Crispy, Comforting & Crave-able
Dosas are one of my favorite things to eat, and I’ve been dancing around actually making some myself for a long time. I have decided now is the time. Having made some pretty tasty dosas, I want to encourage you to give them a try. This is a fun project and if I can make them, you can too. If you haven’t had a dosa, they are a very thin, crisp, and tangy round “pancake” from South India. They have become popular as street food all across India and are now more easily found in the West as well. My favorite local Indian restaurant primarily serves South Indian food, and their dosas are magical.
Dosa batter can be made with a combination of rice and all sorts of pulses. It can be fermented first or mixed up and cooked in one go. Fermentation can be done at room temperature, as long as it is in a draft-free, slightly warm environment (think yogurt), or many people are now successfully using an Instant Pot for fermentation. I am starting with a traditional recipe that includes rice, lentils and fenugreek seeds soaked, then fermented in the oven with the light on. I will explore many other combinations as well as taking advantage of the Instant Pot. I am also eager to try dosas that skip the soaking and fermenting steps altogether. This batter uses flours rather than whole rice or lentils and can be cooked up immediately.
Making Dosa at Home
Dosas come in all sizes and thicknesses. Dosas in a restaurant can measure up to 32 inches across that feed a family of four. The logistics of that size is not in the cards for most home cooks. Using dosa batter, you can make 3 different “pancakes.” The thinnest is a dosa, also called a “paper dosa.” Slightly thicker is called a “set dosa,” mostly served in Indian restaurants, and so named because they are served in threes. Even thicker than set dosas are “uttapam,” which is smaller and often cooked with onions, tomato, green chilies, and herbs on top. Idlis are another popular way to use dosa batter, though they require a special idli tray. These four bite round cakes are steamed and served for breakfast with a side of chutney, or podi, a coarse spice powder.
If you love dosas as much as I do, I recommend that you get Nash Patel and Leda Scheintaub’s book “Dosa Kitchen: Recipes for India’s Favorite Street Food.” The following dosa making process is based on their instruction. “Dosa Kitchen” offers up all sorts of ideas of what to do the dosa batter you have made (or bought). My favorite and the most classic dosa pairing is masala dosa: a dosa wrapped around potato (aloo) masala (curry). Dosas can be used for wraps, sandwiches, waffles, and pizzas, filled or topped with keema, any sort of dry curry, and “burgers” of every kind, veg or non-veg.
Both because dosas are fermented and are typically gluten-free, they are a healthy and easily digestible, versatile foundation for a meal. At the top of my list of experiments is trying a batter with quinoa, red lentils or oats. After you get comfortable with the process of using the basic batter recipe, you can play with the rice to lentil ratio. For a crisper dosa, increase the rice, and for a softer and suppler dosa, add more lentils.
See the Notes below before you cook.
Making Dosa at Home
- 2 cups white rice ~ See Notes below
- 1 gallon filtered (non-chlorinated) water
- 1 cup urad dal
- 3 tablespoons chana dal
- 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek (methi) seeds
- 1/4 cup oil ~ Coconut, or oil of your choice
Making the Dosa Batter
- In a large bowl, place the rice and rinse 3 to 4 times until the water runs almost clear. Cover with fresh water to about 3 inches above the rice. Cover with a lid, saran wrap or towel, allowing there to be an opening so that air can be exchanged.
- Allow the rice and dals to soak for a minimum of 4 hours, but ideally 8 hours, or overnight. The longer you soak (not longer than 24 hours), the easier it will be to grind the rice and dal. Drain the rice and reserve the soaking water. Drain the dal and discard the water.
- Place the rice in a reasonably powerful blender, or if you have one, an Indian wet grinder, or a personal blender such a Bullet or Tribest. You may have to do this in batches, depending on the equipment you are using.
- Add the rice to a blender with 1/4 cup of the soaking water. Start on low speed, add another 1/4 cup of the reserved water, then turn the blending speed to high. Add more water if needed to keep the blender moving, 2 tablespoons at a time. You are looking for a mostly smooth batter, with a slight graininess left when you rub between your fingers. This can take between 2 minutes to 10 minutes, depending on your equipment and how long your rice was soaked.
- If you over-process the rice, your dosas won’t be crispy enough. See my last Note below about not overheating the batter. You are looking for the consistency of thick pancake batter. As long as the grinder or mixie/blender is running smoothly don't add water, but if you see it slowing down or come to a stop, then add water. Typically it is about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of water depending on the rice you used. Don't add any more water than necessary, because a thicker batter will rise better. Move rice batter to a non-reactive bowl that holds 4 quarts or more.
