Friday, August 11, 2006

Injera-what I Learned This Week

Injera- I've decided this flat sourdough Ethiopian bread is more of an artform than just a simple recipe! Last week I came up with a pretty decent injera by improvising with some seltzer water for extra ain (what Ethiopians call the bubbles- it literally means "eyes"). This week though, after consulting several sources regarding the science of breadmaking, I have come up with the perfect injera. Well, it seems perfect to me based on my experiences in Ethipian restaraunts in America. Avery, who just spent a week in Ethiopia also said that it tasted and felt just right. The only thing that's not quite right is the color. My injera is a little darker than most of what I and Avery have seen. I have absolutely no explanation for that. Well, actually, I have a theory about the kind of teff I used. I'll explain later. I was counting on my very dear friend, Rosa, to critique my cooking this weekend. Rosa is originally from Ethiopia, so I figured she'd know better than anyone if it was right! Unfortunately, her plans changed at the last minute, so I have nobody to critique the authenticity of my injera. Anyway, I am going to share in excruciating detail all of the things I learned about injera this week. If you have no interest in making injera, you probably ought to stop reading now because this post is probably going to get pretty boring. If you want to cut right to the chase, you can skip all the way to the second to the last paragraph where I start with "So, in a nutshell..." Otherwise, proceed with reading my ramblings about injera!

I am definitely not Betty Crocker, so perhaps the things I learned this week will be painfully obvious to some of you who are reading this! However, I know that there are others out there who have the same culinary expertise that I was born with, so I'm going to explain every little thing I learned. If any of my readers have anything to add, I sincerely hope you will post a public comment so that everyone else can learn from you too!

Okay, here we go. First, If you've ever made sourdough bread from a starter, you might know more than you think about injera! I've tried countless times that recipe that we've all seen on the internet about mixing teff and water and letting it sit for 3 days and supposedly, just like magic, the injera will be perfect. Well, in all of my trying, the magic just never happened for me! The finished product has always been either gummy and/or completely void of ain. However, after reading up on it, I understand in theory why and how that ought to work. I'll explain.

Again, this works in theory. I have not had success with this method yet, but in theory, the science behind this is correct. As with any artform, I'm sure this could be perfected with lots of practice and experimenting. You see, combining the flour (teff in the case of injera) with water is the first step in creating a starter. The starter is the first, crucial element in making injera. Without a proper starter, it will not be possible to achieve the same sour taste combined with the soft, airy quality that is characteristic of good injera. To make the starter, you combine 3 3/4 cups flour with 4 cups warm water. The water must be warm, 105 degrees is ideal. Warm tapwater is fine to use. This mixture of flour and water will naturally attract wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria over the next several days. I am going to once again try this method that does not include using commercial yeasts next week. If I ever get it to really work well, I'll share.

Thus far, I have not gotten injera to work without commercial yeast. I did however, produce some near perfect injera this week using commercial yeast. Here is what I did:

1. I experimented and realized that following a recipe precisely doesn't guarantee successful results. I realized that injera is more about the smell and appearance than about the recipe.

Injera needs to ferment. That's how it gets the sour taste. Since I couldn't get it to work by relying on natural yeasts, I used dry commercial instant yeast instead. As the dough ferments, the sour taste develops and the fermenting action causes carbondioxide bubbles to build up and cling to the gluten in the teff. When the injera is cooked, the heat causes the carbondioxide gasses to escape, hence the ain, or bubbles. If there's not enough yeast, the taste will be right, but the bubbles won't be there.

That's what my problem has been: the taste is right, but the texture isn't. After consulting with a couple of women this week who know far more about baking bread than I do, I concluded that adding some yeast to my fermenting teff and water starter might help. It indeed did help.

So, on the first day, I started with teff and warm water. The consistency should look like pancake batter (when you make thin pancakes, not big, fat, fluffy ones). I used about 3 3/4 c. teff and 4 c. warm water. You need to cover the container tightly so that the fermentation gasses will be trapped inside. I made mine in an ice-cream pail, which is working quite well. If you cover it with plastic wrap, this allows you to see what's happening to the starter without taking the lid off and releasing the gasses. Secure it with a rubber band though because as the gasses build up, it can cause even a tight lid to blow off the top of the container. Once I became familiar with the injera batter, I just started using the lid because I no longer had such a need to see it all the time to make sure it was right. Also, don't use a metal container. Use either glass or plastic. I have no idea why (like I said, I'm not Betty Crocker), but every book and baker I've talked to has said that, so I thought I'd just follow their advice!

