Why It Works
- Baking the lavash under the broiler on a baking steel or stone set near the bottom of the oven replicates the intense but indirect heat of the classic tonir oven.
- Honey and milk help to promote rapid browning so that the lavash cook perfectly in a matter of seconds.
- Whole wheat flour adds flavor and color to the bread, and cornstarch helps to keep it tender.
- A short autolyse helps build structure in the dough without kneading.
- A long, cold proof after shaping into balls makes the dough easy to roll out as thinly as possible.
After choreg, the bread Armenians consider most fundamental is lavash. This paper-thin, blanket-sized bread is one of the most ancient breads still being made today.
The very first breads humans invented were likely cooked directly on hot embers; later, they were baked on the surface of heated flat stones. In order to be cooked in this way without burning, the breads had to be rolled out extremely thinly, and thus lavash was born. Lavash is so central to Armenian culture that it was recently added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (It also appears separately on that list as culturally important to Armenia’s neighbors Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey.) Nowadays, most lavash is cooked in underground clay ovens called tonirs—more or less identical to an Indian tandoor oven—or on a convex metal griddle known as saj.
What Is Lavash?
Lavash is a simple bread, made from flour, water, and salt; while some versions of lavash are unleavened, most are leavened using an “old dough” method, where a small portion of each batch of dough is set aside to inoculate the next one (essentially a form of sourdough). The dough is rolled into a thin sheet about three feet long by two feet wide, then stretched over a convex cushion with a handle on its underside and sprinkled lightly with water. The cushion serves as a sort of peel, allowing the baker to quickly reach down and slap the dough against the oven’s walls, where it will stick. In the intense heat of the fire, the breads bubble and brown in a matter of seconds, after which they are plucked from the oven using a long metal hook and added to a nearby stack of cooked lavash. In Armenia, lavash making is usually done by women, who work in groups, with each person taking on a single element of the process. (Men participate in lavash-making by building ovens and constructing the cushions, but they aren’t usually involved in the baking of the bread itself.) While lavash is commonly eaten fresh, it’s just as often allowed to dry completely so it can be preserved for later use. The thin bread keeps well once dried, and is easily rehydrated by soaking it in or sprinkling it with water.
Baking Lavash at Home
I’ve never been to Armenia, so most of my understanding of how lavash is made traditionally comes from watching videos online, and from reading the excellent cookbook and Armenian travelogue Lavash, by Kate Leahy, Ara Zada, and John Lee. (The video above is one of theirs.) And what I’ve learned is that while making lavash is hardly complicated, its unusual size and unique baking method present numerous complications for anyone hoping to recreate the bread in a home setting. In developing a recipe of my own, I first had to scale it way down: the largest size anyone at home could handle easily was about 12 inches long by 10 inches wide.
Given the simplicity of most lavash dough formulas, what went into my recipe was less important than figuring out how to recreate as best as possible the conditions in a blazing-hot tonir. So I cobbled together a basic testing recipe of high-protein all-purpose flour with a little whole wheat (for flavor and color; many lavash breads use whole wheat flour), water, and salt.
A tonir is a live-fire oven, which means the lavash cooks from both sides at once: conductive heat from the wall of the oven it is stuck to and radiant and convective heat from the fire below. This allows it to brown and crisp up on the exterior in a flash, while still remaining flexible and tender within.
My go-to method for fast baking in a home oven (with pizzas, for example) is on a baking steel, preheated at the maximum oven temperature (500˚F in my case), placed high in the oven to maximize reflected heat, which helps cook the top of the bread. I tried this with my lavash dough, but it wasn’t intense enough. By the time the bread had begun to brown (after about 3 minutes) it was also dried out and cracker-like.
So I turned up the heat by turning on the broiler. This was more promising, because almost as soon as I slid the bread onto the steel it began to bubble and blister—clearly the hot broiler was a better approximation of the live fire of the tonir. Except there was one problem: eventually (after about 15 seconds or so), the smaller bubbles all combined into one as the bread puffed up like a giant pita. And once the top of the balloon hit the hot broiler element, it burned and burst.
