I first fell in love with Ethiopian cuisine when we lived near Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. A quick metro trip would whisk us from the suburb where we lived to any number of exotic (by my country girl standards) destinations. One of those was the vibrant, multicultural Adams Morgan neighborhood. Walking the colorful streets, you could pick from any number of Ethiopian restaurants, from whose doors wafted incredible, mouthwatering aromas. If you peeked in, you’d typically see small, round, glass-covered wicker tables. Servers would set table-sized platters covered with an overlapping curtain of beige, crepe-like discs of Ethiopian bread, or injera, heaped with an assortment of thick stews and seasoned veggies, on those tables. Diners would then tear off sections of the velvety flatbread and use them to grab mouthfuls of the savory offerings — eating it all in one deft bite. Upon my first taste of these tangy, bubble-studded, impossibly tender fermented breads, I became a convert.
During one of those visits to Adams Morgan, I bought an Ethiopian cookbook, a bag of lentils, and a jar of spice mix, but it was years before I could find the key ingredient for making injera: ground teff seed. Annual teff grass (Eragrostis tef) thrives in the arid conditions of the Horn of Africa, which today includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia, with Sudan just to the west. Teff is one of the most ancient cereal crops, believed to have been cultivated as early as 4000 B.C. by the Abyssinian civilization and others. The poppy-seed-sized seeds vary in color from a deep russet to a pale ivory and are packed with nutrients. Teff is the most cultivated crop in Ethiopia, and its popularity, in good part, is because it’s gluten-free. Its gluten-free status has led teff to be cultivated in many other parts of the world, including the United States.
Teff and Beyond
Despite its popularity and prominence as a crop, teff is labor-intensive to grow and harvest, making it an expensive grain. Even in the best conditions, yields are low when compared to other cereal crops, such as wheat. For this reason, most injera served in restaurants, and even made in Ethiopian homes, is only partially made with teff flour. To cut production time, many recipes also completely skip the natural fermentation process, using a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking soda, and even adding club soda to create effervescence. If you’ve tasted injera prepared with part white flour and made bubbly by means of a shortcut, it was probably tasty, but it would’ve lacked the nutrition and heartiness of injera made from fully fermented, 100 percent teff. If you’re on a gluten-free diet, blended grain versions might not be acceptable.
For this article, I made gluten-free injera from 100 percent teff flour; the recipe will also work with a blend of teff and brown rice flour. The more teff the recipe contains, the heartier the flavor. The more rice flour, the milder. I also included a variation using whole-grain organic corn flour or masa, and a teff and flaxseed version. Both corn (maize) and rice flours, as well as a variety of others, such as sorghum and barley, are traditionally used in Ethiopia to make the teff flour go a bit farther. Typically, 100 percent teff injera is saved for special occasions, but it may be served regularly in wealthier households.
Unlocking the Nutrients in Teff
Teff is an ancient grain that many consider a superfood. The success of Ethiopian long-distance runners is a much touted result of teff. The whole grains can be cooked as a porridge or used in stews and other dishes. A quarter-cup of uncooked teff has 7 grams of protein and contains 10 percent of an adult’s recommended daily amount of calcium, vitamin B6, and zinc; a whopping 20 percent of the recommended iron; and 25 percent of the recommended magnesium, in addition to a plethora of other micronutrients.
Fermentation is the key that further unlocks the nutritional benefits of teff seed, as well as that of other grains and cereal crops. Fermentation enhances the bioavailability of macronutrients, such as proteins, and micronutrients, such as iron, making them readily available for uptake by our bodies. For those counting carbs and sugars, fermentation microbes devour much, if not all, of the simple sugars, greatly reducing the glycemic index of the final product. The longer the fermentation, the more likely the simple sugars will have been processed completely. Probiotics are also produced, but are likely destroyed or limited during cooking, leaving bacterial enzymes behind.
Making injera is simple, but takes a little planning — as do all ferments! After the 3 to 5 days you’ll need to get the initial starter active, you can begin new batches using some or all of the older batch (called the ersho) in much less time. The starter will keep for a week or two without feeding if refrigerated. Some recipes call for adding yeast to help get it started, but I’ve never found that necessary. In fact, since the fermentation of injera batter is primarily by bacteria (according to research: Enterobacteriaceae are first, followed by Leuconostoc mesenteroides and Streptococcus faecalis, and then Pediococcus cerevisiae, Lactobacillus brevis, L. plantarum, and L. fermentum), with yeasts only coming into play later, adding yeast will not result in a traditional fermentation.
