Monday, November 10, 2008

Real Food IX: Idlis

Traditional cultures throughout the world went to great lengths to maximize the nutritional value of the ingredients they had. Fermentation is a technique that was widely used for preparing grains and legumes. Humans are not well adapted to grains or legumes, in large part due to their assortment of anti-nutrients (substances that prevent the absorption of nutrients) and other toxins. Fermentation is a very effective way to eliminate anti-nutrients, making grains and legumes more nutritious and easily digested.

Idlis are steamed, naturally leavened cakes made from a fermented mixture of ground rice and beans. They're mild, savory and fluffy, and pair well with nearly any dish. I think they fill in well for bread. Due to the combination of rice and beans, they contain a fair amount of high-quality complete protein. They are also very economical. Idlis have their roots in Southern Indian cuisine more than 1,000 years ago. They may have originated as a fermented bean dish, with rice added to the recipe later in history.

The recipe takes 2-3 days to complete, but actually doesn't require much work. First, the beans and rice are soaked separately, then they are ground and mixed, then they are allowed to ferment for 24-48 hours and steamed. This type of days-long soaking and fermentation process is common in many grain-based cultures worldwide.

The recipe traditionally calls for short-grain white rice and urad dal (split black gram). I've been using short-grain brown rice with good results. You will only be able to find urad dal in an Indian grocer, specialty store or online. If you can't find urad dal, try experimenting with other types of mild dry beans.

Ingredients and materials
  • One cup urad dal or other dried bean
  • Two cups short-grain brown or white rice
  • One teaspoon fenugreek (optional)
  • Two teaspoons non-iodized salt
  • Filtered or otherwise dechlorinated water
  • Muffin tray
  • Large pot for steaming (optional)
  1. Soak urad dal and rice separately for 6 hours (longer if you're using a different type of bean). Add fenugreek to the rice before soaking (optional). It's used traditionally to speed fermentation.
  2. Pour water off the urad dal and rice/fenugreek mixture. Don't rinse.
  3. Grind the urad dal in a food process or or blender with a minimum amount of water until it's a smooth paste. The water must not be chlorinated or it will kill our bacteria! Brita-type water filters remove chlorine, as does boiling or leaving water uncovered overnight.
  4. Grind the rice/fenugreek mixture coarsely with a minimum amount of dechlorinated water.
  5. Mix the ground urad dal, ground rice and salt. The salt must be non-iodized, or the batter will not ferment! Pickling salt, kosher salt and unrefined sea salt work well. Add dechlorinated water until it's a thick paste, stirrable but not liquid.
  6. Ferment for 24-48 hours. You know it's ready when the dough has risen significantly, and the odor has gone from harsh and beany to mild and savory. Fermentation time will depend on the ambient temperature.
  7. Fill muffin trays about half-way with batter and steam until a knife inserted into them comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. You can also bake them at 350 F. It's not traditional, but I like them baked almost as much. If you really want to be traditional, you can buy an idli steamer.
Here are photos of my last batch. Soaking the urad dal and rice:

Batter, pre-fermentation:

Batter, post-fermentation (48 hours). It more than doubled in volume. The color didn't actually change, that's just my camera.

Ready to steam or bake.

After baking. One escaped! Into my belly.

Thanks to Soumya dey and Wikipedia for the top photo


Scott W said...

So...can you grind up anything with a little water and let it sit and it will ferment? I have been experimenting with tapioca starch, which is a very good substitute for gluten, mixing it with potato starch in different proportions. you can make a very chewy bread with nothing more than these two ingredients, water and baking powder and cooking in a microwave or conventional oven. Adding eggs or butter gives different textures.

Anyway, I have been wanting to try for a more raised type dough and fermentation sounds like it might work.



Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Scott,

I think pretty much anything will ferment, but not necessarily taste good. If you want to try a leavened bread of the type you mentioned, I'd either try using a sourdough starter or adding fenugreek similar to making idlis. It gives a nice airy dough. I don't know if that will work, it's just an idea.

Thanks for the potato starch-tapioca idea. Does the bread come out tasting good?

Debs said...

I tasted these idlis. I'll vouch that they're delicious!

Food Is Love/Seattle Local Food

Scott W said...

