Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (2024)

Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (1)

Photo: (c) Keller + Keller

Recent research suggests humans started cooking with fire nearly 2 million years ago. Drop a flat rock into the fire, and before you know it, you have a cooking surface for pita, tortilla and focaccia. Many of the flatbreads we know today are "from one idea that just diffused over thousands of years," says food historian and former archaeologist Paula Marcoux, author of Cooking with Fire. She recreated a flatbread recipe from artifacts that were found in cremation burials in Scandinavia.

Rebecca Sheir: You are a food historian, but I understand you also have experience as an archaeologist and a bread-oven builder. How do you feel those avocations informed your writing as you put this book together?

Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (2) Paula Marcoux Keller + Keller) photo: (c

Paula Marcoux: It was through archaeology that I first got to travel and see people baking in ways that seemed amazing and strange to me. I also got to dig up baking installations that were strange and unknowable.

It was as a baker that I began to mess with using different technologies and started to build them. I was trying to understand how people in other countries even today bake in unusual ways to us in the west, also how people used to bake in some ways that are entirely gone by now.

RS: In a section of the book, "Cakes on the Grill," you talk about how baking technologies developed to suit the grains available. They went hand-in-hand in terms of gluten and non-gluten. Can you explain that?

PM: For the last 10,000 years or so, people have been developing wheat to have more and more gluten in it so that it behaved well for bakers. The diffusion of that baking technology was carried out by nomads who were carrying griddles over the deserts and plains with them. They were baking flatbreads on these griddles. If they were traveling, they had no place for a big built oven installation, so baking on a griddle was most suitable for their way of life. These traveled all over the place. That griddling technology went with wheat, and nice, stretchy, big flatbreads came along with that.

In places that are colder and damper, wheat doesn't grow well. Grains such as rye and oats do much better on a griddle as a crunchy, little flatbread like you might find in Scandinavia or oat cakes you might find in Britain. It's a very different approach that’s determined by the type of grain that’s used in it. The griddle is a very simple baking technology that makes a flatbread.

Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (3) Marcoux's recipe:Pita Keller + Keller) photo: (c

RS: Is there a particular kind of flatbread that people should try to cook on their griddle?

PM: The simplest thing, and something that people are already so familiar with, is pita. Once you start making pita at home, you will never, ever buy them again because they are easy to make. They are addictive to make -- they are so much fun. Children can make them. The flavor that you get when you are using high quality wheat, whether it is whole wheat or white, is incomparable to pita you can buy.

RS: What makes them so fun to make?

Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (4) Cooking with Fire

PM: Just the process of getting them to puff up is the addictive part. You flip them back and forth a few times so that the pita forms a little bit of a crust on the outside. That's enough to trap the steam inside and puff the sides apart. It puffs up like a little beach ball on your griddle. That is really a very compelling type of baking to do.

RS: You have tons of recipes, but one of the most fascinatingly named is the Protohistoric Multigrain Flatbread.

PM: Yes. That is goofing on other archaeologists and our propensity for long names for things. It was given such a name because it's based on archaeology entirely.

It's not very appetizing-sounding, but it comes from artifacts that were found in cremation burials in Scandinavia. These are basically corpses that have been burned, but with grave goods. Sometimes these grave goods included flatbreads. In fact, very often, as an offering with the dead person.

When things are burned, they are often partially burned, lightly carbonized, and that preserves grain extremely well. Archaeologists have been able to determine exactly the components and shapes of these flatbreads, which I found entirely fascinating. Once I'd learned what types of grains they were made of, the types of fats that were in there, the shapes of the grains, the shapes of the flatbreads, there's nothing more to it -- that's basically a recipe.

I picked out a few of my favorite combinations and made them. It turned out they were really delicious, they keep very well and they are fun to make. You can leave a little hole in the middle, string them up and they keep for ages -- that's how people in Scandinavia used to keep their grain crop. If they kept the grain in its own natural state, it would go moldy or get mildewy. But if they made it into bread right away and then strung it up in their houses, it would keep for the entire season until the next harvest time.

Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (5) Marcoux's recipe:Protohistoric Multigrain Flatbread Keller + Keller) photo: (c

RS: Flatbreads have become really universal. Can you give examples of the different kinds of flatbreads around the world?

PM: It's really a staggering array. They diffused from central Turkey, from Anatolia, north, south, east and west. The same layering of bread with fat that went eastward to become what has come to us in Chinese restaurants as scallion pancakes went westward and was layered with fats and other ways to become everything from Italian pasta to borek in Slavic countries. It went back east again to become wonderful flatbreads on the subcontinent of India, Pakistan and south Asia all the way to Indonesia and Malaysia.