You can stir the teff and water with a spoon, but I recommend using your hands for a couple of reasons. One, you can get it mixed a little better, as you can squeeze the lumps with your fingers. Two, there are natural yeasts and good bacteria on your hands, both of which are good for your starter. Three, it's good to know what the starter feels like, sort of like getting to "know" the bread. I'm not suggesting that you form an emotional bond with your bread, simply that you become very familiar with it, as this helps in developing good inejra!

For three complete days, do NOTHING at all. Don't take the lid off and don't stir it. It will start to look really gross. Perhaps slimy, perhaps black and watery, perhaps yellowish and watery. Or it may seem to become alive and grow large lumps throughout it that poke up out of the water. On day 2 or 3 it should start to bubble. This means that you'll see little bubbles coming up. If you move the container a little, this will release some of the bubbles. Try not to move it because you want the bubbles to be in there, but feel free to move it a little just to see what's happening to the starter. Sometimes, it may bubble a lot and become frothy. All of these are good. It will smell "yeasty" or like bread dough, but also may smell bad like...well... like rotting flour?! Again, the smell is good. I actually enjoy the smell, but my kids definitely do not!

The starter should be kept warm, idealy at 72-75 degrees. Basically, keep it at room temperature. If it's in a room that's too cold, the yeast won't do it's job. If it's too hot, you can kill it. Literally, the starter is alive. Yeast is a living organism. You have to take good care of it so it doesn't die. A friend told me that if you turn you oven on to 400 degrees and leave it on for one minute that you can then turn it off and stick the starter inside. This is the perfect temperature to help the yeast do it's thing. I put my bucket on top of a baking sheet covered with a towel so that I don't risk melting the bucket on the oven rack. Again, make sure it's not too hot in the oven though or you'll just mess it up.

Now, on day 4, the injera can actually be cooked for a successful result in theory. For me, this has not happened yet though. For me, there just hasn't been enough ain without using yeast. I know that the yeast consumes the sugars in the flour and this produces the carbondioxide which clings to the gluten in the flour, which produces the ain. I sort of overcame this problem by adding seltzer water, which gives it instant carbondioxide bubbles. This produces a passable injera, but this week I decided to find a real solution instead of this quick fix.

So, here's what I did. On day 4, I added commercial yeast. Now, bread snobs are highly opposed to commercial yeast! This is why I hated to do it. But, I can't argue with the results I had, so I think I'll continue to use commercial yeast. I will continue to try to raise a healthy starter using only the natural yeasts in the air, but at least I can now make decent injera. Here's what I did:

On day 4, when the injera just wasn't working out, I added yeast. I used dry instant yeast. I used 1 tablespoon of yeast for every quart of starter. I had started with a larger batch, so I used 2 tablespoons of dry yeast. You combine that yeast in a bowl with about a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup warm water (105 degrees) out of the tap. This activates the yeast. The yeast starts to "eat" the sugar, which is what activates it. Supposedly, it's not necessary to activate instant yeast. I've tried it both ways though and I had better success with my injera when I activated it first. Perhaps it was a fluke. I don't know.

It takes perhaps 10 minutes to activate. You'll know it's activated when the mixture is sort of frothy or bubbly. At this point, stir the yeast mixture into the injera. Don't worry about the sugar making it sweet and taking away the sour taste. The yeast eats it up and you won't even taste that small amount. Once again cover it tightly. You always keep the starter tightly covered. Keep it warm. It won't be ready immediately, but in an hour or so, it should be ready to try and cook. We'll get to that later though.

You can go through this 4 day process each time you cook injera, each time starting from scratch. But, the way they would do it in Ethiopia, which is also the way that produces a more flavorful injera each time, is to save some of the batter as your starter. Just like when you make "friendship bread" you always save a little bit of batter for the next batch. In theory, you shouldn't have to add more yeast and the yeast in the starter will continue to grow and stay alive. I'm still working on this part. In order to keep it alive, you have to feed it. If you don't feed it, it will die and you'll end up with no ain in your injera. If you start making injera with no ain, you know your yeast has died.

