When it’s midwinter and the fermentation bug hits you, where do you turn? The logical choice to expand beyond sourdough and cheese, and the perfect pairing with this month’s Indian-Inspired Sweet-and-Sour Potatoes and Indian-Inspired Shrimp in Yogurt, seemed to be dosas. But these thin, crisp rice-and-bean pancakes offered as many challenges as advantages in my Northern Rocky Mountain kitchen.
So what I offer this week are the lessons I learned as I began my dosa-making adventures, with big nods to fermentation expert Sandor Katz and writer and cook Chandra Padmanabhan. These lessons led to an Indian-inspired dosa recipe ideal for beginners living in cold climates, with plenty of ways to creep closer to the traditional texture and flavor as you become more confident in your dosa-making skills.
Ups and Downs
The perks of South India’s popular crepe-like dosas are many. When made from rice and beans and fermented, dosas are gluten free, low in fat, easy on the gut, and oh so tangy and tasty. Fermented sada, or plain, dosas also lack the caloric load of rava dosas, which are quicker to make but rely on semolina, and they outshine variations that may incorporate Indian-inspired spices but look and taste closer to European crepes. The fermentation process also makes dosas lighter, gives them a complex sour flavor, and boosts the bioavailability of minerals in the rice.
The challenges I faced with dosas started with location. Indians have numerous variations on dosas and ways to serve them, but the most common version relies on urad dal, a split black lentil, and dosa rice, a parboiled short-grain form. Both are staples in India but scarce in northwest Montana. Indians also have the advantage of long, hot days ideal for fermenting these two ingredients, and their temperatures don’t drop to single or negative digits at night. Finally, many Indian children likely grew up watching their grandmothers make dosas the way I learned about pie crust from Grandma Tiny; by the time they’re my age, they’ve probably had years of practice getting the batter, pan temperature, and spreading and flipping techniques just right.
To overcome the lack of urad dal and dosa rice in my local markets, I took a cue from Katz, who argues that dosa-style pancakes can be made from anything once you learn the fermenting and cooking techniques. So focused on pantry power, I grabbed my favorite red lentils and basmati rice, soaked them, blended them, and watched them do—almost nothing.
When you’re relying on the natural microbes in beans and rice to kick off fermentation, temperature turns out to be key. A few other tricks help in building a bubbly batter:
- Temperature: Find a consistently warm space to set your soaking beans and rice and fermenting blended batter. I turned to my dorm fridge rigged with a temperature control for cheese making. It’s essentially an enclosed box with a lightbulb that clicks on and off to keep the fridge’s interior at the desired temp—for dosas, I went for a balmy 70°F–75°F. A heat mat or pad, warm refrigerator top, or gas oven with a pilot light are all good alternatives to try. Or just crank your woodstove for a day or so and break out the tank top and margaritas.
- Vessel: My rice-and-bean ferment went faster in a tall 1/2-gallon jar than in a squat bowl. With less surface area, it was easier to see the batter rise: you can stick a rubber band around the jar to keep track. More important than the rise are the fermentation bubbles, which are easy to see through the glass. Don’t worry if your batter doesn’t rise like bread dough; if it shows small bubbles up and down the jar sides, it’s ready to use.
- Ingredients: I added fenugreek for flavor, but Katz says it also helps speed up fermentation, so it’s worth seeking out (even Montana natural-food stores sell it). Salt has the opposite effect here and slows the fermentation, so add salt just before cooking the dosas. Keep the batter water to a minimum—you can always add a little when cooking, but you can’t easily thicken a thin fermented batter.
- Grinder: Indians commonly use a tool I’ve heard called a wet grinder and “the 4×4 of blenders” to grind raw rice and beans into a paste, but it’s even harder to find in the United States than dosa rice. Katz uses a upright blender, other cooks have recommended a Vitamix, and I used my powerful KitchenAid food processor. To avoid motor burnout, go slow, pulse the blades, and stop to scrape down the sides often—especially if your blending tool lacks oomph.
When your batter’s ready, prep your workspace so that you can smoothly cook off as many crispy pancakes as you can eat in one sitting. You’ll want these tools at your stovetop:
- Nonstick pan: If you have a flat, well-seasoned, cast-iron crepe pan, you’re in business. I’ve used a small cast-iron skillet with fairly straight sides and a nonstick skillet with angled ones. If you use a pan with these higher sides, leave plenty of space around the dosa’s edges so that you can get a spatula underneath to flip it. Heat the pan before you start but turn the temp way down as soon as its greased.
- Coconut oil: I prefer coconut oil to grease cast iron and to keep dosas from sticking. I scoop a small spoonful onto a plate and then smear just enough onto a paper towel to spread a thin layer on the hot pan, both when I start and between dosas. Counter to instinct, less is better—Katz “oils” his pan with the cut side of an onion, but I’m going to need more practice with that trick.
- Mug of ice water: This trick is huge: Fill a coffee mug with ice cubes and then cold water, and set it aside with a paper towel. When you slide a dosa from pan to plate, dip the towel in the ice water, squeeze out excess, and rub it in the pan. It cools the pan slightly to keep the oil from smoking, picks up any crumbs, and lets the next dosa spread evenly.
- Sunflower oil: Pour some sunflower or another high-heat oil in a small bowl and set it near the burner with a pastry brush. After you’ve spread the batter, dip the brush briefly in the bowl and then drizzle the oil around the edges of the pancake, using just enough that you barely see it. Tilt the pan to spread the oil, which will help loosen the dosa’s edges without making it overly greasy.