All these breads -- they are a fabulous array of flavors and textures -- they all come from one idea that just diffused over thousands of years. It's really not even known how long, but probably close to 10,000 years.

The flatbreads of Scandinavia may have developed entirely independently. Northwestern Europe had such a different grain tradition. These breads are really just lightly ground-up grains mixed up with some fat and some water, rolled out flat and then baked on a hot stone that is heated up over a fire or coals. Later on, only really quite recently after the Industrial Revolution, it was heated over an iron griddle. People in some parts of the British Isles still use bakestones. There are still bakestones and literal stones used in Scandinavia for this purpose.

Ancient burial sites contain clues to recreate flatbread recipes (2024)


What is flatbread made from? ›

A flatbread is bread made usually with flour; water, milk, yogurt, or other liquid; and salt, and then thoroughly rolled into flattened dough. Many flatbreads are unleavened, although some are leavened, such as pita bread.

What is an example of a flatbread? ›

Due to their geometry and structure, tortillas, pizza crust, English muffins, crumpets, and pretzels can be considered flat breads. Tortillas are flat breads traditionally made from wheat flour or maize and are indigenous to Mexico, Central America, and the southwestern United States.

Why are my flatbreads hard? ›

Do not add too much flour as that can really dry the dough and you'll end up with flatbreads that are tough. Step 2. Using a dough scraper, divide the dough ball into 16 balls that are equal in size. Flatten them slightly with your hand, cover with a clean kitchen towel and leave the dough to rest for 15 minutes.

What is the history of flatbread? ›

Though flatbread originated in Ancient Egypt, it can be found in several cultures. Afghanistan and India have their version of flatbread known as naan, Central and South America the tortilla, and Romagna, Italy the Piadini. Flatbread is produced and consumed nearly everywhere!

What are the 4 types of flat bread? ›

Flat breads are made throughout most of the world. Examples are pita (from the Middle East), chapati and naan (India), tortilla (Mexico) and focaccia (Italy).

Is flatbread just a tortilla? ›

Tortillas are typically baked on a triple pass oven, while flatbreads are usually baked in a tunnel oven. Flatbreads may also require a proofing or resting period that varies based on the specific flatbread being made.

What is a flatbread that starts with P? ›

Paratha is a layered Indian flatbread made from whole wheat flour.

What is special about flatbread? ›

Versatility: Flat breads can be served with a variety of toppings or fillings, making them a versatile food that can be adapted to suit different tastes and preferences. Nutritional benefits: Flat breads can be made with whole grains, making them a healthier option compared to o.

What is a flatbread with pocket that is perfect? ›

This soft, chewy flatbread is perfect for rolling into a sandwich or using as a pocket and stuffing with your favorite sandwich filling.

What is a bread that starts with P? ›

Like tortillas and naan, pita is a flatbread. Soft and round, this slightly leavened bread, which originated in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago, is cooked at a high temperature.

Should you toast flatbread? ›

Toast it however, and it comes to life. The slight browning of the outside improves the flavour. The steaming of the inside softens the bread inside.

Why is my flatbread gummy? ›

You might've cooked the first side too long -- I think you want to just barely cook it, then flip. (if you cook the middle through, it won't turn into a 'pocket pita'). You might also try the oven, as you'll get better puff in there.

What causes bubbles in flatbread? ›

Excess yeast causes extra air bubbles to form, creating holes in the baked bread. You prepared the recipe correctly. The interaction of the various ingredients and the preparation method used for French bread and sourdough bread are intended to create a bread which has a coarse texture and uneven holes.

Why is my flatbread not cooked in the middle? ›

Setting the Oven Temperature Is Too Hot

If your oven runs hot, your bread is likely to brown and bake up on the outside before the center has a chance to fully cook. Invest in a simple oven thermometer to help verify the temperature. Make sure you have other bread baking essentials in your kitchen, too.

Are flatbreads healthier than bread? ›

Not necessarily. While different doughs vary nutritionally, flatbread is generally just unleavened bread. In other words, bread dough that was not made to rise. Flatbreads may look smaller, but if it's the same dough, the nutritional contents are identical.

Is flat bread healthy? ›

Other flatbread dough variations include a fat like olive oil or butter. Is flatbread healthy? Yes! It's one of the healthiest breads you can make because it's low in calories and fat but high in fiber.

What kind of bread is used for flatbread? ›

Yet, the two main categories of flatbreads include single-layered (either leavened or unleavened) bread and double-layered, leavened bread. The main ingredients of a flatbread are flour, water, and salt — thus making the flatbread one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen.

What is the difference between flatbread and regular bread? ›

One of the main differences is the thickness of the bread. Flatbread is typically thinner than normal bread, which means it has a lower calorie count per serving. However, this can vary depending on the recipe and ingredients used.

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