While awaiting my new novel’s free e-book promotion to be completed on May 2nd, I decided I needed elk burger and fry bread for dinner. This inspired me to add to my ongoing series on recipes and life lessons. As part of my “what I learn from cooking” series, today I will go over fry bread. For those of you that read my bread and kimchi posts, you will know what to expect, for the rest of you let me explain. I will write the things I have learned about my life in the making of the recipe and at the end, I will add the recipe so that you can try to make it yourself. For those of you who want to limit having to read my blather please feel free to jump to the section labeled “My Fry Bread Recipe.”
So, the things I learned from making fry bread are really rather simple:
- The most important parts are ineffable.
- Do not be so rigid it is all about the result.
- Everyone has their own way.
- Pay attention to how it feels.
- Do not be afraid of new toppings.
The most important things in making fry bread are really ineffable. The ingredients and measurements depend on taste and flavor desired and they constantly change. The heat needed is hard to explain as is the texture of the dough (though I tried in my recipe). Really the most important parts are hard to understand until you are doing it. You can read the words, but the words only get you so far. Until you have the dough in hand a few times and get that practice in you will only kind of understand. This is why your fry bread will not be as good the first time as it will be after years of doing it. It is also why you should pay attention to pretty much everyone who has made it longer then you have in order to see new tricks and gain a better understanding. Do not become sad if your first batch comes out oddly, just keep practicing until you start to get the hang of it.
This is a good lesson in life. I pay attention to those that have lived the life I want to live to see how they have done it. I often find it is hard to form certain life experiences into words alone. But a mishmash of words from elders and my watching how they live tells me a lot. I listen to their stories about their lives and it gives me indications on what I should be doing well beyond what a simple rule might be able to elucidate. Some things need talking around and subtly hinted at rather than said straight out. This is because the best things in life just do not have words to describe them. The joy of traveling and meeting new people can be put into words, but not captured by them. How do I explain the moon rising over the ocean on the North Shore to someone that has never seen the ocean? The feeling and awe that I experience at that moment is not something I can put into words without leaving it a poor shadow of what it is. I can try, but my best advice is for those that want to experience it to go and experience it.
This leads into the next lesson I learned which is to not be so rigid in my rules and remember that it is all about the result. It often feels uncomfortable for people to not have a rigid structure and recipe to follow, and I understand that. But in the words of the first philosophy that America gave the world, “make sure it works.” Remember that there is not a right or wrong way to make fry bread. Our ancestors created fry bread in part because their basic subsistence living had been denied them and they found themselves with a mess of ingredients they needed to use to feed their families. They took their limited resources mixed in ingenuity and bam we have golden deliciousness. They did not have the luxury of demanding a certain flour or the exact same ingredients every time. What they had was the ability to adapt and survive. In this vein, I have substituted several ingredients when required, and honestly, the only time I measured was in an attempt to figure out the recipe below to share.
Life is like this. It is good to have a guideline on how to achieve the goals you want. But it is important to remember these are just guidelines. The final goal is the target, and one should not lose sight of it. The world throws many obstacles in the way, and adaption is often required. Do not be so rigid with what should be that you miss out on what is. Keeping an eye on what you want out of life while remaining open to what is actually available allows you to find opportunities you would have missed otherwise. As the old saying goes, as humans make plans the world shapes their life.
The third lesson is something I have heard from my family in response to people doing the craziest things, and that is “everyone has their own way.” In fry bread making as in life diversity causes arguments and yet is the source deliciousness. You talk to two fry bread makers and you end up with four ways of making fry bread. Everyone has their own recipe and way of doing it. I have yet to see a single recipe that everyone agrees on, and arguments will abound on if you should add sugar and if so how much. Milk over water, yeast over unleavened. It is all a big argument on whose is best, with little to no budging or changing on any side. These battles over diversity though have the benefit that you get to try everyone else’s. Whether it is a thin Navaho style or thick northern style, they both get tried. Sure, everyone says, “mine is the only way” but I have yet to see anyone turn down a piece made by a different tribe or family.
