturers use automated machines). Atta has a damaged starch value in the range of 13% to 18%, which is much higher than American wheat flours, since atta is made from harder wheat and is consequently milled using more force and goes through several rounds of milling. In comparison, American flours milled from hard wheat typically have a damaged starch value that ranges between 6% and 12%, while those milled from soft wheat typically have a damaged starch value between 1% and 4%.
The different milling process also accounts for the fact that the size of the bran particles in atta is much smaller than in American wheat flours. The size of the bran is important for paratha-making because bran interferes with gluten formation; when kneading a dough, bran particles will end up cutting the strands of developed gluten, reducing the dough’s elasticity and increasing its extensibility, thus making the parathas easier to form.
Given these differences, my attempts to make parathas using American flour were always destined for mediocrity, if not outright failure, because the recipes I used were intended for use with a whole wheat flour with a much higher damaged starch value and smaller particles of bran.
A Flour Blend to Approximate Atta
In my initial experiments with making parathas without atta, I ran into a couple of issues: Parathas made with all-purpose flour were very elastic and didn’t hold their shape well, and those made with American whole wheat flours ended up unpleasantly tough. Based on the information I learned about damaged starch values and bran, I realized I needed to come up with a ratio of all-purpose to whole wheat flour to produce a dough that was comparable in texture and flavor to a dough made with just atta. I say “comparable” here because there isn’t any good way to produce a flour mix that’s similar to atta using commercially available American flours; I can’t change their damaged starch values, as they’re already ground, and I am not about to mill my own atta at home. However, I could address the difference in bran size by simply using less of it in my flour mix.
I eventually ended up with a 3:1 ratio of all-purpose to whole wheat flours, which forms a dough that holds its shape, has good chew, and enough whole wheat flavor and aroma to approximate a dough made with atta.
The Role Fat Plays in Paratha Dough
Aside from flour and water, fat is an integral component of paratha dough. When mixing the dough, rubbing the fat into the flour helps to regulate gluten development by coating some of the glutenin and gliadin proteins, preventing them from combining with water to form gluten, thereby keeping the resulting parathas more tender (for more on this, read this article about how gluten works).
But fat also plays an important role in giving parathas their characteristic flaky texture. Just like puff pastry, when parathas are rolled out, the dough is lightly greased with a little fat and folded over itself to create multiple layers; this is called lamination. When the dough is cooked, the water in the dough produces steam, creating air pockets between each of those layers. While there are typically more layers in a plain paratha than a stuffed paratha, stuffed parathas are still greased with a little oil before the filling is added to create the same effect.
The choice of fat can be important, too, particularly if the parathas end up being consumed at room temperature (which, again, I don’t recommend, but it’s perfectly acceptable). Since ghee turns solid at room temperature, parathas made with ghee will be a bit firmer when cool than those made with a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed oil.
Essential Techniques for Making Paratha
Usually parathas are kneaded by hand in a large bowl. My method uses a stand mixer, and you will need to use both the paddle attachment and the dough hook to get the dough to come together and then knead it. While the kneading step is very straightforward, its duration will depend on which flour you choose to use. If you use atta, you will want to knead the dough in the machine for longer than you would if you use the combination of all-purpose and whole wheat flours, to get the right degree of elasticity so the dough rolls out well and holds its shape.
Rest the dough for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, as the gluten needs time to relax. If you don’t wait, the dough will be difficult to roll out and will be very recalcitrant and stiff. If you like, you can make the dough a couple of days ahead of time and store it well-wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator, to keep it from drying out. If you do make it far in advance, be sure to take the dough out and let it come to room temperature before proceeding with rolling it out, about one hour.
Folding and Rolling
While stuffing parathas is a relatively straightforward process, it can take a few tries to get the hang of it. For these aloo parathas, place the potato filling in the center of a rolled-out piece of dough, leaving a 1-inch (2.5-cm) gap along the outer edge, then wrap the filling with the edges of the dough and fold them to form a flat disc or a small rectangle. Once the seams have been pinched close, the stuffed paratha can then be rolled out to form a circle or circular rectangle.
With respect to the quantity of filling in each paratha, my opinion is more is better. But because it takes a little practice to stuff a lot of the spiced potato mixture in the bread, my recipe amounts give you a bit of wiggle room.
Cooking the Parathas
When cooking the parathas, the lower the heat you use, the better. If the pan is too hot, the bread will blister very quickly and will develop bitter-tasting charring while the interior remains uncooked; if this happens, it’s best to allow the pan to cool before trying again. Also, I recommend carefully wiping the surface of the pan down with a wadded paper or cloth towel after each paratha is cooked and before adding more oil, otherwise bits of the dry flour left behind will accumulate and burn over time, which can also leave a bitter coating on the bread.
Serving and Eating
Personally, I prefer to eat parathas straight out of the hot pan, which is when they’re crispiest. However, when I’m cooking for people other than just myself, I’ll wrap the cooked parathas in a kitchen towel and store them in a thermal insulated container to keep them warm.
