I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been making pita pockets wrong your whole life.
I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been making pita pockets wrong your whole life. Well, probably. I don’t know you. Maybe you figured this out years ago and have been keeping it all to yourself, in which case sorry-not-sorry, I’m about to blast it out onto the internet whether you like it or not.
All my life, I’ve made pita pocket sandwiches the same way: slicing the pita down the middle, opening each half into a pocket, stuffing my sandwich fillings inside, and then eating quickly, hoping the bottom remained intact. And what happened pretty much every time? The seam would rip, dressing or sauce would drip down my arms, or worse, the whole sandwich would fall out the bottom. It was NOT GREAT, BOB.
What if I told you there’s a better way to pita pocket?
What if I told you there’s a right way — a ONE AND ONLY WAY — to build a pita pocket to prevent bottom spillage, and maximize the structural integrity of your pita sandwich?
It’s so simple. You’re gonna be furious you didn’t think of it. I know I was, the first time Jimmy did it. So you know, all credit to him, here.
Instead of cutting your pita in half, cut just the top 1/4 of it off. Then flip the top piece upside down, and use it to line the bottom of the pita pocket and reinforce the seam. Not only will you prevent any embarrassing pita blow-outs, but you can fit even more sandwich filling inside your pita. Your pita game just leveled up in a MASSIVE way. Congrats. You’re welcome.
Of course, you can do this with store-bought or homemade pita pockets, and it works for pitas of all sizes. That’s just basic geometry. But to truly bring your pita game to the next level, let’s talk about making homemade pita pockets.
Making homemade pita pockets
Pita bread is a popular middle eastern flatbread (though with it’s airy, puffed-up appearance, it does feel weird to refer to it as flat). It’s typically used for scooping up dips like hummus or baba ghanoush, but is also excellent for stuffing full of your favorite salads or sandwich fillings.
The recipe I use (included in detail below) is incredibly simple and a low time commitment (in terms of bread-making, anyway), and it’s great for practicing shaping and rolling. You put all your ingredients in a mixing bowl, mix to form a shaggy dough, then let your dough hook do it’s thing on medium speed for 5 minutes. Then the dough goes in a lightly greased bowl to rise for approximately 1 hour, before you divide it into 8 pieces, shape them into rounds, roll them out flat, and bake them in batches of 2 or 4 at a time. They bake for 5 minutes on the lowest rack, then you move them to the top rack for 2 minutes to brown. That’s it!
Shaping and rolling your pita dough
Pita dough is smooth and forgiving, which makes it fairly easy to shape and roll. You don’t need to do anything too fancy, but it’s worth knowing how to do it right, to ensure you get a nice puff in the oven.
Whenever you shape dough into rounds, you want to stretch it, not tear it. When dough rises, it’s developing gluten, which provides strength and structure. If you tear your dough while shaping it, you’re tearing those gluten strands and weakening the dough. And weak dough won’t puff up nicely in the oven.
To shape the rounds, take one of your eight pieces of dough and gently flatten it against a lightly floured surface. If you combined a few pieces of dough to get the right size dough ball, put the smaller piece(s) on top. Then, stretch the edges of the dough up and over the center, pinching and gathering them together. Flip your dough over. You should now have a smooth surface facing up, with the seam side facing down. Cup your hand around the dough and gently drag your hand towards you, sliding the dough forward. Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat. This should create tension on the surface of the dough while tucking any raw edges underneath. (It’s a similar process to shaping bagels!)
Tucking all those those edges or any folds/creases/seams in the dough underneath and creating a nice, smooth surface on the top of your dough balls will make them easier to roll out and reduce the likelihood bursting or letting out steam when they puff up in the oven.
Here’s a great video from The San Diego Artisan Bread School showing this process on a full-size loaf of bread:
You can use any size rolling pin (or even a lightly floured glass bottle, in a pinch) to roll out your dough. I recently picked up a short rolling pin at an Asian grocery store in Pittsburgh that I love for this. These pins are meant to be used to roll out dumpling or bao dough, but the smaller size makes these pins easier to maneuver and a little gentler on your dough.
When you’re ready to roll them out, first gently flatten the dough with your hand. Remember, we’re stretching — not tearing. Then, start with your pin in the middle of the dough and roll it down, towards your body. Pick the dough up from the top with one hand, rotate it a quarter turn, then repeat.
You always want to start in the middle of the dough and roll down to keep it even. Try to avoid rolling the pin off the edge of the dough at the bottom so that you aren’t thinning out or pinching your dough at the edges.
Time-saving and meal planning tips
This pita recipe takes two hours start to finish — and that includes an hour to let the dough rest while you do other things. Still, two hours is a big time commitment if you’ve just gotten home from work and are hungry right nowwwwwww. This is where the beauty of meal planning comes in: When I know I want to make pita pockets for dinner (or lunch) that week, I plan to eat them on Monday and Tuesday, which gives me more time on Sunday to bake them. Planning to eat them a couple nights in a row also means that you can make a larger batch of your preferred filling (or use leftovers from Saturday night’s night’s dinner to stuff your pitas), and then you don’t have to cook anything on Monday night, either.
If you really want to make and eat your pita for dinner on the same night, there’s a few ways you can shave some (maybe 15-20 minutes) off the process.
- Make the dough the night before and let it rise, covered, in the fridge. The cold temperature will slow the rising process. Don’t let it sit in the fridge longer than 18-20 hours though or you risk over-proofing.
- A literal “hot tip” is to use warm (not scalding hot, just warm) water instead of lukewarm water. The warmer the water, the faster the yeast activates. Using warm water will make the dough rise faster, and you’ll probably be ready to roll out your pita rounds after 40-45 minutes, rather than an hour.
- You can also let the dough rise, covered inside of an off oven (closed, with the oven light on), which is a warmer environment and will encourage faster yeast activation.
Okay, but does making homemade pita pockets save me any money?
Sure, you can buy a bag of pita bread for a few dollars, but let’s take a quick look at how much it costs to make the recipe below. Your standard 5 lb bag of flour contains 18-19 cups of flour. This recipe calls for 3 cups. That’s 15% of the bag. If a bag of flour costs $5.00, that’s 75 cents worth of flour. If your bag of flour costs $3.00, that’s 45 cents of flour. For eight soft and fresh homemade pita pockets. Of course, your time is worth money too, so this trade-off may not be worth the time investment. Sometimes it is just more practical to buy the pre-made stuff. But if you have time, and you want to save a few dollars while learning a new skill, why not give this a try?
Golden Pita Bread
These airy pita breads are the perfect vehicle for your favorite salad or sandwich fillings. The dough comes together in just a few minutes with the help of a stand mixer, and the dough rounds bake to completion in under 10 minutes. Let them rest for a few minutes before you tear them open, but they're best enjoyed while still warm, fresh out of the oven.
Recipe from King Arthur Flour.
3 cups (361g) all purpose flour
2 tsp instant (active dry) yeast
2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (227g) water (lukewarm)
2 tbsp (25g) vegetable oil
Stand mixer (Alt: If you don't have a stand mixer, replace you can hand-knead the dough for ~10 minutes instead).
Rolling pin (I recommend a small dumpling pin)
Sheet pans (any size)
2-3 clean dish towels
- Using your kitchen scale or measuring cups, combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook and mix to form a rough/shaggy dough. You'll probably need to scrape down the sides a few times.
- Turn your mixer up to medium speed and let the dough hook do it's thing for five minutes. It's going to feel weird to let it go that long, but trust the process. Let it go. Use the time to wipe the counters, put your measuring cups in the sink, etc.
- Use your bowl scraper to pull the dough away from the sides of the bowl. Put the dough into a lightly greased bowl and let it rest for an hour. I hate making extra dishes, so I usually take the dough out of the mixing bowl with one hand, spray some PAM into the bowl with the other, and then put the dough right back in to rest.
- Cover the bowl with saran wrap or a clean dish towel and let the dough rest for 1 hour at room temp. It may not double in size, but it should look a little puffy.
- Use your bowl scraper to turn the dough out onto a lightly greased surface. Divide the dough into 8 roughly equal pieces (use a kitchen scale if you want to be precise) and shape them into balls. Put a little water or oil on your hands if you find the dough is sticking to them.
- Roll 2 to 4 of the pieces into 6" circles using a lightly floured rolling pin and place them on a lightly greased baking sheet. The number you roll out for the first batch depends on how many you can fit on your baking sheet, so you may need to do four batches of two, or two batches of four, depending on how much room you have. Keep the unrolled dough covered, for now and roll it out while the first batch is baking.
- Adjust your oven racks so one is on the bottom and the other is on the middle-highest. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes while you pre-heat your oven to 500°F. If your oven doesn't go to 500, just crank it as high as you can.
NOTE: Do not skip the 15 minute rest time. Rushing means your pitas won't poof up as nicely in the oven.
- Place your first baking sheet on the lowest rack of your oven and set your timer for 5 minutes. The pita pockets should puff in the final minute or so. If they don't, your oven isn't hot enough and you'll want to wait a few minutes before doing the next batch.
- Move the first baking sheet to the top rack and set your timer for 2 minutes. This is when they get nice and golden brown. You may need a little more than 2 minutes, so check on them at 2 minutes, but it's okay if you leave them in a little longer for more color.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven and carefully use your long kitchen tongs to move the puffed up pitas onto a clean dishtowel. You want to wrap them in the dish towel to allow them to steam and soften before tearing them open and eating.
- Repeat with the remaining dough.
- If you want to flavor your pita pockets you can add 1-2 tsp of turmeric, thyme, cayenne, garlic powder, or any other herbs/spices of your choosing.
- Store pitas (once cooled) in an airtight container or plastic bag. I like to put a paper towel in the bag to help absorb moisture. The pitas should stay good for 3-4 days if properly stored, and if you can resist eating them.