Our latest obsession: Naan Sangak

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summary: recipe for wild Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread); using our trusty Jane Mason whole wheat starter created in July 2017; it turns out that measuring carefully IS a good idea; store-bought river stones are filthy; our expectations might be too high; all’s well that ends well; we made another video!

There was a little girl,
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
            When she was good,
            She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
 
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Okay, I’m not so little any more. But Mum always told me that Longfellow’s poem was written specifically about me….

Because the summer has been so hot, in our attempts to not be cranky that people are misusing their AC units by keeping their houses ridiculously cold, we have been embracing our barbecue to make naan. Suddenly, as we realized that we had a.) run out of yoghurt and b.) the milk in the fridge had gone sour (again!!) because of the excessive heat and humidity, we remembered reading about making Iranian bread. It doesn’t call for anything but flour, salt, and water. (We loved Barbari Bread whenever we make it!) We reminded ourselves by looking inside Naomi Duguid’s lovely “Taste of Persia” again:

There’s a kind of reverence surrounding two of the breads of Iran. One is the classic breakfast bread called barbari, with a ridged browned top, and the other is sangak, the chewy, textured “pebble bread” that most often accompanies lunch and supper. […] The traditional oven of a sangak bakery has a tall, narrow opening and inside the cavern of the oven is a wall of gravel sloping upward toward the back. Sang means stone or pebble in Persian, so sangak refers to bread baked on a bed of stones. […] It’s possible to make reasonable versions of both sangak and barbari in a home oven if you have a baking stone and, for making sangak, a supply of small stones […] If you have a starter going, use it rather than the yeast and lengthen the proofing times as necessary.
 
– Naomi Duguid, “Bread in Iran”, Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, p.258

Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)

Since childhood, we’ve known about stone soup. But Stone bread? We neeeeeeded to try Stone Bread!

Initially, we were going to take a couple of baskets to the edge of the lake and gather enough stones to cover a baking tray. But we thought more about it – if even a quarter of the people living in Toronto did the same thing, there would be no more stones by the edge of the lake. :stomp: :stomp:

So, instead, we grabbed our masks, jumped on our bikes and rode to Canadian Tire to buy a container of river stones. They were in the garden section. There were black stones, white stones, and a mixture of colours. We chose the mixture; it seems more natural. And. What if the black stones had been artificially coloured?? :lalala:

Mini River Rocks (2.2 kg)
This container cost Cdn$6.99. There are more than enough
(just) rocks to fill a rimmed cookie sheet.

When we got home, we dumped the stones into a bucket of soapy water and swooshed them around. Whoa!! We could not believe a.) that there were no suds and b.) how much oil and dirt was floating around in the suddenly murky water. It took about ten washings before a second squirt of dish detergent actually foamed, and several rinsings before the water ran clear. Then, we boiled the stones for about 10 minutes, drained them and left them to dry overnight.

River Stones for Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)

Naomi Duguid’s recipe for Naan Sangak calls for commercial yeast, and even though she does say to use our starter rather than yeast, she doesn’t really give any guidelines about it.

I knew I could use our trusty formula for converting a recipe to use wild yeast instead of commercial yeast. But I thought I’d see if anyone on the internet had already published a sourdough Pebble Bread recipe.

Of course there is someone! He also included handy tips about preparing the stones:

I purchased my pebbles from a Home and Garden store, washed them thoroughly, and tested them in the oven to make sure that they were suitable for this purpose.
To test them, I laid out the pebbles on a baking sheet, put another baking sheet on top and baked them at 520°F for 30 minutes to ensure that they can withstand the heat and not crack or shatter.
 
– Omid Roustaei, The Caspian Chef | Naan Sangak – Persian flatbread

So cool!!

