I’m Armenian, which means I’ve been eating lahmajun (“lah-mah-joon”) my whole life. My aunties would make it for us when we’d visit, rolling the yeasted dough into paper-thin rounds, spreading the rounds with a film of spiced ground lamb, and baking them until they were crispy and browned. And my mother often brought home boxes of the flatbreads from local Armenian bakeries, keeping them stacked face-to-face between sheets of parchment paper until it was time to reheat them. We’d spray the flatbreads with lemon juice and eat them like pizza (lahmajun predates—and is sometimes considered a precursor to—pizza; see “The Original Pizza?”) or turn them into sandwiches by rolling them around a salad of fresh or pickled vegetables.
My love for the dish had always been more than just habitual, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I ate lahmajun so good that it upped my standards for the dish as both an Armenian and a baker. Cooked in a blazing wood-fired oven, the bread had a delicate and crispy paper-thin crust, yet it was still tender within. And the lamb paste—fragrant with garlic and onion; red pepper; tomato; parsley; and earthy, warm spices—tasted rich and vibrant. Part of the difference was the hearth, which made for exceptional browning and rusticity. But the crumb of these flatbreads boasted more flavor and textural contrast between the exterior and interior than premade bakery versions, which tend to be more uniformly tender. In fact, they were more akin to great pizza—and when I made that connection, I realized that sorting out a great recipe was right in my wheelhouse.
On a Roll
The dough for my Thin-Crust Pizza actually seemed like a logical place to start, since it shares many of the assets I had in mind for lahmajun. (This is the same approach to pizza dough I’ve been using for years, so forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.) It’s a cold-fermented dough that I make in the food processor with bread flour, ice water, a fraction of the amount of yeast you’d normally put into a bread, salt, and a little oil and then shape into a ball that I immediately refrigerate for at least a day. When mixed with water, the bread flour builds up lots of gluten that generates both interior chew and exterior crunch (the gluten sheets that form on the crust’s exterior shatter when you bite into them). And the combination of the cold temperature, minimal yeast, and time ensures that the dough ferments gently and gradually, minimizing the formation of large gas bubbles that would make the dough difficult to roll and giving the yeast time to digest sugars in the dough and build up maximum flavor. The lengthy rest also allows the gluten to relax so that the dough is extensible for stretching thin.
The Original Pizza?
I teach a lot of baking classes, and any time flatbreads are on the agenda, I like to share the perspective of chef, author, and Armenian and Middle Eastern cooking authority Arto der Haroutunian about the relationship between lahmajun and pizza—specifically the tendency for lahmajun to be referred to as “Armenian pizza.” He suggests that Middle Eastern meat‑and‑vegetable-topped flatbreads actually predate Italian versions, so pizza would actually be better thought of as “Italian lahmajun.”
This idea has some backing. Scholars agree that flatbreads have been made in the Middle East for more than 14,000 years, and versions topped with meat began appearing in that region around 200 BCE. Flatbreads have also been made in Italy for at least 2,000 years, but pizza as we know it today (bread, cheese, tomatoes) didn’t evolve until the 18th century.
In any case, the notion that pizza and I might share the same ancestral homeland goes a long way to explaining my lifelong passion for it.
But my pizza formula wasn’t perfect for lahmajun. For one thing, there was still too much yeast, which made the flatbreads puffy, not flat. They also baked up tough: Lahmajun should be thinner than a typical thin-crust pizza, and the only way to get the dough really thin was to roll (instead of stretch) it, which overworked the gluten. Upping the dough’s hydration (the amount of water in relation to the amount of flour) might have increased tenderness, but doing so would also have made it stickier—and, frankly, the dough was already sticking to the counter, so I was planning to cut back on the water.
For the next few tests, I adjusted the formula until the dough was supple but not sticky and baked up flat. My revised formula contained a mere ⅛ teaspoon of yeast, a little less water, and—in its best, crispiest iteration—King Arthur All-Purpose Flour, which contains more gluten-forming protein than most other all-purpose flours but not as much as bread flour.
