When my children first tasted the freshly baked pita at the Pita House in Patchogue, they were amazed at how soft and moist the bread was in contrast to the thin, dry pita from the supermarket. I promised them I'd learn to bake this bread at home.
It turns out that there are no big secrets to making pita bread. It requires the same ingredients as any other bread: flour, water, yeast and salt. A little bit of olive oil makes pita tender and gives it flavor. If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you can knead it with the machine. But the supple dough is easy to handle and fun to knead by hand.
A specific shaping technique is necessary to get the bread to balloon as it bakes. First, form small pieces of dough into tight balls. To do this, pull the slack surface of the dough downward toward the countertop and pinch it together underneath the round, creating a tight, smooth surface. Rotate the dough ball on the countertop, pulling the skin tighter and pulling any loose bits of dough toward the bottom and incorporating them into the seams underneath. Let the dough balls rest for 20 minutes, then use a rolling pin to roll them into flat disks. When the disks are placed in a very hot oven or on a very hot grill, the water in the dough will turn to steam, causing the pocket between the top and bottom surfaces of the disk to inflate.
Overbaking will dry out the dough, so bake your breads just until they puff up -- no longer. They should still be pale on top. And they're best when still warm from the oven or no more than a few hours old (this is why pita from the supermarket is inevitably stale). If you have leftovers, split them, cut them into wedges, brush them with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Then toast them in the oven for the best pita chips you'll ever have.
The pitas below can be baked on a preheated baking stone in a 425 degree oven for three or four minutes. But people have been baking pita bread for thousands of years over an open fire, and in the summer I like to pop them onto the grill as the ancients did. Grilling gives the bread some charred flavor, and keeps the kitchen cool. Make sure that your grill is nice and hot, so your pitas inflate to their maximum volume. A clean cooking surface is important. You don't want your breads to taste like last night's salmon, so scrape your grill grids well when the grill is hot. To prevent your breads from sticking, oil the bottoms of the breads so they'll come away easily when done.
GRILLED PITA BREAD
Fill your freshly grilled pitas with grilled lamb patties and garlicky yogurt sauce. Or tear them into pieces and dip them into baba ghanoush or hummus.
1 1 / 4 cups warm (not hot) water
1 1 / 2 teaspoons instant yeast
3 cups (16 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for grilling
1. Combine water, yeast, flour, salt, and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a rubber spatula until a rough dough forms.
2. Knead dough. By machine: With a dough hook, knead dough until it is smooth and springy, about 10 minutes on medium-low. By hand: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop. Flour your hands and knead the dough with firm strokes until it is smooth and springy, 12 to 15 minutes by hand.
3. Spray a large mixing bowl with nonstick cooking spray and place dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until the dough has more than doubled in volume and, when poked with a fingertip, doesn't spring back, 3 to 4 hours.
4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured countertop and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, flatten into a disk, sprinkle lightly with flour, drape with plastic wrap and let stand 20 minutes.
5. Preheat a gas grill to high. Use a rolling pin to roll each piece of dough into 1 / 4-inch-thick circle. Let the pieces rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
6. Lightly brush the tops of the dough rounds with olive oil and place them, oiled sides down, on the grill. Cover and bake just until the pitas inflate and are lightly charred on their undersides, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately or wrap them in a clean kitchen towel and serve within 4 hours.
Makes 8 (6-inch) pita breads.