1st try at Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)
1st try at making Naan Sangak

And we completely neglected to bake the stones for 30 minutes just in case they shattered. The first time round, just as the bread was almost done, we heard a couple of explosions inside the barbecue. Nobody was hurt. There was no damage to the barbecue. But. Silly us for not taking better care!

hahahahahahahahahahahaha

For our 1st and 2nd tries, I kind of went overboard when calculating how much water to use. I also made an executive decision (because I’m an expert) to use a higher percentage of all-purpose flour than whole wheat. Because the bran might cause problems with the kneading of the really slack dough.

As if that would make any difference at all. The dough – ha!! make that batter – was 87% hydration. (I thought it was 77%. Clearly, I have to pay more attention with the calculator….)

Following Omid Roustaei’s advice in his recipe, we made two breads the first time we tried this. And both of them worked out pretty well.

We had a little difficulty with the transfer to the hot stones – but in spite of the less than stellar look of the bread, it tasted fabulous. (The dough was really really slack….)

1st try at Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)
1st try at Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)
1st try at making Naan Sangak

For the second time, we made just one large bread. We had a LOT of difficulty with the transfer of that slop to the hot stones.

Or rather, no difficulty at all. In a flash, it poured itself off the tray edges, over and onto the stones, oozing off in places onto the grill.

2nd try at Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)
2nd try at making Naan Sangak

There were words.

There was stomping.

(It’s true. We are like little children if our dinner doesn’t turn out exactly the way we want it to.)

:stomp: :stomp:

Never.

Mess.

Ruined.

Not Doing This Again.

Just Throw The Stupid Stones Into The Garden.

:stomp: :stomp:

Then: maybe it’s not so bad….

2nd try at Naan Sangak
2nd try at making Naan Sangak

The next morning when we had calmed down, we agreed that the dough, {cough} ermmm, batter was TOO wet. We also agreed that it needed more whole wheat flour; it was just a little bland tasting. We agreed that maybe, just maybe, it was safe to try again.

I did some more calculations. Here is what we did for the 3rd time. The 3rd time that was indeed the charm:

Wild Naan Sangak
based on Naomi Duguid’s recipe for Naan-e Sangak in her book “Taste of Persia”, and on Omid Roustaei’s recipe for Naan Sangak on his website “The Caspian Chef”

makes one cookie tray sized bread

Leavener (night before)

  • dessert spoon (about 40 grams) Jane Mason whole wheat starter from the fridge
  • 50 grams ‘no additives’ 100% whole wheat flour
  • 50 grams water at room temperature

Leavener, continued (morning of)

  • all of the above
  • 15 grams ‘no additives’ 100% whole wheat flour
  • 15 grams water at room temperature

Actual dough (day of)

  • 120 grams room temperature water
  • 40 grams whole wheat flour, sifted and lumps reserved for later
  • 140 grams unbleached ‘no additives’ all-purpose flour
  • All the leavener
  • 6 grams sea salt

For shaping and baking (around 7pm)

