When Epicurious approached Tara O’Brady about writing this dosa primer, accepting the assignment was not as simple as saying yes or no. Read O’Brady’s essay about the decision here.
Dosa (alternatively, dhosai or dhosha), a fermented rice and lentil crepe originating in south India, has been a staple bread for at least a thousand years. It was classically a breakfast food, but as its popularity spread across the subcontinent and beyond, demand stretched to 24/7.
The most well-known dosa is made from long-grain white rice, skinned urad dal (black gram), and salt, all of which are soaked and ground with water to form a batter that is then cooked until golden and crisp. Consider this the default dosa: single-named, ubiquitous.
Homestyle Dosas with Tomato Chutney
At restaurants this type of dosa can reach impressive physical proportions, the batter spread thin, then coaxed into rolls that span the width of a table. Those shattering paper-thin dosas are ethereal and almost cracker-like, a vehicle for the main component of the meal—aloo masala (dry-fried potatoes with mustard seeds, turmeric, urad dal and asafoetida) being the most traditional.
Homemade dosas tend to be more diminutive and also sturdier, with distinct circles where the batter is left comparatively thick. The bands go lacy and translucent like restaurant dosas, while the mounded ribs fluff, all spongy and bouncy. If you’ve had idli, steamed rice cakes also from the south of India and Sri Lanka, the taste and texture are reminiscent here.
These homestyle dosas offer more substance and nutrition and are routinely eaten without filling. They are accompanied by a chutney—not sticky-sweet jam-like mango, but intense savory sauces based on coconut, cilantro, or tomatoes, tempered with mustard seed and curry leaves—or sambar, a loose-limbed lentil-and-vegetable stew.
Most dosas are naturally gluten-free (excluding the wheat varieties, of course), vegetarian, and vegan-friendly if cooked with oil instead of ghee. As a grain is paired with a legume in the batter, a dosa includes a complete form of protein. In short, they’re a practically perfect food. But to make them perfectly at home, it pays to keep a few things in mind.
There’s no one right way
It is difficult to decree a definitive set of instructions for dosas. A resolute ingredient list is even problematic. If having an analogue is helpful, dosas are akin to sourdough bread. There are entire books devoted to their nuances. How to feed the fermentation, what grains to use, the ratios of the formula—all of this is subject to debate. So instead of adhering to one way to make dosas, aim to understand the basic principles and accept that choices in each variable correspondingly affect color, texture, and flavor.
Generally speaking, a combination of a grain and a legume is the foundation of the batter. The types of each vary wildly from region to region or even between neighbors. Rava dosas, originating in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have semolina (sooji) in the mix. In Mangalore, vodu dosa is made with ground coconut. Ragi dosas use finger millet; pesarattu includes green mung beans; others utilize oats.
Even within the rice-and-urad-dal dosa canon, there are variations. Some recipes include sugar, parboiled rice, or flattened rice, all with the aim to jumpstart the fermentation process. Fenugreek seed is commonly included to encourage fermentation by increasing the batter’s alkalinity. For similar effect, baking soda or even baking powder might be called for in conjunction with the fenugreek, or to replace it entirely. Chana dal (split dried chickpeas) is thought to contribute color and crispness.
Whatever the mix, my preferred ratio is 4:1 rice to dal, but I have seen it higher and as low as 2:1. Experiment to find what you like.
The rice and dal are soaked separately in cold, preferably filtered, water. Depending on environmental factors, this soaking can take just a few hours or up to 24. The grains should be plump and slightly softened, as beans are after soaking. When ready, the soaking water is poured off and reserved, leaving the rice and dal damp. Then it’s time to grind.
Grinding the dosa batter
The goal here: Purée both the rice and dal into fluffy, billowing pastes (imagine soft-serve ice cream), incorporating the least amount of water possible and keeping the rice and dal cool in the process.
This was historically done by hand using a mortar and pestle. Wet grinders—imagine a food processor, but in the bowl are an arrangement of stones that grind the grain or spice—mechanized the job. The Sumeet Mixie, Indian-designed and introduced in the 1960s, became the iconic example. Recipes still specify Indian mixers for grinding dosa batter, as they were designed for the use, but any high-speed blender will do the job handily. (Standard blenders may struggle. If using, process smaller batches so that the motor does not overheat and warm the pastes.)
Fermenting the dosa batter
Once the rice and dal are ground, they are combined with water and salt—never iodized, as it will inhibit the fermentation. The batter must be pourable; if it’s too thick, it will be too heavy to rise well.
As with soaking, the timing and particulars of fermentation are dependent on the climate in which the batter is made. The batter ferments without commercial yeast, making use of wild bacteria and yeast from the air, grains, and dal to establish lactic fermentation. Since dal ferments more readily, it drives the process at first.
Temperature is key. Fermentation begins at about 80°F and tops out at 110°F—any lower and the batter might spoil rather than ferment, and any higher the bacteria will not survive to do its job. I like to ferment my batter at the lower end of the scale, which is easy in my temperate climate, and gives ample opportunity to keep track of the batter’s progress as the hours tick by.
Ideal conditions can be achieved with an immersion circulator, a proofing box, or the yogurt setting on an Instant Pot. The lowest-tech route is to wrap the batter bowl in a kitchen towel, then tuck it away in the oven with the interior light on and a bowl of hot water placed alongside for company. (A warning based on personal experience: Do not forget about your batter and preheat your oven without retrieving it first! Now I stick a piece of tape to the dial as a reminder.)
At a higher temperature, the fermentation might take as little as 4 to 6 hours. On the cooler side of the scale, it may need as long as 48. The batter may double in size, but volume is not the essential factor in the batter’s readiness or success. The aim is a batter that is air-filled and pleasantly sour. The surface will look puffed, and if you’ve used a glass or clear plastic container the batter will be filled with bubbles. Knock your knuckles against the bottom of the bowl and it should make an almost hollow sound, similar to how a properly baked loaf of bread does when ready. Some swear by floating a spoonful of batter on a bowl of water; if it sinks the batter isn’t ready. At this point you can choose to stir the batter and ferment a second time, cook it immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Cooking the dosas
To cook the dosas, a dosa kal (a flat griddle without sides) is traditional. Kal means stone, as the original forms of these pans were usually soapstone. Modern dosa pans are often cast iron or sometimes aluminum. In Indian stores and online the word kal might be used interchangeably with tawa, a similar pan used for chapatis and the like. Tawas can have a concave surface, so if buying online be sure to choose a flat one or the dosa batter will pool in the center. My dosa kal is nine inches across, so our household dosas are about eight inches in diameter.
For those without a kal, a crepe pan works great, as does a flat griddle. A large cast-iron skillet can be used, but the high sides can make maneuvering difficult. When forming the dosas, use a handled ladle to both deposit the batter and then spread it into concentric circles (the movement is similar to spreading sauce on a pizza). When starting out, a straight handle is easier than one where the handle is perpendicular to the bowl; the offset pressure makes it easier to resist pressing too hard on the batter, which can cause the batter to lift and tear as it sets.
To cook a dosa, lightly grease your well-heated pan. (Too much fat and the batter will slide rather than have the traction needed to spread into a circle.) Once the top of the dosa looks set, drizzle a little ghee on top for browning purposes (and because it’s delicious). If the dosa is quite thick, either place a lid on top and steam until done, or flip to brown the second side. In either method the dosa, if properly fermented, will release easily from the kal. All that’s left to do at this point is to roll the dosa (or simply fold it in half), spoon some chutney onto your plate, and tuck in.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious