Falafel is classic Middle Eastern fare, often served as a type of sandwich in pita or on its own with a salad and dipping sauces. While it’s not difficult to a good falafel at restaurants, many experiments with making them at home have had mixed results for home cooks. But we’re about to fix that. Elle Simone is a test cook and food stylist at America’s Test Kitchen. Not only does she love falafel, she also has the recipe for perfection, which borrows some help from an Asian baking technique. She shared the recipe and process for Falafel and Tahini Sauce with Managing Producer Sally Swift.
Sally Swift: I am ever so slightly obsessed with falafel. I have made many a variety and eaten them in many places, and I have to say there's a lot of bad falafel out there.
Elle Simone: Yes, there can be quite some unsavory falafels in the world.
SS: What is the hard thing? What do we need to know about them?
ES: First you should know that falafels are made with chickpeas. They can also be made with fava beans, but we make ours with chickpeas.
SS: Are these chickpeas cooked or are they just soaked?
ES: These chickpeas are not cooked, they're soaked.
SS: Is that traditional? Is that how they're usually done?
ES: Here's the thing. I think the debate is about how is it really done. And I think lots of you know regions make them differently, although the Middle East claims the fame. I grew up in Michigan and we have like the largest Middle Eastern population, so I've had lots of falafel and I've had them made in many different ways. Some were very good and some not so good. I think that we've managed to nail down a way to make them consistently delicious.
SS: We are talking about really making falafel here. This is not rehydrating a dried mix. We are starting from scratch, correct?
ES: That's the only way to go. We start with uncooked chickpeas. Let them soak overnight – at least eight hours, eight to twenty-four is ideal. We're doing this instead of using canned because obviously cans are already in a solution, and more than likely they've already been cooked for the sake of preservation. When you are make your falafel batter with cooked or oversoaked chickpeas, you'll end up with a pasty puree. Which is a great way to get a hard pasty falafel.
(Photo: Daniel J. van Ackere)
SS: Yeah, they're just mushy. I have to say that I've tried this. I didn't realize that these chickpeas are not supposed to be cooked.
ES: They should not be cooked; it's best to start raw. We're going to cook them eventually. We don't need to double cook them. So, we have our chickpeas that have been soaked. We go into a food processor with these chickpeas with some of my favorite herbs – cilantro, parsley – and some very warm spices – coriander, cumin, cayenne pepper – plus onions and little salt. Blitz those in the food processor. We're looking for a nice pebbly texture. We don't want the chickpeas to get too small. About the size of a sesame seed would be most specific.
SS: You want it chunky, but not looking like clumps?
SS: What’s next?
ES: I think this is the part where people get hung up or tricked up the most. They want to fry their falafels. They think they're at that point. But really you need to add something to make the batter stick together. Because if you fried it at this point they would definitely crumble in the oil. So, we use an Asian bread baking step that's called tangzhong; it's pretty much whisking a little flour with some water and cooking that mixture briefly. In this case we just cook it in the microwave for a few minutes until it becomes more like a pudding-like paste. And it's not a large amount because it goes a long way. Add that putting mix into your falafel batter and mix it together to make sure it's well incorporated. Now you have the kind of falafel batter that you want to fry.
SS: That's so interesting because I have tried to just add flour before, and it has not been very successful. So, I need to do a cooked flour paste.
ES: A cooked flour paste is the way to go. We've tried just rolling it in flour. We've tried just adding flour to the mixture. You know we've tried all these things. But this tangzhong method is flawless. It gets the job done.
SS: Do you deep-fry your falafel balls or are you pan fryers?
ES: We are deep-fryers. All day every day, deep-frying is a way to go. We scoop about a tablespoon at a time. I do about five or six of them at a time because they're easier to manage. Fry them for about five minutes until they're golden brown.
SS: Then what do you like to top them with?
ES: I love to top my falafels with tahini sauce, which is a very simple sauce. It’s one of the sauces I like to keep in my house because I dip a lot of things in tahini sauce. It’s just Greek yogurt, lemon juice, some water, and salt and pepper it to taste.
SS: Sounds delicious! You can eat that on anything.
On each episode of The Splendid Table we visit with the test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen to discuss a wide range of topics including recipes, ingredients, techniques and kitchen equipment.