What Is Fry Bread?
If you've never had it, you have no idea what you're missing! But what is fry bread and why is it important?
When I lived in Oregon, I often drove from Bend to Portland. About an hour into the drive, I’d pass through the Warm Springs Reservation along the Deschutes River. It was almost impossible to drive through town without seeing hand-written signs on the side of the road advertising Native American fry bread.
I had no idea what fry bread was or what I’d been missing by skipping the signs until a friend insisted we stop for Navajo tacos. Now, I never pass up the opportunity! Also called Navajo fry bread or Indian fry bread, this deep-fried bread puffs up as it cooks, creating a golden brown dough that’s light and fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
What Is Fry Bread?
Fry bread is a flatbread that’s fried in oil, shortening or lard. Several tribes have their own variation on fry bread, but most Navajo-inspired fry breads are made with flour, water and salt and don’t contain any yeast, using baking powder as the leavening agent. Others are made with yeast, substitute cornmeal for flour, add eggs for richness, use milk instead of water or contain a fat like shortening or lard.
No matter the ingredient list, fry bread is always easy to make. After the dough comes together, it’s divided into several small portions. The portions are rolled into small discs and deep-fried in a cast-iron skillet until they’re golden-brown and irresistibly crispy.
Why Is Fry Bread Important?
Fry bread is important from a cultural perspective, but it also has a storied history. If you’ve spent any time studying Mesoamerican culture, you might know that wheat isn’t a native crop to the Americas. Corn was the staple grain for hundreds of years, and wheat didn’t arrive on the scene until it was brought over by white colonists. Traditional Native American dishes couldn’t focus around a crop that wasn’t grown, so how did fry bread become an iconic Native American dish? Sadly, the atrocities and oppression waged on Native American populations didn’t only include physical harm to the people; they also involved ruining their crops.
Years after the Native Americans were forced off their land, they were given reservations, but in areas that were poorly suited to grow staple foods. Food programs were established to keep people from starving, but these food boxes mostly contained commodities like canned goods, flour, lard, salt and sugar. From these nutrient-less foods, fry bread was born.
Fry bread is simple to make, and it fills the belly, but no one has any illusions that it’s healthy. And yet, despite its checkered past, fry bread has become something of a traditional dish for many Native Americans. It’s a symbol of how they persevered, turning a box filled with disparate goods into a unique and iconic dish.
How Do You Make Fry Bread from Scratch?
Our Navajo-inspired fry bread is easy to make. Simply combine 1 cup of flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/3 cup hot water. When the dough comes together into a large ball, cover it and let it sit for 30 minutes.
When the bread has rested, divide it into two portions and roll each one into a 6-inch disc. Meanwhile, heat an inch of frying oil (like canola oil) in a cast-iron skillet. When it’s hot enough to shimmer, add the discs and fry for two to three minutes per side.
How Do You Eat Fry Bread?
Fry bread tastes great on its own as a quick and easy snack, when you pull off small pieces to dip into melted butter or salsa. It’s also a nice, starchy side for soups, stews and bean dishes like chili. Of course, it can be used like any flatbread to make fry bread sandwiches, or you can turn it into Navajo tacos. Scoop seasoned ground beef and your favorite taco toppings onto each portion after it has cooked, folding the bread in half to eat it like a traditional taco.
While fry bread is usually served with savory foods, it can also be turned into a sweet treat. Drizzle the finished fry bread with honey or syrup, serve it with jam, dust it with powdered sugar or brush it with butter and sprinkle on a little cinnamon sugar. It’s delicious, no matter how you serve it!