I think the bread is good. It is definitely chewy, something you don't get with stuff made only with almond flour, which is more like muffins.

I get tapioca starch at a local Asian market. If you get some tapioca noodles too and boil them up, then you get an idea of what you will get if you try just mixing tapioca starch and water and microwaving it....very very chewy.

So then you start experimenting. Mixing 1/2 and 1/2 with potato starch is still pretty chewy. I'm still working out the ideal proportions, but you can pretty much make anything, even pancakes, depending on how much you thin the batter.

Easy to experiment too since you can microwave them and get immediate results.

The basic bread recipe is 1/2 cup starch (of preferred mix), 1 egg beaten, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp baking powder. Grease a dish or rubbermaid container, pour in, microwave on high for about 1:15.

Pop it out, cool some. That's it. Slicing it horizontally gives you slices for a sandwich or to toast.

From there you can try no egg, more egg, adding butter, adding some proportion of almond flour, etc.

It doesn't taste exactly like wheat bread, but darn close. Good toasted too.

Compare this to doing the same recipe with 1/2 cup pure almond flour. You get a denser bread with the almond, but crumblier. Adding some tapioca gives it some resilience.


Stephan Guyenet said...


Thanks for the recipe. I may give it a try. I assume you could make it with rice flour as well?

AlanL said...

I'm amazed that nobody up to this point has mentioned dosas - Indian pancakes - which are exactly the same thing, but spread out thin and fried with - ideally - coconut oil.

In restaurants they are a couple of feet across, thin and crispy. My Indian cookery teacher said this is impossible unless you do them all day, every day from an early age. Home-style dosas are more like the thickness and texture of a wheat flour pancake. But much tastier and healthier.

I tried various whole grain combinations until I came up with un-shelled urid dal and thai red rice, which combine to produce a pleasing red-brown colour.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Alan,

I make dosas as well. I've never been able to get that crispy restaurant texture either, but they're tasty nevertheless. The reason I've been making idlis more lately is they're a decent substitute for bread and they're better the next day than dosas.

Unknown said...

Off Topic: Has anyone read the following article? Any thoughts?

"Cod Liver Oil, Vitamin A Toxicity, Frequent Respiratory Infections, and the Vitamin D Deficiency Epidemic"

Dangers of cod liver oil

November 11, 2008

Today, sixteen well-known experts, including professors Walter Willett and Ed Giovannucci of Harvard, Dr. John Hathcock of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, and Professor Reinhold Vieth of the University of Toronto, published an unprecedented warning about the ingestion of cod liver oil and resultant vitamin A toxicity.

Stephan Guyenet said...


I haven't read it but I can pretty well guess what it says. Basically, vitamin A exacerbates vitamin D and vitamin K2 deficiency. If you aren't getting enough D and K2, too much A can make it worse.

To my knowledge, there is no solid evidence that explicitly implicates cod liver oil in vitamin A toxicity, since it also contains vitamin D. Unless they're presenting new data in the paper, that has not changed.

Vitamin A remains a very important nutrient, and a high intake is good as long as you have adequate D and K2. Non-industrial cultures often had a high intake of vitamin A, and showed no signs of "vitamin A toxicity".

Unknown said...

I've gotta try making some Idlis since it seems pretty easy (and delicious). The tapioca starch and potato bread recipe also looks good. I've been looking for wheat bread substitutes since I've gotten into the lazy habit of making sandwiches for lunch.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

I tried the recipe Scott provided: "1/2 cup tapioca starch, 1 egg beaten, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp baking powder. Grease a dish, pour in, microwave on high for about 1:15.

Pop it out, cool some. Slicing it horizontally gives you slices for a sandwich or to toast."

It worked well and tasted great toasted (kind of bland untoasted). The only problem is that it was so flat to begin with that I couldn't make horizontal sections for a sandwich. I had to cut it cross-wise and the pieces looked like biscotti. I'll try experimenting with other starches (e.g., potato and rice). I, too, have been looking for a wheat substitute for making bread.

P - Green bug bit me said...

Yummm, Idlis. Gosh darn, you westerners are clueing in on some of our secrets! Look what you did with Yog (not yogA for g's sakes). So for that reason alone, I will not share the secret to crispy dosa's. :)

Anyway, for Dosa, you can increase the proportion of urad daal. It can be in equal proportion to rice. And no, rice flour does not work as well as whole rice.
I am surprised about tapioca - it is nothing but starch! Oh but tapioca "khichadi" tastes out of this world!

