Navajo Fry Bread

Some say that fry bread came from the time when about 8,000 of the Navajo people were imprisoned at Fort Summer, New Mexico during the nineteenth century. It is said that the Navajos were just given wheat flour and lard to eat–two commodities that were quite foreign to their bean and corn-based diets. Others say that the Navajo and folk of other tribes made the bread because they didn’t know what else to do with the government-granted wheat and fat they were given on the reservation to live off of. Still others say that they are a variation on the sopapillas that the Spanish settlers made that the Navajos found to their liking and learned to make.

In whatever case, what may well be a dish born of want and adversity, has become a symbol of pan-Native American pride a century later. Fry bread is comfort food with a big “C” to Native Americans, many of whom call themselves, “Indians,” in defiance of political correctness.

I know, because I am related to some of them.

I didn’t learn to make fry bread from my Grandma, even though she is the source of the Cherokee genes that gave me my eyes with the slight epicanthic folds and my high cheekbones. The looks she gave me, but the bread, well, that I learned on my own.

I learned it because Morganna wanted me to.

Fry bread, served with fruit, honey, or jam, or with bison-based taco meat, or pinto beans, is a staple food on the powwow circuit. Morganna grew up attending powwows with her stepgrandfather, another of Cherokee descent, and started doing fancy shawl dancing when she was only about eight or nine years old.

So, she grew up eating a lot of fry bread.

And, it was inevitable that she would ask me to learn to make it.

So, I did.

Most recipes are leavened either with baking powder or yeast, but I used both. Most recipe use only white flour, but I added whole wheat flour, because I like the flavor and texture it adds. Most recipes use milk or powdered milk for the liquid, but I used water. I also added a bit more honey for a more developed flavor, and then I decided to let the dough rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight. The longer, slow fermentation develops a delicious flavor in the bread, and the texture of it, once it is fried is light as a cloud on the inside, while the outside is chewy-crisp.

While they are similar to bhatura, they are not exactly the same. They are lighter on the inside, and the flavor is very different, due to the whole wheat flour and the honey. The yogurt in the bhatura gives the dough a characteristic tart flavor that is very distinct from the taste of these fry breads.

I made them this Sunday past when my Mom and Dad came to visit for the afternoon. I had cooked a pot of chili with three kinds of beans, chipotle chiles, smoked Spanish paprika, beer and coarsely ground beef in it; instead of serving it with the usual crackers that my parents would expect, I decided that fry bread was just the thing for dipping and scooping.

And I was right.

I think my Mom ate three pieces of the bread herself; my Dad only ate a moderate two pieces, but his bowl of chile was bigger.

As for Morganna: well, she says that I make the best fry bread in the whole world, but I think she is biased.

Besides, all the Indian kids say that about their Moms.

It’s a tradition.


Navajo Fry Bread

Ingredients:

5 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons oil (I use canola or olive oil–lard is more traditional)
2 cups hot water (bathwater temperature)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast yeast (I use SAF)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2-4 cups additional flour (evenly split between whole wheat and white flours)
Peanut oil for deep frying

Method:

Mix together honey, oil, water and yeast. Allow to sit to proof yeast.

Put first three cups of flour, salt and baking powder into bowl and stir well. When yeast mixture is foamy and thick, pour into flour bowl and stir until it forms a thick batter. Add in two more cups of flour, oil hands well and begin kneading to incorporate flour. Knead until the dough is firm and begins pulling away from sides of the bowl and pulls dough off of your hands.

Spray the inside of a large ziplock bag with canola oil, and put the dough in, then seal it up, leaving plenty of air inside. Put into the refrigerator and allow to rise for about twelve hours. Degas the dough by squeezing it and deflating it and let it rise again, preferably overnight.

When you are ready to fry, take the dough from the refrigerator and open the bag slightly, and allow the dough to come to room temperature. When it is warmed up, on a floured countertop, roll the dough into a long rope and cut into 12 equal pieces. Roll each into a ball, and flatten into a disk that is slightly thinner in the middle and fatter on the edges. Flour them sparingly, and keep the ones you are not working with covered to keep the dough from drying out.

Heat oil in a wok to frying temperature. (The easiest way to test if the oil is hot enough is to use a bamboo chopstick. If you put the tip of the chopstick in the oil and bubbles form around it immediately, the oil is hot enough. If it takes a minute or so for them to form–it is still too cool. Wait a minute and try again.)

Slide each disk gently into hot oil and cook about 1 1/2 minutes per side, or until nice golden brown. Allow to drain on paper towels and serve hot.