The batter will get more sour the longer it ferments. I shoot for a full fermentation in order to reduce the carbs to their minimum, which creates quite a tart batter with a pH around 3.4. Just before cooking, I add a bit of baking powder or soda, which not only creates nice bubbles when it combines with the acidic batter, but also reduces the tangy taste just a touch.
Traditionally, a portion of the fermented batter is cooked in hot water. The heat gelatinizes this portion of the batter, making a thickened gravy called “absit” that’s then reincorporated into the rest of the batter. The absit improves the texture and pliability of the injera. However, skipping this step still results in injera to be proud of, so I recommend cooking it with and without absit to see what you prefer. I usually skip the absit.
Injera is traditionally cooked on a seasoned, clay-surfaced woodstove called a mitad. Today, they’re more often cooked on an electric mitad, which is basically a round, nonstick electric crepe skillet. I’m not a fan of nonstick cookware, so I use a seasoned cast-iron skillet instead. The drawback is that I need to use a little oil, which can result in some browning on the bottom of the injera (which is actually delicious, but not traditional looking and prone to stiffening the flatbread). The batter can be poured onto the hot surface in a spiral or poured out all at once, and then the skillet rotated to help spread the batter into a thin sheet. If you’re using a heavy cast-iron skillet, the second option can be a challenge.
If the temperature is too high, large bubbles will form; if it’s too low, the injera might stick. Start at about 325 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for an electric skillet, or medium-low heat on a stovetop. If you’re like me, the first pancake, waffle, or injera never seems to turn out well anyway, so expect some tweaking of your technique!
Injera isn’t flipped. Instead, the top is cooked by covering the skillet with a lid once bubbles have formed fairly evenly across the surface of the flatbread. This traps heat and steam to help make a tender injera that can be rolled without cracking. If you cover the pan too soon, the injera will turn out mushy. Not covering the pan is an option, if you want to form a crispier, firm injera. You can also flip the injera (unless it’s huge) if you want to brown both sides.
When done, injera is traditionally stacked in a woven basket called a masob or mesob that allows them to breathe a bit, but not to dry out or stick.
Take Your Injera Further Afield
- Crackers: Cook as usual, cool, then slice into wedges. Bake at 450 degrees on parchment until crisp.
- Crispy injera: Use a teaspoon or more of butter or oil in the pan and fry on both sides.
- Flaxseed injera: Add whole or ground flaxseed to the ferment or to fermented batter.
- Tangy tortillas: Use corn flour or masa (nixtamalized corn) instead of teff or rice flour for the ferment. You can use some teff/rice ersho to get it started. Corn flour will ferment more quickly than masa, because masa is more alkaline to start with. Both produce a wonderful batter that creates a thick flatbread with more flavor than any tortilla I’ve had. These are great for a tostada or taco salad.
- Crepes: Skip the optional baking soda, thin the batter with egg and milk, rather than water, and then cook with a bit more butter or oil. Turn once. These will be bubblier than regular crepes, but they’re a wonderful, fermented option.
Injera Batter Variations
Once you realize that any starch can be fermented, the sky is the limit for “alternative” sourdoughs. And the fact that fermentation easily happens means you don’t need to find an existing starter. In other words, there are no excuses for not making these simple, nutritious flatbreads. Heck, you can even use whole-wheat or barley flour if you can’t rustle up some teff and aren’t avoiding gluten. The key to success is knowing that the goal is to create a thin, finely textured crepe-like bread, rather than a sturdy or fluffy bun or loaf. After all, who “kneads” only those?
If you’re ready to give this tangy ferment a try, use our Simple Injera Recipe.
Gianaclis Caldwell is the author of many books focusing on dairy products — her most recent, Handmade Yogurt and Kefir (Storey Publishing) is coming out in 2020 — and small dairy businesses. She practices her passions for farming, writing, teaching, and fermenting at the family’s off-grid Pholia Farm, in Oregon’s beautiful Rogue Valley. Find her on Facebook @Gianaclis and on Instagram @Gianaclis and @PholiaFarm.