To feed the injera, you have to give it a steady diet of more flour and warm water. I actually ran out of teff a couple of days ago and have had to use white flour, but the injera is still nice and sour. So, you can experiment. Maybe it's not necessary to use only teff, which as you know if you've ever made injera, is quite expensive. The "Bread Snobs" whose books I've been reading say you have to feed your starter 3 times a day. Others say you only need to feed it once a day. I tried the lazy approach and my starter died. So perhaps you do need to feed it more often. Like I said, I'm still experimenting!

To know how much to feed it, it takes simple math. If you have 2 cups of starter, you need to add 1 cup of warm water and 1 1/4 cups of flour. For the next feeding, double that amount. You would add 2 cups of warm water and 2 1/2 cups of flour. For the next feeding, double that amount. You get it, I'm sure!

If you know that you can't keep feeding it for some reason, you can put it in the refrigerater for up to a month. The coldness will slow the growing of the yeast enough that the yeast won't starve to death. Keeping it in a cooler room will also slow the yeast so you won't have to feed it as often. A warm room will require more feeding.

My problem is that the starter I currently have isn't very healthy because it seems to die each day. I revive it by adding more yeast, which enables me to create perfect injera. But, that's not the way it's supposed to work. I don't have the answer.

Now, when you cook the injera, the pan matters. I've had the best success using a non-stick teflon coated frying pan. I cook it on med-med high heat. You'll have to experiment with your stove. The injera needs to have airflow over the top of it and also the air has to be able to get to the edges, which gives it access to get up under neath the injera. So, if you pour the batter all the way to the edges of the pan, it will probably not allow enough air to get up underneath it and you won't have any ain. If you make just little tiny injeras in the center of the pan, they'll work out just fine. I bought a family size electric griddle for making injera. This way I can make big injeras. Since the griddle has no sides, it allows air to get to the injera from all sides.

So, in a nutshell, this is what I've learned this week: Injera gets the sour taste from fermenting for a minimum of 3 days. Injera gets bubbles from yeast. The easiest, fastest way to put yeast in it is by using commercial yeast. Don't be afraid to experiment. Add a little yeast, give it a few hours, and if it's still not turning out right, add some more yeast. It is through experimenting that you'll learn how to make injera.

Somebody this week said that I must be a great cook. It made me laugh so hard. I have a handful of dishes that I make really really well. I stick with what I know! Eventually, I'm going to master this injera thing. I like the concept of doing a few things really well rather than doing a bunch of things so-so.


owlhaven said...

Ok, I may be in the minority here, but this was extremely interesting to me, since I also have spent a lot of energy trying to get injera just right. I will be trying your hints.


5KidMom said...

I find it pretty darn interesting too! I have been a bit intimidated by the thought of trying to make injera because of all the not so good results I have heard about. While your post doesn't make it sound easy, it does make it sound do-able. You have done a great job of explaining the "how to" part, as well as the "problem solving" part. Great work!!

D.K. said...

I think Teff flour comes in different colors, hence the darker injera.

richlisad said...

We have just bought injera, so I haven't tried to make it yet, but we have made tons of sourdough stuff, so I have a thought/question. In Ethiopia do they have a big bowl of
the "batter" and take out of it/add to it each day?


Heather said...

DK, I figured the color of the teff was probably where the color of the injera originated. And Rich, yes, in Ethiopia, they just always keep a batch of batter going. If you can do sourdough bread and keep the starter going, you're probably already a pro at injera!

chel said...

Congratz Heather!!! I'm thankful you've taken the time to blog about this. Very interesting:-)

Marleny said...

I don't know whether to say thank you or to start running away. I just bought some teff flour and thought it would be easy to turn it into injera but after reading your blog my legs are shaking,really. In any case thanks for taking the time to scare me...i mean,to help us out :^)

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think you're not supposed to use a metal container because the yeast bacteria don't like metal and will die.

The yeast comes from the air, so if you use an air-tight lid, the yeast won't be able to get in. I think you're supposed to cover it with a cloth.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned the gluten in the teff. Teff is gluten free which makes injera a wonderful "bread" for the multitude on gluten intolerant people out there.

Unknown said...

I made injera starter, thinking my friend was going to make injera. She went to hospital, and won’t be back for a bit. I added more yeast and someone set it in fridge. It smells yeastie, but not pleasant. And it has a layer of black.