Pita bread is a type of flatbread that is typically associated with the Middle East. Categorized to be leavened, pita bread characteristically puffs up into a visible balloon during the baking or cooking process (1). It then deflates and gets a characteristic internal cavity or pocket that can be stuffed with other food items such as meat or vegetables. The bread can also be eaten as is, accompanied by a dip such as hummus or baba ghanouj.
Pita bread is typically vegan since the traditional ingredients that make up this dish do not include any animal product. Pita bread can be made using simple ingredients such as flour, salt, yeast, and water. However, non-vegan pita bread is still possible which is why it is important to check the ingredients list or to ask the baker to make sure. Since the recipe for pita bread is not necessarily standardized, other bakers can make pita bread using non-vegan ingredients such as eggs or dairy.
Pita bread is a double-layered flatbread common in the Middle East and the surrounding areas. It is estimated that pita bread has existed and was a staple in these areas for approximately 4000 years. Historically, it is assumed that pita bread used to be leavened with natural bacteria and yeast, like sourdough. However, modern pita bread production also uses commercial yeast as well. The use of baker’s yeast greatly improved the time it takes for the bread to rise.
Although pita bread is commonly associated with Arabic cuisine, the name itself is not Arabic in nature. It is suggested by scholars that the name of the bread is derived from either one of two sources: the Illyric word “pita” which means both food and bread or the Aramaic word “pitta” which means bread. Etymologically, these are considered to be the sources for other names such as the Greek pita, the Albanian pite, the Turkish pide, the Bulgarian pitka, and the Italian pizza.
Nowadays, pita bread can be purchased from commercial production – pita bread made in factories. However, pita bread can still be obtained from local bakeries as well. The methods and processes involved in making pita may be different between a factory and a bakery, but the principles behind the processes are practically the same.
The initial step in making pita bread is creating the dough. To make the dough, the majority of the ingredients to make pita are all added together. These include wheat flour, water, yeast, sugar, and salt. Olive oil can also be added for additional fat. The ingredients are mixed and kneaded together until a smooth and sticky dough is made. The dough is then allowed to rest somewhere warm to let the dough rise and double in size.
After the dough has increased in size, it is then partitioned into smaller pieces that will each become pita bread. The smaller pieces are then folded and tucked in on themselves to make the internal cavity. After rolling them into a ball with its edges tucked in on itself underneath, the balls are then rolled flat. At this point, the flat dough is allowed to rest for a short period of time. Afterward, the dough can be cooked.
Regardless of the cooking method, pita bread made correctly will puff up into a balloon during the process as the water inside the cavity evaporates into steam. After cooking, the bread can be allowed to rest to let it deflate and can then be consumed.
Based on the traditional ways of cooking pita bread, the dish can be considered perfectly vegan since no animal products were used or involved in its production. However, it is difficult to declare that all pita bread is vegan since the ingredients and methods involved are highly dependent on the baker or production process. Although pita bread would probably be vegan, it is still important to check the ingredients list to make sure. If the pita bread comes from a local bakery, then asking the baker would also help to clear any doubts.
Since pita bread is made by baking, there are common non-vegan ingredients that can be added when making pita bread. Here are some of the ingredients to look out for when making sure pita bread from the local bakery is vegan or not.
Sugar is considered one of the primary ingredients for making pita bread. It is not typically used for sweetening the bread, instead it is used to feed the yeast that will help leaven the bread. Since sugar is procured from plant sources like sugarcane or sugar beets, it is reasonable to assume that sugar is vegan. However, sugar can potentially be non-vegan depending on how it was produced.
Once the sugar is extracted, it can be minimally processed into a crude form of sugar. This is considered a healthier form of sugar and is sought after by certain people. However, sugar companies would typically refine the sugar to make it more appealing to mass consumers. These additional refinement processes make the sugar whiter and finer.
One process involved in sugar refinement is filtration. By passing the raw sugar juice through a filter, debris and non-sugar components are removed, thus increasing the overall purity of the sugar. There are many to filter sugar. However, certain companies would use bone char – the charred skeletal remains of animals (2). Although bone char is a cheap and effective filter, sugar produced using bone char cannot be considered vegan since it is an animal product.
Bone char is a big issue in the vegan community because it is not easy to determine which brands of sugar are made with bone char or not. Vegans typically have to inquire the companies directly to get some sort of answer. It is even harder when the sugar is used in a food product because then curious individuals are then required to contact the food manufacturers and ask them about their sugar sources. The problem is exacerbated when large food manufacturers have multiple sources of sugar to meet their sugar demands. Due to all the uncertainties, many vegans decide to avoid sugar as a precaution.
Since the practice of using bone char in the sugar industry is more prevalent in the US, vegans from other parts of the world are less worried about their sugar.
Vegans would also have to look out for bakers that use eggs in their baking. Although baked goods may not require eggs in the recipe, it is common for bakers to add eggs in their process.
Unfortunately, baked goods such as pita bread cannot be considered vegan if it has been added with eggs since eggs are directly obtained from animals.
There are two common ways by which bakers would incorporate eggs into a recipe. The first way is by adding eggs into the dough directly. It is said that the addition of eggs can make the yeast bread finer and richer. It also helps bind the ingredients together.
Another common way for bakers to incorporate eggs into the process of pita bread making is by giving the dough an egg wash – a coat of a beaten egg that helps give the final product a darker golden color. It is additionally concerning if a baker adds an egg wash to the final product because while egg washes can be made entirely with eggs, some egg washes can be made with milk as well.
Lastly, it is important to make sure that the pita bread being chosen does not include any form of dairy. The term dairy is used to refer to milk and other products that use milk as the principal ingredient such as cheese, butter, cream, and yogurt.
Unfortunately, the addition of any form of dairy to the pita bread-making process would render the product non-vegan since milk is directly obtained from an animal.
As mentioned before, milk can be added to the eggs when making an egg wash. However, milk can also be added directly to the dough. It is common for bread making to add milk to the dough to give the resulting bread a richer and more robust texture. Milk is also known to make the bread softer which is a reason why many recipes add milk to the mix.