- Other tools: It will be easier to measure out batter if you pour it from the tall jar into a wider bowl. You can use a ladle or dry measuring cup to scoop it into the pan; a rubber spatula or large spoon works well for spreading, and a flat spatula works well for turning. Have a large plate at hand for landing the finished dosas.
Your First Dosas
If you use all of the ingredients and tricks I shared, you’ll be a long way toward a successful first dosa batch with this recipe. I’ve bumped up the lentil-to-rice ratio, which makes it easier to cook but creates a slightly thick dosa. Once you get the hang of it, you can use fewer beans and more rice for a thinner, more delicate, and crepe-like result. And keep practicing—even if they don’t turn out perfect every time, they’ll be tasty.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You need just 2 main ingredients and some patience.
1. Soak the rice and lentils.
2. Puree into a batter and ferment.
3. Cook, using all of the tricks I’ve shared (see above), and enjoy.
Red Lentil and Basmati Dosas
2/3 cup red lentils
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
Coconut oil for cooking
Sunflower oil for cooking
In a 1/2-gallon glass jar or other glass container, mix together the rice and lentils. Stir in the fenugreek, and pour in the water. Cover loosely with a tea towel, set in a warm place, and let soak for 8–24 hours, adding water if necessary to cover the mixture.
Drain the soaked mixture through a fine-mesh colander set over a bowl, reserving some of the soaking water; rinse the soaking container. Transfer the mixture to a high-watt food processor or other grinding tool. Pulse the rice and beans, adding a little soaking water as needed. Continue grinding for several minutes, stopping frequently to scrape down the sides, until a smooth, fluffy batter forms.
Return the batter to the jar or container, cover it loosely with a tea towel, and set it in a warm place to ferment for 8–24 hours in a warm room or up to 48 hours in a cooler space, until the batter shows small bubbles down the jar’s side and has expanded in volume. Stir in the salt. Use immediately or screw on a lid and refrigerate, for up to a week, until ready to use.
Pour the dosa batter into a large bowl. Place an 8- to 10-inch well-seasoned cast-iron or nonstick pan on the stovetop and turn the heat to medium-high. When hot, reduce the heat to low. Smear a little coconut oil on a folded paper towel, and then rub it all over the surface of the pan in a thin, barely visible coating. Using a ladle or dry measuring cup, scoop up about 1/3 cup of batter and pour it into the center of the pan. Use a rubber spatula or the back of a large spoon to spread the batter toward the edges of the pan in a sweeping, spiral motion, leaving a little space around the edges. Immediately dip a pastry brush in the sunflower oil and drizzle the oil around the dosa’s edges in a thin, barely visible coating. Tilt the pan to swirl the oil so that it spreads and works its way under dosa.
Cook for about 2 minutes, until the exposed surface begins to look firm, and then work a spatula under the dosa’s entire edge and flip it over. Cook for 1 minute, flip the dosa again to expose the just-cooked side, fold it in half so that the first side is showing, and cook for a final 30 seconds. Slide the dosa onto a plate.
Wad a clean paper towel and dip it in ice-cold water, squeezing out excess. Rub the dampened towel all over the pan’s surface, cleaning out any crumbs. Rub on another thin layer of coconut oil and cook the next dosa, repeating the cleaning and oiling between each pancake. Eat immediately. Makes about 16 dosas.
Tips & Tricks
- The lentil-to-rice ratio makes this dosa batter fairly thick, but it should spread easily with a spatula or spoon. If you struggle, thin the batter gradually with 1–2 tablespoons of water. If you grow confident enough to use less bean and more grain in the batter, it may become thin enough to pour. But either way, less is more: too much added water will “break” the batter and gum up the pan.
- The oil is another case where less is more. If your dosas are sticking, try turning down the heat, cooling and cleaning the pan more thoroughly with the water-soaked towel, spreading the pancake more quickly, and tilting the pan again to sneak the oil under the edges before you add more oil to the pan.
- Dosas taste best when fresh and hot. Cook just what you’ll eat straight away, with any accompaniments ready to go and kept warm if needed. Extra batter can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, where it will continue to develop flavor.
- Plain dosas make a delicious snack, but the folded, taco-like shape is tempting to dip or fill. Dip them in some chutney and yogurt, stuffed them with a savory or sweet filling, or serve them alongside other dishes (see below).
Twice as Tasty
Once you’re hooked on dosas, you’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy them. Start at breakfast: They’re delicious under a basted or fried egg, smeared with avocado, or stuffed with slices of mango. Enjoy them at a midday break: I dip them in the Yellow Plum and Lavender Chutney in my new pickling cookbook and Fresh Yogurt or snack on them with a side of Pickled Mango (also in my pickling cookbook) and Fresh Paneer. For a bigger meal, serve them with this month’s other Indian-inspired recipes: sweet-and-sour potatoes and spiced shrimp.
You don’t need to stop at Indian-inspired flavors. Go fusion and pair your dosas with Braised Breakfast Potatoes, Pear–Cranberry Jam, Taqueria Carrots (again, in my pickling cookbook), or even leftover Fresh Improv Stir-Fry. You’ll be surprised by how tasty they are with just about anything.
Need more ideas that work with dosas? Get a signed copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling to fill your shelves and fridge with vinegar and fermented pickles, chutneys, hot sauces, salsa, and more. At the same time, pick up the The Pickled Picnic to learn how to use pickles and leftover brine in a range of recipes. Click here to order.