There is a good chance that if you are reading this column, you are one of millions of people who, after a few anxiety-ridden lockdown weeks of ordering soggy parathas and butter chicken that can best be described as poultry drowned in orange grease served in a plastic to-go container, said to yourself – “Perhaps it might be a good idea to learn to cook.”
You may have outsourced it to unpaid female labour or underpaid subaltern labour all your life but once you decided to learn, there’s a good chance you googled “how to make soft chapati” after a few experiments in the kitchen yielded rotis that could function excellently on an industrial conveyor belt. And I am wagering that the internet didn’t quite give you consistent advice because people will tell you that Indian cooking is all art that germinates in the loving heart of the maternal (and spousal) unit and cannot be explained by science. Well, it can.
When you take wheat flour in a mixing bowl and add water to it, two protein molecules in the flour wake up—glutenin and gliadin. Protein molecules are generally large, coiled structures that unfold in the presence of water. When they do that, some parts of these molecules like water and some don’t. The bits that don’t like water neatly align themselves to keep water at bay, and this composite structure formed from both these proteins in the presence of water is what we call gluten. The interesting thing about gluten is that it’s stretchy, so when you knead dough, you end up trying to force water into the bits that want to stay away from it and thus, the dough ends up forming stronger and longer chains to keep water away. This is how flour becomes a stretchy and chewy ball of smooth dough that can be rolled into a chapati, baked into bread or fried into puris.
Cooking dough can happen in one of many ways. It could be placed in a really hot oven to bake (where the temperatures are close to 200 degrees Celsius) or placed on a tava (griddle), where the surface temperature needs to be at least 140 degrees Celsius for the next step of this process known as The Maillard reaction. Between 110 degrees Celsius and 170 degrees Celsius, proteins and sugars in your food react to produce the most fantastic flavours and characteristic brown colour. This is indeed the colour of magic when it comes to food. The brown spots on your chapati and the full-even browning of a puri is the Maillard reaction in action, and the aroma of freshly baked bread or tava-cooked chapati is, as the olfactory cortex in our brains will remind us, the powerfully nostalgic smell of home.
Understanding the simple science of what turns flour into a chapati, puri, naan or a loaf of bread helps us fine-tune the process to make the end products more delicious. Let’s start with adding water to dough. Conventional wisdom tells you that you need to knead the dough for as long as you can to get the softest flatbread, or a loaf of bread with structural integrity. This is mostly correct, but there’s a trick you can use if you don’t necessarily want to stress your deltoid and forearm muscles every day. Experienced bakers and cooks tend to know that if you just let wheat flour sit with water for a while, like on an awkward first date, the dough will literally knead itself. Water, which has positive (hydrogen) and negative (oxygen) bits tends to go out and seek licentious third-party relationships with any molecule with its own polarized ends, and if you give it 30 minutes, it will gently persuade the glutenin and gliadin to align all their water-loving ends and water-hating ends to get you good gluten development with no effort. This process, called autolysis, followed by just a brief bit of final kneading, will produce a dough softer than Kenny G.’s music played over elevator speakers.
If you are making naan or kulcha, you can add yeast, water and flour, but not salt at this stage. This is because salt will slow down gluten formation. Likewise, any sources of fat, like butter, eggs or oil, will also shorten gluten strands and are best added after the autolysis phase. Adding fats to dough will result in a flakier, less chewy end product, and this is why paratha or puri dough tends to have fats added to it. So, once the 30 minutes are done, you can work the salt and/or fats into the dough.
The wheat grain is made of a starchy endosperm, the germ, which is the next generation baby wheat plant, and a fibrous bran. Maida (refined flour) is made by milling the endosperm while atta includes a bit of the germ and bran, but the “chakki” milling process used to make atta generates a fair bit of heat, and that cooks some of the starch in the wheat and also damages protein in the wheat grain. This is why wheat flour is such a terrible flour to bake a loaf of bread with, but this flour was custom-designed for chapatis and parathas, not bread. If you have ever tried to make a chapati with refined flour, you will realize why this milling process was invented. By damaging the proteins in wheat, we get a flour that gives us the best balance of chewiness and flakiness in our chapatis, while refined flour, with its full complement of undamaged protein, will be chewy beyond belief.
While a small percentage of the population suffers from Coeliac disease, which causes insensitivity to gluten, it turns out that most people who think they have gluten allergies are actually allergic to fructans, says a story titled Fructans, not gluten, might cause wheat sensitivity. Here’s what you need to know published in The Washington Post in November 2018. Fructans are found in many foods, including wheat and garlic. The gluten-free fad is largely an example of the nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect—if you believe strongly that eating something will cause you a problem, it will, claims a Web MD article titled Is the Nocebo Effect Hurting Your Health? . This is very true for gluten for a lot of people.
Masala Lab is a fortnightly column on practical food science in the Indian kitchen. Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking (to be published Dec 2020). @krishashok