Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Injera Experiment: Mildly Successful

This post is a little bit different from the other posts because it's not about baking desserts, but it is about experimenting in the kitchen.  In this case, I tried making Ethiopian food.  If you've never had the chance to try Ethiopian cuisine, you are missing out!

There are several wonderful things to enjoy about Ethiopian cuisine, including the fact that it has a lot of vegan and vegetarian options and that injera (flatbread) is gluten-free.  I've gone out to Ethiopian restaurants when I know that I'm going to be eating with people who have dietary restrictions.  The main Ethiopian meal of the day generally has several different types of vegetable stews and may also have a spicy meat dish, which are served on large pieces of injera.  You rip off smaller pieces of injera and use it to scoop up mouthfuls of food.  The injera also absorbs the flavors of the food that's on top of it, so when you're done eating the stews there is flavor-infused injera left to finish off the meal.

There are several cities in the US with large Ethiopian and Eritrean populations, and I ended up living in three of them: Washington DC (largest Ethiopian population in the US), Los Angeles, and Oakland.  While my Ethiopian cooking skills may be lacking, I have extensive practice at eating in Ethiopian restaurants.

After a really nice dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant several weeks ago, I was lying on my bed in a food coma and googled Ethiopian recipes to see how difficult it was to make what we had had for dinner.  To my surprise, all of the recipes looked very easy.  The biggest problem was that I was missing two major ingredients: teff flour and berbere spice.

Teff is a gluten-free cereal that was one of the first domesticated plants.  Teff is high in fiber and iron and is a good source of protein and calcium.  It's becoming more common in the US as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour.

Berbere spice is actually a mixture of a whole bunch of different spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, chilies, cumin, tumeric, and fenugreek.  It's easy to make if you've got the individual ingredients, but since I didn't have fenugreek I was relived to find that Whole Foods actually sells it in their spice aisle.

Bob's Red Mill teff flour and Spicely organic Ethiopian berbere seasoning.

Using a small bag of powdered spices is really annoying, so I put the berbere spice into an empty spice container.

I decided to try making two of my favorite dishes: atakilt wat (carrots, potatoes, and cabbage stew) and misr wat (red lentil stew).  Wat means stew in Amharic, in case you've noticed a trend.  I also decided that I would try making injera because it is an integral part of the cuisine and most of the injera recipes described making it as very easy.  I'm a fan of "very easy".

Those of you who know me are probably surprised that I listed atakilt wat as one of my favorites because I hate cabbage.  I confess: I don't eat the cabbage when I order it at a restaurant.  So it should come as no surprise that I just didn't put any cabbage in when I made it.  I read about 20 recipes and they all had the same underlying set of ingredients and instructions: 
  • cook some onions and garlic in oil
  • add the spices and cook those with the onions and garlic
  • chop up some carrots and cabbage and cook those in the spicy onions and garlic for about 5 minutes
  • chop up some potatoes and add those to the carrots and cabbage.  Cook until the potatoes are soft.
The amounts of everything were different (3 carrots versus 5 carrots and 4 potatoes versus 6 potatoes, etc.) and the description of which spices to use were somewhat different but most recipes had the same basic set of spices (cumin, tumeric, and chili).  Because I was only making one or two servings, I used 3 carrots and 2 potatoes.  That's more than enough for a full meal for one person.

The two recipes that I used to decide what steps to follow are here and here.


spices: cumin, tumeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper; or berbere spice

The amount of ingredients depends on how much you're making.  For 2-3 people, I would use:

  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3-4 medium carrots, skinned and chopped
  • 2 medium potatoes, chopped
  • cooking oil
  • 1/2 head cabbage
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon tumeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon powdered cloves
  • sprinkle of black pepper
  • generous shake of chili powder
  • dash of salt
  • OR 3 teaspoons berbere spice instead of the other spices


  1. Sautee the onions and garlic in cooking oil until softened, about 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the spices and finish cooking the onion and garlic, another 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the carrots and cook for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the cabbage and cook for about 15 minutes (or skip this step if you don't like cabbage).
  5. Add the potatoes and cook, covered, until the potatoes are soft (about 20-30 minutes).
  6. Add more spices if desired at the end of the cooking time.

You generally won't need to add any liquids to the pan while cooking because the carrots, cabbage, and potatoes will release a lot of liquid while they're cooking.  It can be difficult to judge how much spice to use until you've made this recipe several times.  I'd suggest under-spicing it and then adding more at the end if you're worried about making it too spicy.  Note that there are a lot of strong tasting spices in the recipe but not a lot of these are actually spicy.  If you're like me, then it will taste a bit bland.  I ended up adding some chili powder at the end and will most likely add it some at the beginning the next time I make this.

Chopping the onion to cook while the peeled carrots are being chopped.

Cooking the onions and garlic.

With the berbere spice added.

I added a bit of water at this point because I left the cabbage out, so it wasn't there to release any liquid. 
Cooking the carrots with a cover on the pan to catch the liquid release from the carrots.

Adding the chopped potatoes.

Finished first try: too bland!  I added chili powder the second time I made this.

By far the easiest dish to make was the misr wat (red lentil stew).  It has the same first set of steps as the atakilt wat, but you're cooking lentils instead of carrots and potatoes.  Cook garlic and onion (and ginger if you have it) and a small amount of tomatoes in some oil, add spices and cook those, then add the lentils and some broth and cook the mixture until the lentils are at the consistency you want and the liquid has been absorbed or cooked off.

Red lentils cook pretty fast (about 15-20 minutes) so it's easy to avoid the terrible mushy texture that overcooked lentils get.  You can also check every 3-4 minutes to see how quickly they're cooking and if you need to add more water.  The final result should be quite thick.  Remember that you should be able to pick this stew up using your hands and some injera.  Also keep in mind that the stew will get thicker as it cools down.