- Add dal and methi seeds to the blender with 2 tablespoons cup of reserved rice water. (No need to clean out the blender first.) Start the blender on low speed for a minute or so until the dal begins to break down. Increase the speed to high and add water as need in increments of 2 tablespoons at a time. Stop every now and then to scrape down the sides. You will probably need about 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of water. Process until the batter is smooth, and it becomes light and fluffy, with a pancake batter consistency. This will take about 3 minutes, depending on your processor.
- Pour the dal batter into the bowl with the ground rice and using a clean hand, mix the two together well for 3 to r minutes. It is believed mixing with your hands, aides in the fermentation. Feel free to mix with a spoon if you prefer. To my mind, anything that helps with a proper fermentation, whether real or imagined, is worth trying.
Fermenting and Preparing the Dosa Batter
- Cover with a clean towel or loose-fitting lid, place on a baking tray to catch any drips from bubbling. Keep the batter in a warm, draft-free spot, ideally at about 90 degrees. See my 9th Note below. Depending on the warmth of your kitchen, fermentation can take between 12 to 24 hours. The batter should almost double in size and be thick and foamy with lots of little bubbles.
- Dissolve salt in 1 cup of water and whisk gently into the batter because you want to preserve as much of the light and airy texture as possible. There may be a hardened layer on the top of the batter that you will want to mix in. Cover the bowl with a lid or saran wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours before you make your dosas.
Cooking the Dosa
- If you prefer to buy dosa batter, I've had good luck with the Zanlyn brand.
- Remove the dosa batter from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Whisk to mix thoroughly and add water if the batter is thicker than pancake batter.
- Prepare for cooking by filling one small bowl with water and one small bowl with 1/4 cup oil. Take 3 layers of paper towels and fold in half and then in half again. If you have a squeeze bottle, fill with 1/4 cup oil for drizzling over the dosa as it cooks. Alternatively, you can use a small spoon.
- Heat a seasoned cast-iron pan, a tawa, or griddle over medium-high heat. To test whether your pan is at the right temperature, add a few drops of water; it should sizzle immediately. Take a folded paper towel, dip into the water, then lightly dip into the oil and rub over the surface of your pan. This will bring down that temperature as well as lightly oil the surface.
- Ladle a 1/4 to 1/3 cup of batter, depending on the pan you are using, in the center of the pan. Using the bottom of a ladle or measuring cup, starting in the middle, quickly and steadily move the batter in ever-widening circles, leaving a thin layer of batter. You can take a spatula and even out some of the thicker spots if you wish.
- When the batter begins to dry out, and small holes form, using the squeeze bottle or small spoon, drizzle 1 to 2 teaspoons of oil on top of the batter to help the dosa brown and crisp up. After 2 to 3 minutes, when the edges and bottom of the dosa is browned, turn it over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the other side is lightly browned.
- Continue making the rest of the dosas, continuing to check the heat level of your pan with a spritz of water, and using the paper towels dipped in water and oil. Regulate the temperature of the burner as needed so that the dosas don’t burn before they cook through. If you want a soft and crispy, you want your temperature on the high side; if you want an even crispier dosa, lower the heat slightly.
- In the words of Julie Child, you need to show your dosa mixture the confidence of your convictions. I find the trickiest part of making dosas is the spreading of the batter in the pan. Practice makes perfect, and you must show the batter who is boss. The fermented batter will keep in the refrigerator up to 10 days, or frozen for up to three months.
- Serve with sambar, a podi (a coarse spice mix) or your favorite chutney. If you like, fill the dosa with Yaman Agarwal of the vlog CookShooking, which is called dosa masala.
- I have had good luck making dosa with basmati rice. You can also use parboiled (Ponni) rice or Italian Arborio white rice.
- Channa dal gives a nice color and flavor to dosas and idlis.
- After you master the dosa basics you can play with the rice to dal ratio. For crisp dosas use the above ratio. For a softer dosa use a 2:1 rice to lentil batter. The higher the lentil proportion the softer the dosa will be.
- Fenugreek (methi) seeds are added for flavor and to aid in fermentation.
- Salt is added after fermentation, as it can slow down the fermentation process.
- My preference is to use a non-stick 10-inch skillet with low sides, making it easier to spread the batter and giving me the perfect sized dosas.
- If you want to skip the batter making step altogether, most Indian groceries sell dosa batter in the refrigerator section. I have had good luck with the Zanlyn brand of fermented batter. There are also boxed, powder options which I had not tried so cannot recommend.
- I have tested the temperature of my electric oven with a light on, and it maintains at about 92 degrees, which is the perfect temperature for fermentation. This works for proofing bread and making yogurt as well.
- Depending on the equipment you use for grinding your rice and dal, you may risk overheating your batter. This is not a problem if you are lucky enough to have an Indian grinder or a very powerful blender like the Vitamix or Blendtec brands. If using a less powerful blender and working in batches, blend in short bursts rather than one long session. This will prevent overheating, which can inhibit fermentation.