Posted By Toyacoyah BrownJuly 21st, 2011Last Updated on: January 18th, 2020
While most cultures around the world have a version of fried dough –sopapillas, beignets, doughnuts etc. none is so versatile as Indian frybread.
Dipped in soup or berry gravy, smothered with honey butter or powdered sugar, or served as an Indian taco. Frybread turns into a favorite of all who eat it.
Many American Indian cultures have their traditional bread, usually made from corn or acorn flour. While wheat flour is not indigenous to Native America since the ration days reservation women have used real ingenuity to use foreign ingredients to feed their families. Rations included flour, oil, and yeast or baking powder. The original recipe for frybread is not recorded and was probably created in different areas at the same time.
The most famous frybread is probably the Navajo frybread, made as large as the pans that they are cooked in, then topped for a Navajo taco. Maricopa Pima makes huge but thin frybreads cooked outside using oversized tongs. Eskimo make little round fluffy frybreads. And frybread throughout the country run the gamut between those extremes.
Even having a round frybread is not universal. Many areas make a triangle or square frybreads. Actually making a perfectly round frybread is not easy. They can resemble every state of the union. Some frybreads have a hole in the middle, some have two holes and others have no hole at all. Some frybread cooks that don't put a hole will make a small tear in the dough where it's bubbling up too much to let the steam out while it's cooking, or just tilt the bread up while it's cooking to let the steam escape.
Just like there are sides taken in the mayo/miracle whip circle, there tend to be two camps of frybread lovers fluffier type frybread typical of the north, and flatter southern style. Of course, you can argue that the fluffier is better to dip in soup, and the flatter types are better for topping and even folding as an Indian taco. There are two other ends of the spectrum as well as recipe-wise baking powder vs. yeast. Some people put in powdered milk, some don t.
Frybread varies not only by region but by family. I didn’t grow up with frybread in my household, but after moving back to the Rez the different family recipes were evident. The only time my Mom made frybread she used the frozen bread dough. My friend whose Step-Mom was a Makah lady used regular yeast bread dough for fry bread.
The smell of the yeast throughout their house and seeing the dough overflowing her turkey roasting pan always meant it was time to stay for dinner. Another friend’s family just used self-rising flour for a quick batch.
When calling out for donations of frybread for a school Indian taco sale, the frybreads were a true melting pot of great, good, fair and barely passable frybreads. One thing was evident if you know you make good frybread, you don t want to eat any other. Many families refused to buy Indian tacos at that fundraiser unless it was their own frybread that was used to make it.
My first attempts at frybread were pretty dismal, using a baking powder-flour mixture that usually ended up with hockey pucks. I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a Comanche-Arapaho girl that gave me her ancient frybread secret she used baking powder and yeast in her never-fail recipe. I was hooked!
My Apache honey insists that while my recipe may be fluffy and look great, it just doesn’t t taste the way that Momma made it. Her Apache recipe was called grease bread, not for the grease that you cook it in, but the grease (shortening) mixed in the dough. So the challenge was on.
We decided that we would make both recipes, with the only differences being the addition of yeast and the sugar to feed it in recipe #1, and the shortening mixed in recipe #2.
Recipe #1Never Fail Frybread
4 cups flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
Pack fast rising yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
Cup powdered milk
Very warm water (out of the tap is fine, hottest water you can still put your finger in)
Mix all dry ingredients, then pour in 1 cups very warm water. Stir until incorporated. At this point you'll know if you need to add more water or flour to make a good dough. It should be just slightly sticky. Knead for a minute or two. Cover and let rise for about 1 hour.
Recipe #2 Apache Frybread
4 cups flour
4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
Cup powdered milk
Mix the baking powder and salt into the flour, then dump in the shortening. Mix it in with your fingers until there are no lumps – it should resemble cornmeal. Stir the powdered milk into 1 cup of warm water and mix it into the flour. Add more warm water until you get a nice dough. Knead for one minute, cover tightly, and set aside for at least an hour. Pinch off egg-sized pieces and roll into a ball. Let rest covered – for about 20 minutes.
The yeast dough rose more than the baking powder recipe which was to be expected. Baking powder is double-action meaning it creates bubbles when adding liquid and then again with the addition of heat. Yeast a living organism – starts making bubbles after a while of sitting with warm liquid and some food (sugar), then a little more with the addition of heat until it succumbs when the heat is too high.
The dough can be patted or rolled out into thin rounds. Some people refuse to use a rolling pin and do everything by hand and other traditional frybread makers don’t mind using a rolling pin to get an even thickness and fast. I tend to get a ball of dough, pat it out on the table, then pick it up and stretch it to the desired size. And of course, there’s the wrist-flip where seasoned frybread makers flip the dough from hand to hand in a blurring speed and get a perfect frybread.
Navajo Frybread Taco at a Dia de Los Muertos festival
My Mother-in-law fits into this category. I can flip the dough rounds and can get a more even thickness, but the size of the dough doesn’t change. All the frybreads we made started with an egg size ball of dough and ended up about the same diameter, the yeasty breads being just slightly thicker and the bottom had a more bubbly appearance.
The oil must be very hot before putting in the frybread. A cast-iron skillet helps hold the heat and distribute it evenly. Any other type of shallow pan can be used though. Put in at least an inch of oil and heat it just to the smoking point. A lot of cooks know to use some used oil in with the new oil to brown the bread nicely. Make sure your bread is ready and put them right in the oil to keep the oil from scorching.
Cook it until you see the brown color creeping up the side of the frybread, then turn it over and cook a little longer.
Take the frybread out and drain it on end, preferably over a rack that lets the oil drip off.
We made about 10 frybreads from each recipe and invited an impartial (kind of) judge over for Indian tacos.
First, my Brother-in-law who grew up eating his Mom s Apache recipe, but who has had the privilege of eating my Indian tacos for 5 years now. My honey only liked the Apache recipe, and wouldn’t even finish the small piece of yeast frybread I gave him for a taste test. I was in favor of the yeast kind as it had more texture and a tasty crust. My Brother-in-law leaned towards the yeast style as well. He ate 3 Indian tacos with the yeast breads and the baking powder bread as a taste test, and liked it all.
We’ll have to call this a draw.
Fluffy vs. flat, baking powder vs. yeast, whatever kind of frybread is your favorite, it’s most likely the kind you grew up with that Grandma or Momma made.
However you make it, remember that frybread is an excellent treat, but might not be healthy in your daily diet. There are ways to make your frybread healthier: using whole wheat flour; using a healthier oil with a high smoking point like canola, peanut, safflower or sunflower oil; making smaller and thinner frybreads; limiting frybread to special occasions.
But we all know you can smell frybread cooking a mile away and once you’re hooked, there’s no going back. Just talking about it makes me crave a hot greasy bread. Just like wine, frybread varies greatly from batch to batch and is just as addicting.
Please share your frybread stories, recipes, and tips!
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