Aloo parathas really don’t need any accompaniments, nor do they need to be served as a side to go with some main dish. I usually eat them with some plain unsweetened yogurt and an aachar, or Indian pickle, of some kind. If I’m in the mood, I might serve them with a salad of onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers, known as kachumbar, but they really are perfect served all by themselves.
Why It Works
- A blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flour approximates the flavor and texture of parathas made with atta, an Indian whole wheat flour.
- Adding oil between the layers of the dough yields a flaky texture.
- Cooking the parathas over gentle heat ensures a browned and blistered exterior and a fully warmed-through interior.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- For the Paratha Dough:
- 2 cups (11 1/4 ounces; 320g) atta, or a combination of 1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces; 210g) all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal Blue Label, and 1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces; 70g) whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed or canola, or melted ghee
- 1 cup water (240ml), warmed to 160°F (70°C)
- For the Filling:
- 4 medium Russet potatoes (about 1 3/4 pounds; 800g), peeled and cut into 1-inch (5-cm) chunks
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 shallot (60g), peeled and minced
- One 1-inch (2.5cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 fresh green chile, such as Serrano, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
- To Assemble and Cook:
- Neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed or canola, or melted ghee, for brushing dough rounds and cooking parathas (about 1/2 cup; 120ml)
For the Paratha Dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine atta (or, alternatively, all-purpose flour and wheat flour) and salt and whisk until thoroughly mixed, about 30 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the dry ingredients and, using clean fingers, massage oil into dough to achieve a crumbly texture, about 1 minute.
Set bowl in stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. With the mixer at the lowest speed, slowly add water 1 to 2 tablespoons (15-30ml) at a time, until dough starts to come together; you may need to use the entire amount of water. Turn off stand mixer. Remove paddle attachment and, using a bowl scraper or flexible spatula, scrape down bowl and paddle attachment.
Attach the dough hook and set mixer to low speed, allowing machine to knead dough until it becomes soft and pliable; for atta-based dough, about 10 minutes; for dough with all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour, about 5 minutes. Transfer dough to a clean, dry, lightly floured surface, and knead by hand for 1 minute, then shape it into a large ball. Wrap dough tightly with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and store it in an airtight container for 30 minutes before proceeding to Step 5.
For the Filling: In a large saucepan, combine potatoes and salt, cover with cold water, and bring to rolling boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook until potatoes are tender but not falling apart, and a paring knife inserted into a potato chunk experiences little resistance, about 8 minutes. Drain potatoes thoroughly, then transfer to a large mixing bowl or large plate and allow to cool to room temperature. Using a fork, mash the potatoes roughly (the final texture should be slightly flaky), then fold in shallot, ginger, cilantro, green chile, cumin, coriander, paprika, black pepper, and cayenne. Season with salt; it should be slightly saltier than you’d like, as it will be stuffed into the bread.
To Assemble and Cook the Parathas: Line a baking sheet or large tray with a clean lint-free kitchen towel (cotton is best) that’s been dusted with a little flour. Prepare a second kitchen towel similarly and place it over the first towel on the sheet. This setup will be used to hold the formed parathas.
On a lightly flour a work surface, divide the rested dough into 8 equal portions, forming each into an even ball. Working with one piece of dough at a time and keeping the rest covered with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel to prevent drying out, use a rolling pin to roll dough out into a 6-inch (15cm) round; use as little flour as possible to prevent sticking. Brush surface of dough circle with 1/2 teaspoon oil or ghee. Place 3 to 4 generous tablespoons of spiced potato filling in center of circle. Wrap the filling up by grabbing the outer sides of the circle, folding them over top, and pressing gently to form a flat disc. Alternatively, you can pinch the folds together as you would a dumpling, and then press them down into a circular disc. Roll disc out once more to form a 6-inch (15cm) circle, dusting disc, work surface, and rolling pin with as little flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking. Place paratha between the two prepared kitchen towels on baking sheet. Repeat process with remaining dough and filling.
To Cook the Parathas: Line a plate with clean kitchen towel. In a 10-inch stainless-steel or cast iron skillet, heat 1/2 teaspoon oil or ghee over medium-low heat. Using teaspoon or small spoon, spread an additional 1/2 teaspoon of oil or ghee over one side of paratha and place it in the hot skillet, greased side down. Cook until base starts to turn golden brown and develops light brown blisters, about 5 minutes. Spread 1/2 teaspoon oil or ghee on uncooked side, then, using spatula, carefully flip paratha and cook on second side until bottom starts to turn golden brown and develops blisters, about 5 minutes. If parathas develop blisters or brown too quickly, reduce heat. Transfer cooked paratha to towel-lined plate and cover. Carefully wipe pan down with clean, wadded paper towel or kitchen towel to remove any flour remaining in pan, which can burn. Repeat with remaining parathas. Serve immediately.
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