  • water for under dough when shaping
  • good shot sesame seeds
  • rimmed baking tray of clean, dry stones
  • a second flat bottomed baking tray
  1. leavener: In the late evening before baking the bread, put the leavener ingredients into a smallish bowl and using a wooden spoon, mix until all the flour is incorporated. Cover with a plate and leave on the counter for 8-12 hours until it becomes bubbly and frothy like mousse.
  2. leavener, continued: In the early morning of the day you will be baking the bread, feed the leavener again with 15 grams each of whole wheat flour and water (it’s very warm in our kitchen and the starter was starving). Cover with a plate and leave on the counter for a few hours.
  3. mixing the dough: Around noon on the day you will be baking the bread, check to see that a small forkful of the leavener floats in a little bowl of cool room temperature water. If it does, you can go ahead and mix the dough. Put the dough ingredients into a largish mixing bowl along with the now bubbling leavener. Mix as well as you can with a dough whisk or wooden spoon to make a rough dough.
  4. Kneading: Use one of your hands to squoosh dough; use the other hand to steady the bowl – this way you always have a clean hand. At first the dough might be a bit messy and seem like it’s coming apart. Persevere. Suddenly, it will seem more like dough than a horrible separated glop. Keep folding it over onto itself until it is relatively smooth. Cover with a plate and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.
  5. Stretching and folding the dough: Turn the bowl as you fold and re-fold the dough into the center. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave on the counter (or if the kitchen is cool like ours in winter and spring, into the oven with only the light turned on). Repeat the folding step about 3 times in all at 30 minute intervals. You’ll notice that after each time, the dough will feel significantly smoother. After the final time of folding, cover the bowl with a plate and leave on the counter to rise.
  6. turn on the barbecue: Around dinnertime on the day you will be baking the bread, put the cookie tray of stones into the barbecue, close the lid, and turn it to high
  7. shaping: While the barbecue is preheating, use the palms of you hands to slather water over the bottom of another cookie tray. Turn the risen dough onto the tray (the dough will still be pretty slack). Wet your hands again and gently guide and flatten the dough into a rectangle, making sure that one end of the rectangle is very close to the narrow side of the tray. Evenly scatter sesame seeds and the sifted-out bran on top.
  8. baking: When the barbecue is preheated (direct and indirect heat, carry the tray and tip it at the back edge of the tray of hot stones. DO NOT TOUCH THE STONES WITH YOUR HANDS! The dough should begin to slide off the back of the wet tray. If it does not, gently nudge any part that is sticking with a thumb or finger. Gently pull the dough tray back towards the front of the barbecue to stretch the dough onto the hot stones. Once the dough is on the stones, it WILL stick for the first part of baking. Don’t even imagine you can rearrange it.
    Slowly tip the plate so that the dough begins sliding off of the wet plate onto the pebbles. Gently pull the plate back in a smooth slow motion as the rest of the dough slides and lands on the pebbles. Help it along the way but make sure you don’t touch the hot pebbles! Once the dough is on the pebbles do not attempt to rearrange it, as it will already be stuck to the stones.
     
    – Omid Roustaei, The Caspian Chef | Naan Sangak – Persian flatbread

    Close the lid of the barbecue.
  9. It takes 5-10 minutes to bake the bread. Turn the tray around from time to time to account for uneven heat in the barbecue. USE OVEN MITTS!! To check to see if the bread is done, use blunt-nosed tongs to gently lift the bread from the stones. Some of the stones may stick to the bread. Don’t worry about that. Enough of the stones will fall off onto the tray to let you check for doneness.
  10. cooling slightly: When the bread is done, bring it inside on its tray of hot stones. Some of the stones will remain attached to the bread. They can be dislodged relatively easily with oven mitts or a spoon. BE CAREFUL!! THE STONES ARE STILL VERY HOT!

Use a pizza wheel to cut the de-stoned bread and serve it immediately.

Notes:

:: starter: Our starter is a 100% hydration, liquid levain. It takes about 5 days to create. (Please see our take on Jane Mason’s Natural Starter made with Wheat Flour.)

:: flour: In her Naan-e Sangak recipe, Naomi Duguid calls for a small(ish) amount of pastry flour, plus a more significant half and half mix of all-purpose flour and “fine whole wheat flour”. She also adds that if the finely milled flour is not available to substitute with regular whole wheat flour that is sifted “to remove the coarsest bran”. Omid Roustaei calls for a mixture of whole wheat and all-purpose flours.

:: amount of water: The amount of water used in Naan Sangak appears to vary from recipe to recipe. However, all of the recipes we looked at are quite sloppy, with baker’s percentage hydration anywhere between 75 and 85%.

:: to oil, or not to oil: Several online recipes call for oiling the stones and/or transfer plate. This doesn’t make sense to us – the oil on the stones could become rancid and have to be replaced. Omid Roustaei’s recipe calls for oil in the dough itself. Naomi Duguid’s recipe calls for zero oil, as do almost all the other Sangak recipes or descriptions of the bread that we found on the internet.