The cooking time will vary depending on how large a batch of lentils you're making.  I was only making enough for one or two people, so the lentils cooking pretty quickly.  If you make a larger batch, the cooking time may increase to 30-40 minutes.

The second time I made this, I added a little something that is definitely not Ethiopian: cauliflower.  I love cauliflower and when I was at the market, they had a sale on heads of cauliflower that were just about to go bad and needed to be used that day.  A whole head of cauliflower for 98 cents!  I could literally hear Macklemore's voice in my head saying "But shit, it was 99 cents!".  The cauliflower was a great addition to the stew but it's definitely not authentic.  I waited until there was about 10 minutes of cooking time left before adding the cauliflower since it needed less time to cook than the lentils.  It did not turn into a soggy mess.


  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ginger, chopped
  • 3-4 tablespoons pureed tomato or 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • cooking oil
  • 3-4 teaspoons berbere spice
  • 1/2 cup red lentils
  • 2-2 1/2 cups of broth (vegetable or meat based)
  • optional: other vegetables like cauliflower
This makes two medium bowls of stew.  Scale up or down as needed.


  1. Heat some cooking oil in a pot and add the chopped onion and garlic and ginger.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the tomatoes and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add the spices and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the lentils and broth and stir.  Heat the mixture until gently simmering.  Stir occasionally and do not cover.  Cook until the lentils are soft and the mixture has thickened.  Add more water if necessary.  
  5. If adding in any other vegetables, wait to add them until the lentils have started to become softer because it should generally take the lentils longer to cook than whatever vegetable you want to add.  Some vegetables will also produce liquid as they cook, which will need to be cooked off as well.
Again, this "recipe" is just a compendium of various recipes for misr wat that I found online.  This recipe has a lot more details, including making your own berbere mix.

Cooking the onion and garlic

With the spices added

Cooking the tomatoes into the garlic, onion, and spices

About 1/2 cup of red lentils

After adding the lentils and broth


With the added cauliflower

The first try, without cauliflower

The reason I made two batches of the stews is because injera takes more than one day to make.  It's very similar in idea to a sourdough recipes: you mix the dry ingredients with water and let it sit and ferment for a day or two.  The natural yeast in the air is what causes the fermentation.

Unlike the misr wat or atakilt wat, there were a lot of very different recipes for injera.  Some called for yogurt or other types of flour besides teff.  I decided to make this recipe because it was the simplest.

You can skip the fermentation process and make the injera right after you make the batter if you want to.  It won't have the sour taste that the fermentation makes (like sourdough) but it will have the right consistency.

Cooking injera is not like cooking a crepe in that you don't need to flip it.  The batter should be poured thin enough that the entire injera will cook all the way through from one side.  I had to experiment a bit with my pan and ladle to figure out the right amount for fully covering the bottom of the pan without making it took thick (about 2/3's of a ladle).

After pouring the batter, you put a top on the pan to hold the liquid in.  The batter is very wet for a bread and the large amount of liquid that's released as it cooks is what makes the large number of air holes in the injera as it cooks.  Keeping a lid on the pan helps to keep the surface of the injera wet so that it doesn't burn before the middle has finished cooking.

Of course, putting a top on the pan makes it difficult to tell when the injera is done.  It takes a long time to cook the injera - mine took almost 10 minutes for each one.  It was a lot longer than I had expected.  One of the reasons that it takes so long to cook is that you need to keep the heat quite low or the side of the injera that's in the pan will burn before the center finishes cooking.

You can tell that the injera is done when the edges start curling up.  At this point, I just flipped the pan over on top of some parchment paper and the injera fell out.  It was easier than trying to use a spatula to get it out.  You will need a good amount of oil in the pan, even if it's non-stick.  I used coconut oil and it was difficult to taste it when eating the injera.

This recipe makes injera that's a lot darker than what I'm used to seeing in restaurants.  I suspect that's because only teff flour is used, and if there were other dry ingredients the injera would probably be lighter.  There's also several different types of injera (see the picture on the wiki page) and it's likely that I'm used to a different type that's lighter.  Another highly likely possibility is that I over-cooked the injera.

When I figured out how long it was going to take to cook 6-7 pieces of injera, I tried making a piece in a pot on a different burner to speed up the overall cooking time.  It didn't work: make injera in a pan and not a pot.


  • 1 1/2 cups teff flour
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt, or more to taste
  • Coconut oil for pan


  1. Place teff flour in a large glass bowl, add water and stir well.
  2. Cover with a cheesecloth or towel and place on the counter and let it sit for 24 hours. Do not agitate or stir the batter, just leave it be.
  3. Bring a pan to medium heat, and very lightly, coat the pan with coconut oil.
  4. Stir in the salt, and season with more taste if you like, until you can barely detect the saltiness. Also stir in the baking powder. Your batter will deflate when you stir it.
  5. Now pour enough batter into the pan to fill entire surface thinly and cover with a lid, or if you don’t have a lid, use a cookie sheet. It’s important to keep a lot of moisture in the pan or the Injera will crack. It takes about 5-10 minutes to cook Injera. You’ll see the top bubble like pancakes and start to dry out. When the top is dry, and the edges begin to curl/dry, flip the pan over on top of some parchment paper to release the injera.
  6. Repeat, layering cooked Injera with parchment paper until you use up all the batter.

The teff flour

Mixed with water

I left it in the kitchen, under a towel, for a day.

I accidentally banged the bowl against the counter when taking the towel off, and some large air bubbles from the fermentation process rose to the top.

With the salt and baking powder mixed in.

Right after pouring.  The edges cook much faster than everything else but they don't curl up until the injera is done.

With the top on the pan.

Cooked injera.

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