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Tender, Puffy Roti Are South Asia's Everyday Flatbread

Learning to make soft, wholesome rotis traditionally requires a mentor’s guidance—but with our recipe, you can make them on your own.
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Published Feb. 5, 2024.

The varied cuisines of the Indian subcontinent boast an impressive array of glamorous flatbreads—pillowy naans, layered and flaky parathas, and crisp-edged dosas, to name a few—but it’s always been wholesome, everyday rotis (also known as chapatis) that I’ve been keenest to make for myself.

Little more than whole-wheat flour and water, the griddled, unleavened rounds are soft and pliable, so they make handy scoops for stews and saucy curries. I dreamed of eating freshly cooked rotis alongside steaming bowls of fragrant spiced dal and then using the leftovers the next day to wrap anything from scrambled eggs to butter and jam.

But I was getting ahead of myself because, after several attempts, my rotis were still rubbish. 

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Rotis pair perfectly with steaming bowls of dal or other spiced stews, but you can also use them to enfold your breakfast eggs, griddle them with cheese and chutney tucked inside, or slather them with butter and jam and roll them up for a snack on the go.

The recipes were simple—just mix flour (traditionally the South Asian whole-wheat flour chakki atta), water, and maybe a small amount of salt for seasoning and fat for softness; knead the dough thoroughly to promote gluten development; rest it; portion it; roll each portion into a thin round; and toast both sides on a dry griddle.

As the water in the dough turns to steam, the rotis should balloon dramatically—the steam cooks the flatbread quickly from the inside, allowing the cook to pull it from the heat before all the moisture is driven off, resulting in a soft, supple texture even after the rotis have deflated.

This is the step that eluded me: I held my breath, waiting for the puff, but my rotis always remained stubbornly flat—which also meant they were dry, dense, and chewy. 

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Manipulating Moisture

As I paged through recipes to understand where I was going wrong, I saw that most authors recommended learning the craft under the close guidance of an experienced roti maker. I had no such mentor, but help arrived in the form of Krish Ashok, author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking (2020).

In his book, the Chennai-based software engineer and food science author emphasized the importance of adding plenty of water to roti dough (more water means more steam-powered puff and more leftover moisture in the bread, which means more retained softness), but in our conversation, he supplied some specifics: 80 percent as much water as flour (by weight), he said, was the bare minimum and an appropriate place to start.

When I headed to the kitchen to try this, though, my dough was too soft and sticky for me to knead thoroughly, much less to portion and shape. 

A Fine Flour for Roti

On the Indian subcontinent, cooks reach for the whole‑wheat flour chakki atta to make roti. Chakki atta is finely milled, a process that heats the starch and breaks it down into smaller chains, imparting a slight sweetness. The milling also damages some of the gluten-forming proteins, so the rotis aren’t tough. If you can’t find atta, whole-wheat pastry flour works too: It’s also finely milled, and the lower protein content mimics atta’s damaged proteins. 

Knead and Rest

To achieve the hydration Ashok recommended, I decided to employ a nontraditional trick: the tangzhong method, an East Asian technique that calls for briefly cooking a portion of the flour and water to make a paste. Here’s how it works: By using hot water, we can add more liquid to the dough, because flour can absorb much more hot water than cold water.

The superhydrated dough yields baked goods that are more moist and more fluffy because the water converts to steam, which acts as a leavening agent, creating rise. 

To make the tangzhong paste, I whisked 5 tablespoons of atta into 5 ounces of water and then microwaved the mixture until it was thick and sticky. Then I added the remaining 1/3 cup of water (cold, so it would cool down the tangzhong), a little bit of oil for softness, and another 12/3 cups of atta.

Thanks to the moisture locked in the tangzhong paste, the formula that had previously produced a soupy and sticky dough now produced a firm and kneadable one.

To shorten the active kneading time, I set the mixture of flour, water, and oil aside for about 30 minutes (this step of resting before adding the other ingredients is called autolyse).

During this rest, the flour hydrated and the gluten-forming proteins began to link up to form a network that would give the dough enough elasticity to accommodate my rotis’ steam-powered expansion. (This 30-minute window would also be a convenient time to prepare some dal or chana masala.)

After the rest, I mixed in the salt (added earlier, the salt can inhibit enzymes in the flour that improve gluten formation) and kneaded the dough for only about 2 minutes. 

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Up, Up, and Away

With the dough evenly divided into a dozen portions, it was time to roll. I shaped each portion into a sphere; flattened each sphere into a chunky disk; and used a rolling pin to persuade each into a 6-inch round, aiming for an even thickness from edge to edge but not worrying too much about symmetry, remembering a comforting observation from Ashok. “A non-circular chapati [roti] tastes just as good as a perfectly shaped one,” he said. “So don’t waste too much time on geometry.” 

When all were rolled, it was time to see if the extra water in my dough would produce the puff that had previously eluded me. Rotis are typically cooked on a hot, slightly concave steel griddle called a tawa or tava (a cast-iron or carbon-steel skillet is a suitable substitute), but authors differ on the exact timing.

I set my skillet over medium-high heat until it was thoroughly heated and then added a roti. After 20 seconds, when the underside of the round was spotty blond with some brown flecks, I turned it and let it brown even more on the second side. Then I flipped it again. 

This more generously hydrated roti began to expand in various spots with this second flip, but executing a maneuver I’d seen in lots of videos improved the puff dramatically: I pressed the edge of the roti with a wadded kitchen towel, which forced the bubbles of trapped steam to move across the bread and eventually coalesce.

Thanks to this trick, I watched disk after disk of dough expand into a wheaty balloon—and even after the rotis deflated, I was puffed up with pride.

Troubleshooting the Puff

Watching roti balloon over heat is a spectacle—and the puff makes for a better end product. The steam inside an inflated roti cooks it quickly from the inside, while flat ones must cook longer, drying out the exterior and resulting in a tougher, denser roti. 

The secret to a more reliable puff? A generously hydrated dough. More water means more steam, which means a greater tendency to puff, which means softer, more flexible roti (even unpuffed specimens are more tender). I’ve worked one big, nontraditional hack into the recipe to up the moisture: tangzhong, which enables us to load more water into our formula without making the dough too sticky to handle.

But if you’re still having trouble, try a trick I learned from Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka (2010): microwaving. Immediately after toasting your roti on both sides per the recipe, transfer it to a plate and pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Your roti will come out a bit damp from the steam in the closed environment of the microwave, but it should readily puff. 

Recipe

Roti

Learning to make soft, wholesome rotis traditionally requires a mentor's guidance—but with our recipe, you can make them on your own.
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