I fell in love with frybread before I’d ever even tasted it. I was a kid, and my parents rented a great movie called Smoke Signals for our family movie night. It’s a lovely, funny story about young Native American adults on a coming-of-age road trip through the American Southwest. (I highly recommend it—great story, great acting, and well shot.) But what truly caught my attention was the many mentions of frybread from early in film. Clearly an important part of the tribe’s culture, one character even boasts a t-shirt that reads “Frybread Power” throughout several scenes. Never one for patience, especially when tasty carbohydrates are involved, I didn’t even wait until the end of the movie to ask about the frybread. I needed to know more.
My dad had an idea of where we could try frybread, and took me to an art festival at Haskell Indian Nations University in my hometown a few weeks later. Among the stands selling art, hand-woven textiles, and jewelry were a few food carts—more than one of which sold frybread.
tasted devoured my first ever frybread and never turned back. Crispy on the outside and unbelievably light and airy inside, it’s rich (like any fried product). It’s also a deliciously blank canvas—tasty all on its own, but ready and waiting for any variety of delicious toppings. Best of all, it’s beyond easy and satisfying to make at home. Here’s what you need to know to make this:
The Upsetting Origins of Frybread
Frybread has a fraught history. It originated more than 150 years ago when Navajo tribes were forced by the United States government to move from Arizona to New Mexico. The deportation, known as The Long Walk (due to the 300 miles covered on foot), had many lasting, devastating effects on the tribes—just one of which was the inability to grow the vegetables and whole grains they had cultivated for centuries. The U.S. government supplied tribes with a variety of processed foods, like flour and lard; out of necessity, frybread was born. Over time, it became very popular among Native American tribes (I highly suggest this old but great article in Smithsonian magazine, which details more about the beloved, but complicated, relationship many tribes have with frybread.)
Frybread is made much like any flatbread—in fact, the ratio of ingredients isn’t terribly different from that of a flour tortilla or naan (though frybread is generally not yeast-risen). The differences appear in the thickness of the dough and, of course, the method of cooking it—frying it to crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside perfection in plenty of hot fat.
Five Simple Ingredients
While individual recipes can vary (Native American festivals often have many, many frybread stands), most frybread contains just a few ingredients:
- Flour: usually all purpose—though I’ve been dying to experiment with some corn flour versions.
- Salt: enough to properly season the frybread so you can eat it.
- Leavener: not all frybread recipes contain leavener, but many do to create a lighter, fluffier bread. I like to use baking powder.
- Fat: in addition to being fried in fat, the dough itself contains some—either melted lard, oil, or melted butter (my preference).
- Water: to hydrate the dough and bind it together.
Mixing the Frybread
Mixing the frybread is super easy. You want a nice, smooth dough, which is why I like to use my stand mixer, fitted with the dough hook attachment. I mix the dry ingredients to combine, then add the wet ingredients and mix on low speed until the dough comes together (1-2 minutes). Continue mixing until the dough is nicely smooth and uniform, 1-2 minutes more. You can also mix the dough by hand—it’s the traditional method, of course! Start with a flexible spatula for 1-2 minutes and then switch to your hands once the mixture comes together. Knead for 4-6 minutes until smooth.
Resting the Dough
Once the dough has been mixed, it needs to rest. There’s no yeast here, so this isn’t rise time—just rest time, like when making pie dough! The protein strands that were developed during mixing (gluten!) make the dough stiff. Resting the dough for 30 minutes to an hour allows the proteins to relax, making the dough easier to roll out without springing back. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature. If you’re working in a particularly hot room, refrigerate the dough for 15 minutes of the rest time so it’s not too soft when you go to roll it out!
Shape It Up
Once the dough rests, it’s time to shape! Lightly flour your work surface. Unwrap the dough and divide it into 12 even pieces (I use my bench knife for this, but a knife works great too), and roll each piece into a ball. Working one piece at a time, roll out the dough into a round about 1/4-1/3 inch thick. Pierce the center of each piece of dough with a paring knife. This hole becomes unnoticeable after frying; it just helps prevent the dough from forming one giant air bubble when it hits the hot frying oil.
Time to Fry
It is possible to fry this bread in less fat (pan-fry), but the most even cooking results come with full frying commitment. Grab a large, heavy-bottomed pot and pour about 4 inches of oil in it. Heat the oil to 350°F. You can be official and check with a thermometer… or you can do as I often do—tear off a little scrap of dough and toss it into the oil as a tester and if the dough immediately rises to the surface surrounded by bubbles, you’re good to go. When it’s time to fry, it’s best to work in batches. Sometimes I even do them one at a time—they’re pretty big! Fry the dough until golden brown on both sides, 2-4 minutes per side. If large bubbles form in the dough, you can pierce them with the tip of a knife to remove the excess air while they are frying (just be careful of the hot oil!). Once each piece is nice and golden, remove them from the oil and drain on a rack set over absorbent paper towels.
How many ways can you frybread?
There’s plenty of ways to enjoy frybread. Warm? Yes. Room temperature? Pretty great too. Topped with a mound of guacamole, drizzled with queso sauce, or totally plain—all are amazing. My first frybread experience was topped with plenty of seasoned ground beef, crisp lettuce, raw red onion, juicy tomato, and a dollop of sour cream. Nowadays, I add avocado and cilantro, or use them as a crispy-fluffy base for tacos or tostadas.
- 4 1/2 cups (542 g) all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (16 g) baking powder
- 6 tablespoons (85 g) unsalted butter, melted
- 1 1/2 cups (177 g) water
- oil for frying
- your favorite toppings: taco style, guac, queso, or all of the above!