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Barbari Bread By A Beginner

tpassin's picture

Barbari Bread By A Beginner

A few weeks I happened across this old thread about a traditional Iranian bread, barbari bread -

The posts included very complete directions for making it as it used to be done in old-time bakeries. It caught my interest partly because of the unusual fermentation scheduling and because the crumb has large and irregular pores.  The bread also has a thin hard crust that nevertheless holds together when the loaf is squeezed or pressed. A loaf was almost, in a way, like half a dozen soft pretzels side by side.

The shaping, including a final stretch, is unusual and seemed to require a lot of experience.  Also, these breads are traditionally much too long to bake in a home oven, and so one has to make shorter ones, much as for baguettes.

Then a few days ago this same thread fired up again, although Omid, the original poster, hasn't been heard from for years. 

Today I baked my first ones. I think they came out pretty well for a beginner, especially the first one of the two I baked.  The crumb seems to be on a par with any pictures I have seen.  See for yourself:

For these breads to be airy and stretchable, the dough has to be very extensible yet have very good integrity so it doesn't tear or collapse during shaping.  The fermentation schedule is unusual because although it is best when long (for flavor), you want to end bulk fermentation just after it's started to rise. No gas bubbles wanted here. Then the dough is formed into a ball and proofed but again, not so that large bubbles are formed.  I won't try to describe the shaping process here because it's complicated and the original thread has a very good description.

However, even with the good description there are things that need hands-on experience.  Prime among them are the hydration of the dough and its extensibility.  Before I made these loaves I had tried making a very similar dough twice before.  This uses a sourdough starter.  With long fermentation it might make for a somewhat sour loaf, which is not the the right flavor profile.  I used sourdough anyway because I thought I would understand the timing better.  Later I could go to straight yeast, or maybe a biga.

The dough I decided to try was all purpose flour with 20% whole wheat.  The WW was a fairly new one from King Arthur labeled "blended".  It has three varieties of wheat including a new perennial variety. In the past I have though that this WW flour has a more pronounced wheaty flavor than some others.

My first try used a 10% starter inoculation.  This had risen way more than double by the time I got to it the next morning.  So I used the dough to make English muffins, which were pretty good.

My second try dropped the starter down to 5% of the flour.  It too had risen too much by the next morning.  So I used the dough to make a batarde, which came out beautifully.

Today I thought the process through again and decided that I didn't need to go for as long a fermentation.  Instead, I would start the dough in the morning so I could catch the beginning of the rise in bulk ferment. In the end I got fooled and the dough had risen by about 50%.  I went ahead anyway.  At least there weren't any large bubbles.

The second rise period is tricky, too, without any experience.  The dough needs to ferment and relax - relaxation is essential or the dough won't stretch.  Yet big gas bubbles would mess up the appearance during shaping and baking.  How do you know? I think I took the first of two doughballs a little soon for relaxation but a little late for gas bubbles. I pricked out the ones I saw. The second fermented longer because it had to wait for the first one to bake.  It had more gas but was more extensible, which I didn't really account for during shaping.

Here's the process steps.  The dough is a very simple sourdough with 15% starter and a final total hydration of 69%.

Process (times are approximate)
- 10:15 AM - Mix without salt
- 11:15 - (add salt + 5g water), knead/stretch in bowl
- 11:55 - S&F in bowl
- 12:45 - S&F in bowl
-  2:00 - S&F in bowl, transfer to bulk tub.
-  4:20 - risen by maybe 50% (too much!)++
-  4:30 - preheat oven.
-  4:40 - 5 make sauce
-  6:00 - shape first (shape phase one; rest 10 minutes; shape phase 2)
-  6:15 - bake first at 425°F - 435°F, 17 minutes
-  6:35 - shape second
-  6:45 - bake second - 435°F, 16 minutes.

++ There was supposed to be only a small rise.  I hadn't expected it to go this fast.  The shaped balls showed a few definite gas bubbles, which wasn't supposed to happen.

The "sauce" referred to is a thin cooked wheat glaze, applied during final shaping.  It is though to be important for the properties of the crust and also the appearance.  See the original thread for more.

The final loaf had a crumb that looked just like examples in photos.  The crust was thin, hard, yet yielded without breaking when squeezed.  You can peel the top away from the bottom exposing the crumb, the way one of the videos in the original thread shows. The flavor did have too much of a sour bite, as expected - I'll work on that next.

Overall, I feel pleased that it came out as well as it did, given all the unknowns, my complete lack not only of experience but even of seeing one in person.

Moe C's picture
Moe C

It looks stellar, especially for a first attempt. How did you eat them (with what, I mean)?

tpassin's picture

Thanks!  Just plain and buttered so far.  I wanted to see what the intrinsic taste was like.  Next time I'll add nigella seeds and maybe sesame too.  I think the upper crust was a little too thick and not quite crispy enough, and I'm not sure whether a hotter oven will help with that.  Maybe slightly cooler but with the top broiler coil on for part of the bake?

What would you suggest for eating with?

Barbariman's picture

Your Barbari looks great. 

You can use it with almost anything.  My standard use of it is mostly for breakfast.  I start first cutting a piece that fits in my toaster.  Eating it warm is half the pleasure for me.  It brings out more flavor and makes it easier to work with.

To reset my taste buds, I usually go back and forth between the following two in one sitting:

1 - Cheese and walnut (low salt high fat feta cheese is my favorite but could be replaced with your favorite cheese and walnut could be replaced with other nuts)

2 - Khameh (a better version of whipped creme) and honey (Khameh could be replaced with unsalted butter and honey could be replaced with your favorite preserve)

I usually open up the warm Barbari which is easier to do with the fat edges but your pictures tells me, you can do it with any part of your Barbari.  Then put the goodies inside and make a mini sandwich.   