So I moved the baking steel lower in the oven, to give the bread plenty of room to expand—all the way down to the lower-middle rack. This setup worked like a charm: the bread puffed up fully in about 30 seconds, after which I flipped it and let it bake for another 5 seconds or so before pulling it out.
While lavash baked in a tonir bubbles and blisters, it does not inflate like a balloon, because it cooks so fast it doesn’t have time to. And while my lavash didn’t bake quite like one done in a tonir, the end result was tender, moist, and thin enough that it didn’t matter.
Perfecting the Dough
Once I had a baking method that worked, I focused on improving the dough formula. It took a few weeks of tweaking, but I finally landed on something I was happy with. Here are the issues and the improvements I made to fix them:
- The lavash were slow to brown. They would brown if I left them in the oven long enough, but by that time they were also overcooked and crunchy. To speed up browning, I added two ingredients to the formula: honey, which has a lot of sugars that are quick to caramelize, and milk, which contains proteins that are quick to brown. (That said, my lavash still don’t brown nearly as much as those baked in a tonir, but they are nevertheless great.)
- The lavash were a bit tough. To tenderize them, I added a little oil, along with some cornstarch—an ingredient used by many commercial brands of lavash.
- The lavash still were on the dry side after baking, even with the improved browning. I fixed this in two ways: I increased the hydration significantly, and I began misting the top of the rolled out dough with water just before it went into the oven, just as many other lavash-makers do. (This serves to add a touch more water to the bread without making it more difficult to roll out.)
- The lavash were resistant to rolling out thinly and easily. This I solved by using a long, cold fermentation. By letting the dough proof for a few hours at room temperature (just until it was clearly active), shaping it into individual balls, and placing them into the fridge for 12 to 24 hours, the dough has plenty of time to relax, making it far easier to roll out. (The dough can be rolled out while still cold, which adds flexibilty to the recipe, too.)
A few other key things to know about making lavash:
- Pro lavash-bakers know to use a ton of flour when rolling out the dough, so don’t skimp on it. This means you can work with a wet, high-hydration dough (for a moist, tender bread) and still have it be easy to roll out without tearing or sticking. You can brush off the excess flour on the top of the dough right before baking, and brush off the remainder after the bread has cooled.
- Use a straight pin when rolling the dough for best results. Lavash-makers use a thin dowel known as an okhlavoo to easily get the dough evenly paper-thin. A tapered French pin is harder to use for paper-thin doughs, since it tends to compress the dough unevenly.
- If the bread doesn’t puff up fully within a few seconds, it probably won’t ever, so don’t overcook it. Flaws in the dough can prevent it from puffing fully, but it will still be great if you pull it out at the right time.
- A rimless baking sheet makes a great peel for lavash. Because the dough is so large, it’s too big for the average pizza peel. I found that a rimless baking sheet worked just as well as a peel. (If you don’t have one, you can also use the back of a rimmed baking sheet.)
- Stacking the baked breads together is important for the final texture. Piling lavash up under a towel to cool helps to retain moisture that would otherwise evaporate, so the bread stays soft.
- You can cold-proof the dough in a variety of containers. I like to put mine into lightly-oiled pint deli containers, since it makes it easier to mov the individual balls of dough around and there’s no risk of them sticking together. If you don’t have any deli containers or something similar, put the balls on a lightly oiled tray, spaced at least a few inches apart. (And be sure to cover the tray well with plastic wrap, without making it so tight that it compresses the dough.)
- Lavash is meant to be eaten fresh, or dried out for later use. If you don’t plan to eat the lavash within a few hours, you have a couple of options. The bread keeps for a day or so stored in a zipper lock plastic bag, but is best refreshed by either heating it in a low oven for a few minutes or by moistening it with water and allowing it to sit for 30 minutes to rehydrate. For longer storage, it’s best to dry it out completely by putting it into a low oven for about an hour, which will transform it into a delicate, brittle cracker. (Armenians like to crumble this form of lavash into soups and stews, including khash, their version of “bone broth.”)