Unknown said...

How does one steam a whole tray of muffins?

Rhonda said...

Where do you find Urid Dal? I would like to order it online. Have you ever seen organic urid Dal?

Unknown said...

Sounded great. But...
Well, I did it just as you said, but used brown rice and lentils soaked for 12 hours, boiled water and sea salt. After 48 hours it didn't grow and formed a blackish thing (mold?) on top. I discarded that blackish thing but I'm not sure if it's safe to eat the rest... Also I have no idea what went wrong. Help?

Liz said...

@miriam, you could use custard cups and set them in a steamer. That's what I'm going to try unless more info shows up before I'm done soaking and grinding.

Cyndi said...

I finally made these today - more like Dosa (fried like a pancake in coconut oil) to have with Chicken Curry. It was VERY VERY GOOD!!! Even my 3-year-old ate it! We live in rural Indiana - so I figure we were the only people in the county eating anything like this :) It was well worth the effort and we will do this again soon. (I did use brown rice and locally-available green lentils instead of Urid Dal). Keep up the good work - I really enjoy this blog.

Tabi/eliz said...

@rlajo,you can soak rice and lentils for about 8 hours and this should be good enough. Normal tap water can be used instead of boiled water cos it works best for me. Dont throw the water used to soak the lentils cos this can help with fermenting. Either use it when grinding or when mixing rice and lentils after its been ground. To get soft Idlis, grind rice to a coarse consistency. You can avoid the black mold like thingy on the idli mix/batter, if you place a lid on the pot that holds the bater, while it ferments. I usually keep the idli batter, in the oven thats been preheated and then switched off, to keep the temperature warm for fermentation. If you leave it overnight in the oven, it usually grows and becomes ready to make healthy idlis the next day. I hope this helps! Anyways happy cooking!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much @Tabi/eliz ! I'll try again.

Chris Masterjohn said...

Hey Stephan,

Could you use a grain mill for this instead of a food processor, and skip the initial hydration step?


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hey Chris,

You could try it, although the urad dal needs to be finely ground (the rice does not). I like the idea of soaking and discarding the soaking liquid, and there may be reasons why that was done traditionally. But I think it would be worth giving it a shot.

Kaitlyn said...

Is the urad dal a lentil? I know you suggested substituting with another mild bean. I'm not sure what you mean by that though. Any common specific beans you could name? Thanks :)

Kaitlyn said...

You mentioned we could substitute urad dals with another mild bean. I'm not sure what you mean by that though. Can you name a common mild bean that could work? Great Northern? Navy? Thanks, Kaitlyn

Unknown said...

Great article! I was reading about phytic acid content in foods and how fermentation helps reduce this and stumbled upon this article. Since I am a South Indian, I grew up with my mom telling me how nutritious fermented foods are.

I make idlis very frequently at home, I thought I would share a couple of tips to make this process a little easier for you or anyone reading this blog.

1. If you have an Indian grocery store around you to buy 'Urad Dal', then they may also have something called 'Idli Rava'. This is just coarsely ground rice. I am currently residing in the US and can confirm that most Indian grocery stores sell this. You can soak it the same way in water and then just mix it with ground 'Urad dal'. The eliminates the need to grind rice separately.

2. In case you don't have non-iodized salt (which is the case in India where non-iodized salt is not easily accessible), just let the batter ferment without salt. Add salt after fermentation or just before steaming\baking.

I hope this helps.


Christina said...

Would it be possible to grind the rice and urad dal with a hand mixer?

MrsHepp said...

I am making these today! So excited to try some low-phytate grains! I was wondering...You said to put the batter into muffin tin, then steam. How do you steam a muffin tin? Just bake it in the oven with a pan of water? Or is there a better way?

Unknown said...

How does it compare with gluten free sourdough - in terms of nutrition and taste? Has anyone made this and made gluten free sourdough and can compare between the two?

Poppins said...

Hey Stephan,
What temperature/time of year did you make this? Did you incubate it in any way? In my New England house in winter, it get's down to 50 degrees F, and most bacteria don't like to grow at temps that low.