 

Naan Sangak (Persian Pebble Bread)

Stepping Back in Time

As we ate this bread, we couldn’t help feeling like we were in a time warp. Even though we were cooking on gas barbecue, and using store-bought flour that had been milled in a factory far away. Even the stones we baked on were store-bought. But still, how could we avoid that feeling while eating bread that is made with just flour, water, and salt and then flavoured with a few sesame seeds before being baked on hot stones?

There is a Hungarian saying stressing the antiquity of bread: “Bread is older than man.” Nine thousand years ago, in the fertile valley above the Persian Gulf, the first farmers sowed ccrops of wheat and barley, onions, peas, cucumber, and cultivated almonds and figs. […] The grains of wheat and barley could be roasted and pounded and made into a flat, tough bread when mixed with water and baked on hot stones. […] [Throughout the world] bread has very different characteristics. It might be flat and rather tough, like the chuppatis of India, black and sour like the pumpernickel bread of East Europe and Russia, hollow and resembling a pocket, like the bread of Greeze, or flat and heavy and honeycombed with holes, like the sang-gak of Persia, or the shrak like a piec of calico, a pancake of wholemeal flour baked on a hot sonte – one of the staple breads of Jordan. The last mentioned breads are perhaps direct descenants from the original breads of Babylon and Sumer. […] Some of these breads might have been partially leavened with wild yeast from barley and millet beer.
 
– Adrian Bailey, ‘Bread from the Stones’, The Blessings of Bread, p.15
Sangak is the Farsi word for the little rocks or pebbles which ultimately make this bread different from all others. The dough is baked on a layer of hot pebbles, giving this bread its signature look of an uneven surface with many indentations. […] The bread itself is more wholesome than many other Persian flatbreads. Sangak has a higher ratio of whole wheat to all-purpose flour and is naturally leavened by a sourdough starter instead of yeast.
 
– Omid Roustaei, The Caspian Chef | Naan Sangak – Persian flatbread
People line up at sangak bakeries in the late morning waiting for bread to take home to the family for the noontime meal. The breads are huge, sometimes four feet long and nearly two feet wide, dimpled golden sheets that soon stiffen in the dry air. […] [Y]ou need a thick bed of pebbles on a rimmed baking sheet. (If the pebbles are in just a single layer, the dough drapes around them and too many of them become embedded on it.) I had thought that the stones needed to be rounded river stones, but in fact in Iran the bakers use regular sharp gravel. [But] smooth-surfaced stones are easier to dislodge from the breads.
 
– Naomi Duguid, “Bread in Iran”, Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, p.258
As the sun began to rise over Yazd, Iran, I found myself deep inside the backstreets of this ancient city, wandering around in search of ideal lighting for photographs. When my stomach started to indicate it was time for a break, I stumbled upon a home that had a wood-burning oven.
      Three men were moving swiftly from one part of the room to the next, trying to maximize their time and produce enough bread for the neighborhood before it awoke for its daily activities. They were making sangak, a staple bread in the Iranian diet and popular, it seems, among everyone here.
 
– Kaid Ashton, Roads and Kingdoms | Squeezing Breakfast From a Handful of Stones

 

We were so excited by the experience of baking bread on river stones that we had to make a video!

Es werden immer Steine auf der Straße vor uns sein. Sie werden Stolpersteine oder Trittsteine sein; es hängt alles davon ab, wie Sie sie verwenden. [There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how you use them.]
– Friedrich Nietzsche

1 response to “Our latest obsession: Naan Sangak

  1. barbara

    Your intro had me hooked. Who could resist “it turns out that measuring carefully IS a good idea” and “store-bought river stones are filthy”?

    An exciting tale! The holes look like they’d be perfect for picking up curry gravy!

    edit 16 August 2020, 18:50: The holes may look perfect for picking up gravy, but they tend to have little holes to let the gravy leak through. Even so, the bread is pretty fabulous! -Elizabeth

    Reply

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