This lesson is a lesson that I honestly think Native People give to the world. My grandmother could look at someone from another culture doing something that likely shocked her and her response was a shrug and “everyone has their own way.” I have been part of sweat lodges around the country with attendees having vastly different styles and thoughts on it from my own, and yet everyone participated and got along. There might have been gentle (or not so gentle) chiding about certain differences, but in the end, everyone was accepted. Sure, some folk would argue over who’s way was better, but there was never an attempt to convert anyone. Their ways were just different, and when I think of my ways as being “better” it is unspoken that I mean “better for me.” There was no cultural war over who was given thanks to because let’s face it, giving thanks is awesome. Different individuals had different songs to sing and the different traditions they upheld. Listening to the traditions of other tribes is eye-opening and once you open yourself to it you can learn more about them and about yourself. I might not have a Great Spirit figure in my culture, but the many stories I have heard about other people’s beliefs taught me things about how to live my life. I do not need to agree with them, and they do not need to agree with me. We just need to agree to coexist and learn from each other when possible. Diversity can be a great thing when debate and discussions are based on acceptance rather than proselytizing. This one shared trait is why I can go to a powwow and potentially see over a thousand different cultures represented in peace and celebration.
The fourth lesson fry bread taught me was to pay attention to how it feels. This is connected to all three lessons above, especially ineffability, but I found it important enough to get its own spot. Learning how to be comfortable in my own abilities is important. I need to listen to my own voice when handling the dough. I need to be open to that feeling that something is not right. Whether I am handling the dough or handling my life I need to be able to quiet my mind to what should be and feel for what is. There are times in life when you just know that something is wrong. You feel it deep inside, and listening to that voice is important, even vital to a well-lived life. I cannot be afraid to stop and explore why I feel that way. Do I need more water, more flour? I need to be able to evaluate not on how I think things should be but how they are. It does not matter that the recipe called for a set amount, or even that it worked last time. What matters is that it is not working this time, and I need to adjust accordingly.
The final lesson is connected to diversity and it is; do not be afraid of new toppings. This is really a lesson I learned in most all food. Try it once, and see what the fuss is about. Some people like honey, others like cheese, both are amazing. I have seen people try all kinds of weird things on and with their fry bread and some of them were amazing. Do not be trapped in the idea of what should be used as a topping and give it a try. This is a lesson I have taken into life and is the reason I consider myself a foodie. I have yet to turn down any food offered except balut, and I semi-regret my refusal even now (I repeat SEMI-regret). Life is meant to be experienced. There is a host of flavors and experiences to try, and denying myself things out of fear or rigidity just seems silly. The globalization of the world has opened up a whole world to experience. Be thankful you live in a time you can experience these things and try them. Imagine living in Europe back when pepper was considered exotic and spicy. Who wants to live in a world where you have to colonize and destroy half the world just to get at pepper? We are lucky that we have all these cultures at our fingertips without the need to colonize anyone. All we need to do is make new friends and be open to their ideas of food and culture. Our world can be an array of colors and scents if we just open our doors and invite each other to lunch rather than be trapped in our own limited views.
Making fry bread is a recipe I learned from a pretty young age, and the lessons I have learned from it have stuck with me and guided my life much longer than other recipes. I have been blessed to learn such things, and the enjoyment of my life has been greater because of it. I hope that you also try the recipe below and learn your own lessons.
My Fry Bread Recipe
There are a multitude of recipes, but this one is mine. I have seen and used recipes that included milk, sugar, shortening, or yeast as well as a vast combination of other ingredients. Once when I was too lazy to go to the store I substituted about 2 cups of corn meal for flour (I was out of flour, sue me), and it added a nice crunch, but it really wasn’t your standard fry bread. I attest that when I use this recipe given to me by an Auntie it is the best fry bread ever made. That does not mean that when you make it you might not find a different recipe that you prefer. A good example of this is both sugar and shortening added to the dough which creates different flavors and consistencies.
The ingredients are my attempt to measure what is really me guesstimating. So, do not be too worried about being exact. Over time practice will tell you what you like and what you do not. Do not be afraid to modify and use substitutions. Remember that those who first started making fry bread where people displaced and forced onto reservations trying to feed their families with the limited supplies they had. They took the limited ingredients and ingenuity and created wonderful foods. They did not have the luxury of being rigid in what they added, so do not feel that you must. Experiment, try some sugar and see what you like.
I hand mix everything, the consistency is better felt that way. This is my thing, for regular readers, this is likely not a surprise. I am all about using my hands to chop, mix, and shape in the kitchen.