25 Comments

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  1. I just LOVE your site. This is the blog I’ve been searching for endlessly for the past month. It is just the right combo of stories, tips, commentary, family history, food history and of course, recipes. Thank you! QUESTION: How big should the rope be before the individual pcs.? I cannot visualize how big the actual fry dough starts out as in its raw form. THANK YOU!!!!

    Comment by Sheri — March 3, 2006 #

  2. In North Dakota they use this bread as a taco shell and fill.

    Comment by Kim — March 3, 2006 #

  3. This is great! Ever since I saw “Smoke Signals” I have always wondered how to make this. Thanks!

    btw: my Sig-O is always impressed by your culinary brilliance.

    Comment by Tatyanna — March 3, 2006 #

  4. Oooo…those sound so good. Not to ignore the cultural heritage of the dish, but I’m thinking Fry Bread may replace my perpetual craving for Beignets.

    Comment by Mark — March 3, 2006 #

  5. Kim got to it before I got a chance :).

    There’s been much discussion on a local board as per “Navajo tacos.” There’s a Catholic Charities in South Chicago that hosts Native American community meetings at which they serve the “tacos.” This permutation is much more akin to theTexMex tacos than their Mexican brethren.

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — March 3, 2006 #

  6. Sheri–so long as you end up with twelve roughly equal sized pieces, it doesn’t matter how thick your rope is, though mine is about as thick as my wrist is–about two and a half inches in diameter.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog, and welcome!

    Kim–a lot of the northern plains folk use them to make “Indian tacos.” Which are quite tasty. I make mine with coarsely ground bison meat spiced with chipotle and New Mexico red chiles, onions, garlic and a bit of tomato. And then I pile on a lot of cilantro, either some refried pintos (which have more onion and garlic) or spicy black beans, then some fresh homemade salsa. Maybe some lettuce and cheese, but I like it best without cheese, myself.

    Now that we live near a bison ranch, I want to try making it with shredded meat instead of ground….

    Hey, Tatyanna–”Smoke Signals” is a great film–one of Morganna and my favorites. We even sing “John Wayne’s Teeth” on long car rides together. ;-)

    Tell your Sig-O, I said “Thank you.”

    Mark–this summer when blueberries are in season here in Athens, I plan on making frybread with blueberries in the dough. It cannot possibly be bad, and might be downright revelatory. One never knows.

    I was just saying, as I fried up this batch of fry bread that I would have to haul off and make beignets sometime.

    Yes, Christopher, I agree–Indian tacos are more like the border tacos of Tex Mex or even moreso–New Mexican cuisines. A lot of people look down on Tex-Mex as “inauthentic” but it isn’t supposed to be Mexican–it is an amalgamation of the foods of the Europeans of various ethnic derivations and the Native Americans, mixed together. It is a true, natural fusion cuisine. The same goes for the food of New Mexico and Arizona. Real, homegrown fusions–and very tasty, too.

    Comment by Barbara — March 3, 2006 #

  7. These look very tempting. I like the idea of the tacos.
    I am very taken with the flavor of bison meat, which we can get locally only in ground form. I find it has a taste which is beefy, but somehow cleaner, and sweeter. I’d love to be able to try an appropriate cut in a potroast. So far, I haven’t been able to convince the Giant Eagle to order a wider selection, though.

    Comment by lindy — March 3, 2006 #

  8. Very interesting, I’ve never heard of these before Barbara! Just heat that oil and fry ‘em up, I’m all ears for anything out of hot oil! :o)

    The next theme of FMR is up, hope you like it!

    Comment by Meena — March 3, 2006 #

  9. Lindy–you might be able to order pot roast from online–there are a lot of bison ranches out there that sell online. But you have to pay for shipping and that is not so good.

    You might try seeing if you can find a bison farmer near you, too–there are more and more ranches out in the world and you just might find one in your state, where the shipping wouldn’t be as outrageously expensive.

    Meena–if you like bhatura–you will like fry bread. And, btw–I love the idea for the next From My Rasoi! Woohoo! That will be super fun!

    Comment by Barbara — March 3, 2006 #

  10. This sounds yummy! I think I’m going to have to try this one.

    Comment by Torquil — March 4, 2006 #

  11. I was just telling some of my New England friends about fry bread, which I adore and of course can only afford to eat about once a year because when I start I can’t stop. My favorite way is with beans and meat, although on my rare excursions to a county fair I do deign to eat (make that gobble) the sweet kind. Thanks for posting! You’ve inspired me to do a little walk down memory lane on my own blog. I’ll link to your posting so people can follow your excellent directions.

    Comment by PatL — March 6, 2006 #

  12. Torquil, I think you will love them. They are awesome little breads. I still want to make the version with fresh blueberries in them, though…..

    PatL, welcome! Nice to meet you, and I am glad I could jog your memory!

