Flatbread a favorite in Saudi Arabia

One inhabitant in three in Saudi Arabia is a foreign worker or “expat” — and this diversity of nationalities is reflected in the eating habits and bread culture of the population. Traditional flatbread, available in all manner of different shapes, sizes and recipes, is still a dominant feature of meals. Markouk, shamy, tameez, shark or mana’eesh … all these bread varieties have their own flavor and typical appearance, depending on whether their origins lie in Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon or Iraq, for example. Nevertheless, Western specialties like burger buns, baguette and toast slices are becoming more and more popular.

But the unchallenged favorite in Saudi Arabia is still khubz (also called khubooz, khubuz or chubz), a yeast-leavened flatbread made from wheat flour with a high extraction level. It has a soft, rather rubbery consistency and is easy to fold and fill.

ighly regarded product

Flatbread always has been an essential feature of Arabic food culture. The legendary “Kitab al-tabikh,” a cookbook written nearly 1,000 years ago, already describes six different ways of preparing flatbreads.

Such high regard for the product continues to this day. In Saudi Arabia, flatbread is eaten at every meal, where it serves as a substitute for cutlery as well as for nourishment. A chunk of bread is used to pick up the food, absorb the sauces and wipe the plate. Whether creamy hummus, fresh yoghurt-mint dip or tangy lentil soup — khubz is the perfect accompaniment to the country’s traditional dishes. Turnovers filled with falafel, shawarma or kofta are popular as street food. Nor can fattoush, a traditional salad made with tomatoes, cucumber and parsley, do without flatbread: little pieces of bread deep-fried in olive oil create a crunchy topping.

Extensible, elastic doughs required

Saudis expect their daily khubz to be fresh from the oven. The 33 million consumers throughout the country are supplied mainly by small, family-owned artisan bakeries that are to be found on every street corner.

As a rule, the flours used consist of about 80% imported wheat and 20% domestic wheat.

The following is a typical specification for khubz flour and a standard recipe:

The most important quality criteria for flatbread flour are high extensibility, elasticity and stability of the doughs made from it. These must neither shrink when rolled out nor collapse in the oven. Moreover, the baked loaves must be easy to fold and fill.

Using the right oven

Sometimes, the only equipment available in a street bakery is an electric mixer. All the other steps in preparation are carried out by hand. After resting, the doughs are shaped into little balls of about 60 grams each and then rolled out into circular, flat loaves after individual proofing.

The heart of many Saudi bakeries is a traditional clay oven, a “tandoor.” This is a large, cylindrical clay vessel, narrower at the top, where it is usually open. This special construction enables the loaves to be baked on the inside of the oven walls. For the dough pieces to adhere properly to the curved surface, they must be drawn over an inverted cooking pot or cushion after rolling out in order to be shaped. Since temperatures in the tandoor may be as high as 480° C, the baking process takes only a few minutes. As soon as the crust takes on a light beige color and blisters and brown spots appear on the surface, the baker releases the loaves from the oven walls with a poker and takes them out.

An established alternative to the tandoor is a masonry oven that also may be heated to nearly 500° C, depending on its design. In this case, the thinly rolled dough portions are placed flat on the hot stone hearth with a wooden peel. Because of the high temperatures, the surface of the loaf forms a skin very quickly. This encloses the resulting water vapor, which literally tears the crumb open in a very short time. The dough inflates and takes the shape of a ball. As it cools after baking, the loaf collapses again, but the crumb remains divided. This effect is intentional, because it allows the loaves to be opened and filled easily after cooling.

Changes in the market

In the artisan bakeries, the staff work together as a smoothly functioning team. Each member has his or her own specific tasks and ensures, with skill and long routine, that the flat loaves have the desired quality.

But it is doubtful whether this craftsmanship will survive into the future in Saudi Arabia. Euromonitor International forecasts there will be major changes in the Saudi Arabian market as in many other countries. The personal bonds between customers and producers will lose their significance. As lifestyles change, consumers will no longer buy daily from their local tradesmen but stock up at a supermarket during a weekly shopping trip. Moreover, the analysts estimate that there will be a considerable increase in the proportion of online orders in the food sector. According to a recent market survey by Euromonitor, “e-commerce is one of the driving forces of the food trade in Saudi Arabia and affects the bakery segment directly.” Younger consumers, especially, appreciate the practical and time-saving option of using a delivery service and prefer to order their shopping by tablet or smartphone, the survey states.

Strategies for the future

The Saudi Arabian milling and baking industry will have to respond to this trend by developing new strategies, for consumers expect industrially produced baked foods to have a similar price and similar quality to artisan products. In order to meet these challenges, the industry is placing more emphasis on enzymatic solutions in the field of flour treatment. With synergistically aligned enzyme systems, it is possible to adjust the functionality of flours specifically to the requirements of flatbread production. Besides aspects of dough processing and machinability, the shelf life of the goods is of prime importance in the industrial sector. Innovative enzymes are capable of delaying starch retrogradation to such an extent that wrapped flatbreads retain their soft, elastic consistency when stored for up to seven days, or even considerably longer if wished.

The specifications to be used in a particular case depend on individual requirements and conditions at the facility. The following overview is therefore only intended as an initial, general guide to the most important enzymes used for standardizing and optimizing flatbread flours:

α-amylase — for example Alphamalt A — is an enzyme often used in bread production. However, the use of conventional (fungal) amylases is limited by the fact that the finished flatbread must not be too brown, so an increased Maillard reaction should be avoided. α-amylases contribute to freshness, presumably through interaction of the short-chain hydrolysis products of amylose degradation with the intact helices of amylopectin, which inhibits re-crystallization — the major cause of bread staling.

Maltogenic amylases, e.g. Alphamalt Fresh, which can slow down starch retrogradation efficiently, are of particular interest. They are especially effective in maintaining the rolling and folding properties of flatbread after storage. Their specific efficacy results from the interplay of a) their somewhat higher thermostability, that permits the enzymes to act on the already pasted starch at the beginning of the baking process, b) the particular mechanism by which the starch is degraded by these enzymes, and c) the interaction of the degradation products with the remaining structures of the starch.

Xylanase, for instance Alphamalt HC, releases water from pentosan gels and reduces the degree of cross-linking of gluten with pentosans. As a result, the extensibility of the dough increases, facilitating the process. The increased availability of water clearly also has a positive effect on the shelf life of flatbreads: with xylanase, they have better rollability after storage.

Protease, e.g. Alphamalt Pro, as the expected effect of improving the extensibility of the dough, thus increasing the diameter of the flatbread. At the same time, however, the shelf life of the flatbread, which is measured by its rollability, is reduced.

Lipoxygenase e.g. EMCEbest LOX Plus, is available as enzyme-active soybean flour and improves the whiteness of the crumb. Moreover, it enhances the eating properties and creates a shorter bite.