4 Cups Flour
2 Teaspoons Salt
4 Table Spoons Baking Powder
2 Cups Warm Water
Lots of Oil or Shortening, (Any oil made for high heat or what you would use to deep fry will work.)
A large bowl, metal tongs, a deep sided frying pan (or deep fryer), a paper bag, lots of paper towels, and a towel.
In a large bowl mix flour, salt, and baking powder (and any other dry ingredients you might use). Once that is a nice fine mixture push the ingredients up into a volcano shape and get your warm water. The recipe calls for 2 cups of warm water, but you will want to pour this slowly and mix as you pour. I usually pour in a cup and mix, before slowly adding the rest. The reason for this is that every time I have ever made the recipe it either needed more or less of the water.
Hand knead the dough until it is slightly sticky kind of like well-chewed bubble gum. If you just touch it, your hand should not stick, but if you really squeeze a thick piece it should feel sticky but not leave chunks on your fingers, just a filmy feeling. This is about the same as the bread dough I make, so those bakers among you should be fine. When you first start mixing it will be messy.
Once you have mixed the dough well form it into a giant ball and set the dough aside with a wet towel over the bowl. The towel keeps it from drying out and the flies off it.
Take your large paper bag (I ask for paper at the store periodically in order to have a fresh one ready) and cover the bottom in paper towels. The oil after cooking will seep from the bread which is something you want, and the paper towels will protect the surface under the bag from becoming oily. Both the paper bag and the paper towels will soak up some of this oil. A side note in large batches a cardboard box will also work. I would use one without printing or anything that might soak into the bread. This is my own weird phobia of chemicals seeping into my food so please feel free to ignore it if you learn that I am mistaken.
Fill your pan with about an inch to two inches of oil and turn up the temp to roughly medium-high heat. The pan you use will really affect this temperature so be ready to adjust as needed and learn about how hot you want it with your tools at hand. What you are looking for is the oil to be hot enough that the outside becomes golden brown about the same time the dough inside finishes cooking. The heat is very important and hard to explain in words, but with practice, you will get it. My stove is numbered one through 10 and I normally start off at seven and end up lowering it to 6 or 6.5. A good rule of thumb the thicker your bread the lower the heat and longer the cooking time.
Ok, your oil is heated, your bag is set beside the stove, and your dough is ready. Break off a very small piece and set it in the oil to test the temp. It should start bubbling and float very quickly, and within a short time turn a golden brown. This indicates that the temp is right so now comes the cooking.
Depending on how big you want your fry bread (a small piece to eat beside soup or bigger piece to make an Indian taco) grab about a handful of dough and start to stretch it in your hand. You are looking to pull it out into a roughly circular shape. This will pull easily and gravity will do part of the work for you. Do not worry if it rips just push the two sides back together, it is dough after all. It should plump some in cooking, so make it thin. Once you have a thin roughly round piece push your finger in the middle to create a hole. Yes, you need a hole in the middle of the bread to allow heat and spirits to escape from being trapped between the dough and oil.
Gently lower the dough into the oil away from yourself. Oil is hot and it bubbles and spits sometimes. It will bubble and float if your oil is hot enough. If it starts to smoke you have it too hot. Depending on the thickness the dough it will take about a minute of cooking before you turn it with the tongs. Cook until golden on both sides. Do not be afraid to lift and check the bottom. If your initial heat was too low you may have to flip more than once, but once you get the hang of it you should only have to cook each side once.
Once it is a nice golden color lift it out and put it in the paper bag to cool. Repeat steps until the bag is full and the dough is gone. While the second piece is cooking I usually rip the first piece apart to make sure the dough is cooked inside and to make sure the flavor is correct. This also has the added benefit of me eating fry bread while it is still hot and fresh.
If somehow not all the fry bread is eaten that first day or two it will harden. I like it hard with a bit of melted cheese on it to eat with eggs or soak up a stew. But not everyone does. The solution is either to dampen it and throw it in the microwave, or you can use the trick I use for cookies that harden. Take a plastic bag and put the hardened pieces in it and a slice of fresh regular bread. Let it sit overnight and by morning the bread should be hard and the fry bread or cookies should be soft again. How this magic works I cannot tell you, but it usually does.
Feel free to post your comments if you try the recipe or have other ideas on recipes I should try.
Have a great day and make something fabulous for dinner.