    Comment by Barbara — March 6, 2006 #

  13. I have a fry bread from my grandma (Okanagan/Nez Perce) that is a little more simple: flour, water, salt and baking powder. I suspect that the fry bread we get at pow wows is more similar to yours, as it always tastes a little sweeter, so thanks for the recipe!

    My mom said that when she was a kid and whenever grandma was making a basic loaf of bread, she would also reserve some of the dough for frying.

    Our favorite way to eat it is with honey or huckleberry jam. We love Indian tacos too!

    Comment by Darla — March 6, 2006 #

  14. I’m in complete agreement as regards the authenticity of Tex Mex(I’m a Texan, afterall) and the concommittant SW cuisines. Any who attempt that argument are missing the point.

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — March 6, 2006 #

  15. I grew up in New Mexico and loved getting piping hot sopaipillas at restaurants – unfortunately, in the midwest, “sopaipilla” usually works out to be “flat crispy fried tortilla” instead of “puffed up fried bread”. I was halfway ready to make my own a few weeks ago, this might just push me over the edge!

    Comment by Tricia — March 6, 2006 #

  16. Mmm, Darla–huckleberries. I definately will post when I make it with fresh blueberries in the dough this summer. Can’t wait for the season!

    Your grandma had the right idea–save out some dough to fry! Two foods out of one recipe!

    Tricia–sopapillas! Oh, they are so very good, and no, they should not be flat crispy tortillas. Ugh. To get the dough discs to inflate, what you do is tap them with the back of your strainer or tongs as they fry. It makes them puff up, the same as you do with pooris or bhatura.

    Comment by Barbara — March 6, 2006 #

  17. Thanks for that tip, Barbara – I’ve made sopapillas plenty of times in the past, and most of them puffed, but I didn’t know about tapping them. I’ll try that when I make a batch in the next few weeks.

    The problem with restaurants in this area is that they actually fry tortillas and then call them sopapillas. Sorry I wasn’t clear about that!

    Comment by Tricia — March 8, 2006 #

  18. The way we make fry bread here in Oklahoma is easy. I guess it is because we do not have the money for yeast etc. We use commodity flour and commodity oil.
    Take a big bowl. put about 3/4 full of flour. add baking powder..3 hand fulls. add sugar. 1 hand full. add salt, a small hand full…add warm water. enough to make a dough. fry.
    we do it almost every day so we don’t have time to measure, but I figure it to be 6 cups flour, 3 table spoons baking powder, and one tablespoon sugar, and about a teaspoon salt. add warm water. let set. if it sets in a container all day it is still good at night. It will fluff up more as it sets. we put two slits in the middle to insure it cooks all the way through…
    I went on a trip to la lagoona Honduras, and found the indigenous women there cook fry bread just like us. But they use self rising flour given to them by the government.
    Self rising flour works great. add sugar and water. let set…Fry…the bubbles comes when you streach the dough at the final putting in the oil. Play with it. streach like pizza dough..as you drop it.
    Angel

    Comment by Angel — April 3, 2007 #

  19. I always made the navajo fry bread using white flour. My husband has become yeast & Gluten intolerant and I was wondering if you have a recipe for fry bread using any of the following or combination of rice/potato/tapioco/flours. Thanks

    Comment by Linda Will — June 22, 2007 #

  20. I always made the navajo fry bread using white flour. My husband has become yeast & Gluten intolerant and I was wondering if you have a recipe for fry bread using any of the following or combination of rice/potato/tapioco/flours. Thanks

    Comment by Linda Will — June 22, 2007 #

  21. Linda, I don’t have a recipe for fry bread using those flours per se, but I suspect that any of the yeast dough recipes that Betty Hagman has in her gluten free baking books would work for fry bread, too. Give them a shot–her recipes are top notch when it comes to gluten free cooking. She has lots of books out–all of them quite good. She is as far as I know the acknowledged top expert in gluten free cooking because she has specialized in it for a very long time.

    Comment by Barbara — June 23, 2007 #

  22. do you have a successful GLUTEN FREE version of this FRY BREAD?

    Comment by BEC — September 16, 2008 #

  23. This is amazing to find this site with your unique recipe. I do believe it is the closest I have ever come to the fry bread I grew up on as a child. And the history you provide is like the icing on the cake.

    Comment by Ryan Traenor — January 1, 2011 #

  24. Those fry breads look delicious! I will have to try them, thank you for sharing your recipe. I guess you could use gluten-free flower also, but the texture will be a little different.

    Comment by natural skin care — April 13, 2011 #

  25. I dunno, Try it and see what happens. It might work.

    Comment by Barbara — April 18, 2011 #

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