If your Barbari has a strong Sourdough taste, these may not work as well but I still would give it a shot.

p.s. This is my personal SOP and it is not written in Persian constitution so If there is something you like, go for it.  My brother always includes olives (He lived in Turkey for a few years and picked up the habit.

Enjoy it and keep us posted on the next Barbari.

tpassin's picture

Thank you!  I was surprised how well toasting works. Flatbreads tend not to last well but this morning I found the bread did not seemed dried out but of course the crust was not in prime condition.  The toaster did a good job of crisping it up.  I buttered the inside of that piece, as you say.  Quite nice it was.

At lunch I again toasted some pieces, split them, and put egg salad inside.  That worked well too.  For those who don't know the bread, it's quite thin, but with longitudinal tube-like rows.  It doesn't look like there would be enough crumb for a sandwich.  But with the egg salad I thought the amount of bread was just right.  So often a roll overwhelms with too much bread, but this worked surprisingly well. And I was able to bite through the crust without squeezing out the filling, which was rather wet and soft.

justkeepswimming's picture

That crumb looks lovely!! Even the thought of sesame and topping with butter and honey is making my mouth water, lol. 

A thought about extensibility.... if this dough wasn't as extensible as you wanted, you might consider using spelt flour in lieu of the whole wheat you used. It has a mild flavor and may not be as "wheat" as the KA WW. 

tpassin's picture

Spelt, yes, and I've got some, and also a little emmer left over.  But the problem here, I'm sure, is just hydration.  I've made the same basic dough three times now.  The first was too wet and extensible, the second was a little stiff, and this last was nearly there.  I'm talking about differences of 10g or even 5g of water for 300g of flour. In Omid's original post, he talks about how he felt the need to withhold some of the original flour, based on how the dough seemed, during mixing.  He ended up with 69% hydration instead of the original target of 67%.  That's equivalent to 6g of water for my 300g of flour.

When I'm making conventional loaves, say a batarde, I can make up for a lot of variation by how much I stretch it and how I handle the dough while I shape the loaf.  With these barbari flatbreads, that latitude doesn't seem to be there.  You can't adjust for an overly elastic dough, for example, by extending the proving time because you will end up with undesired gas bubbles.

Skill and experience! (I don't have much of either),

Moe C's picture
Moe C

I was a bit baffled about how to eat it. Spread stuff on top, split it, butter it? Seems like you can do just about anything with it you want. I've been reading lately about po-boy and banh mi (was going to try making po-boy today, but it's too humid from the rain), so I've got bbq'd smokies with fried onion & peppers on the brain.

My daughter was in Vietnam earlier this year and I asked her about banh mi sandwiches. She ate them often, said they were a cheap and ubiquitous street food. The "banh mi ladies" would laugh at her and say, "no spicy". So, I assume those Vietnamese sandwiches are usually pretty hot.

tpassin's picture

I've been reading lately about po-boy and banh mi

So have I, and I've had some modest success with a banh mi roll. It needs some more work, though, to get the crust thinner and still have the desired crust properties.  Did you know that some banh mi makers cut out some of the crumb to make room for filling?

Moe C's picture
Moe C

Did you know that some banh mi makers cut out some of the crumb to make room for filling?

I did not know that.


tpassin's picture

I read about it, and have seen it with my own eyes.

semolina_man's picture

Eat Barbari like Levantine or Arabic breads.

Bread-as-scoop is common in the region when eating bulgur, couscous, tabbouleh, falafel, baba ghanoush, ful, yogurt-based and minced meat items such as kibbe, kofta, kebap and more. 

And one of my favorite ways to eat flatbread is to dip in olive oil! :) 

Think of the ways other flatbreads are used such as pita, naan, lavash and others. 

ReneR's picture

Great bake. It is assumed that flatbreads are easier to make, but I have struggled to get them right.

I have found that the baking with a home oven is the tricky part, so was wondering what set up you had for this bake and any tweaks you might be contemplating for the next time you do this bake.

tpassin's picture

Hi, Rene, thank you! I haven't found flatbreads easy.  It's easy to make a mediocre one but hard to get good at it, at least for me.

For this barbari bread, I didn't do anything special.  I just preheated the oven with my baking steel in place until the steel got up to an IR temperature that was about what Omid's post says is right. Then I reduced the actual oven setting about 50 deg F to about 430 deg F. I baked the loaf on parchment paper until I could remove the paper without harming the loaf. I didn't use steam because the ovens I've seen in the few videos I found weren't able to be steamed, and also Omid did not mention using steam.

I was tempted to turn on the overhead broiler for part of the bake and I may do that next time. It would make sense since the traditional-style ovens in Omid's videos would be emitting radiant heat from the top.

albacore's picture

Great looking crumb Tom; I don't really know this style of bread but the crumb structure looke nearly identical to the textbook images.


tpassin's picture

Thanks, Lance! The crust could stand some improvement.  I think it should be thinner and crispier.  It's a good thing my oven can't handle a full-length barbari loaf - I think it will take many more tries to make one of those come out decent instead of mangled!


albacore's picture

It's also worth remembering how the right oven can make the simplest of flatbreads made with the most basic of ingredients taste good - whether it is a clay oven or "just" a deck oven.

No wonder we sometimes struggle at home making these types of breads - probably why I don't make them very often!