After cold-fermenting for 16 hours and resting at room temperature for about 1 hour, the dough was easy to press into 5-inch disks with the heel of my hand. But rolling the disks into paper-thin 12-inch rounds was trickier and still required so much manipulation with the rolling pin that the dough became overworked and snapped back by a couple inches when I transferred it from the counter to the baking peel. The solution was to skip flouring the counter (I merely dusted the dough before rolling to prevent it from sticking to the pin) and use the dough’s now-subtle tackiness to anchor it to the counter while I rolled; that way, I didn’t have to use as much force to produce thin rounds, and they shrank only a little when I transferred them to the baking peel (see “How to Roll and Top Lahmajun”).
How to Roll and Top Lahmajun
1. Using heel of your hand, press dough ball into 5-inch disk.
2. Using rolling pin, gently roll into 12-inch round.
3. Dust top with flour. Peel dough from counter and flip, floured side down, onto floured baking peel.
4. Place 1/2 cup topping in center of dough. Cover with 12-inch square sheet of plastic wrap.
5. Using your fingertips, gently spread filling evenly across dough, leaving 1/8-inch border.
6. Peel back plastic and remove (save plastic for use with remaining dough).
Cut and Paste
The lamb topping for lahmajun is more like a meaty veneer than a sauce. It should be moist but not wet; heady from garlic, spices (allspice, paprika, cumin, cayenne), and Turkish pepper paste (for more information, see “Biber Salçası”); and concentrated so that each bite tastes vibrant despite the topping being spread so thin. But those are tricky goals when many of the topping’s core components—ground lamb, red bell pepper, onion, and tomato—bring along lots of water.
A thick, cardinal-red paste made from either sweet or a combination of sweet and hot peppers, biber salçası is a Turkish-made product that’s widely used throughout the Levant. Produced by roasting, pureeing, and cooking down or sun-drying the peppers, the paste adds concentrated savory sweetness and depth (and zippy heat, in the case of the spicy version) to classic Levantine dishes such as lahmajun, muhammara, kofte, and red lentil soup, but it can also be used to add those qualities to any dishes where you might otherwise add tomato paste or chiles: soups, stews, and pasta and pizza sauces.
Storage note: Once opened, biber salçası doesn’t keep as well as tomato paste, but it does freeze nicely. If you have a large jar, divide any leftovers among several smaller containers and freeze them for later use.
Some recipes control that water by calling for coarsely chopping the vegetables so that they shed minimal liquid, but I prefer toppings that are finely ground. Blitzing the lamb, vegetables, and seasonings in the food processor guarantees that the topping’s texture and flavor will be uniform and replaces most of the knife work with the push of a button. And I found that the trick to keeping the liquid at bay was as simple as going easy on the watery onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes. In fact, I skipped fresh and canned tomatoes in favor of highly concentrated tomato paste.
The real challenge was applying the mixture to the dough, since it’s too thick to spread with a spoon or spatula. Lahmajun pros use their hands—arguably the most effective tools for the job—but I came up with a mess-free method: After placing one portion of the topping in the center of a dough round, I covered it with a sheet of plastic wrap. The thin barrier afforded me the dexterity of using my hands but helped me avoid the mess of touching the topping directly. Bonus: I reused the plastic wrap for topping all four dough rounds.
To mimic the wood-fired oven’s blazing heat, I set my baking stone on the oven’s top rack and ran the oven at 500 degrees for an hour: That way, there would be intense heat both underneath the flatbreads and reflecting onto them from above, with just enough headspace to usher them into and out of the oven. Each round baked up crispy, browned, and fragrant in about 5 minutes, so baking all four of them didn’t take any longer than baking a couple of my thin‑crust pizzas. I made sure to have lemon wedges ready and waiting, as well as a minty cucumber‑tomato salad for rolling up sandwiches. Now I can join the ranks of lahmajun makers in my family.