To make the Ethiopian bread injera, you have to ferment the batter. But how do you know it has fermented long enough? Read about how I found out the hard way >

By Justin Chapple
Updated May 25, 2017
Credit: © John Kernick

Of all the recipes I tested for the November issue, the one that excited me the most was for injera—Ethiopia’s famous flatbread. I’ve only had Ethiopian food once since moving to New York City 10 years ago; it was delicious, with richly spiced vegetables and meats mounded on large platters. But what I remember most, despite not knowing much about it at the time, was the injera.

Injera is a crêpe-like, spongy bread with a pleasantly sour flavor. Injera is delightful on its own, but traditionally it’s used to scoop up stews and sauces while eating.

To make injera, water and salt are mixed with teff flour (an ancient grain, ground to a fine, iron-rich powder) to create a thin batter, which is fermented before cooking in a scorching-hot pan. The batter is left at room temperature until it ferments, which gives the bread its signature tangy, rich flavor. Teff has symbiotic yeast, so fermentation occurs naturally. But how do you know it has fermented long enough?

Here’s how I found out the hard way: Preparing the batter took only minutes. As directed, I let it stand at room temperature in a warm spot in the kitchen, as I would any yeast dough. After only a day, the batter smelled pleasantly sour, but the recipe indicated that three days was ideal, so I left it alone. By the third day it had taken a turn for the worse, and I had unintentionally created a Franken-jera! The overflowing bowl of bubbling, oddly colored batter and its overwhelmingly sour smell left little hope that we’d be eating it. It was my mistake: The initial sour aroma and bubbling-surface was telling me the batter was ready, but I didn’t realize it until too late.

Thankfully, round two went much better. Three days in a warm spot had caused the mixture to ferment at lightning speed, so I stored the second batch in a cooler part of the kitchen. The next day, it was bubbling and nicely sour. I prepared one injera and it was absolutely delicious. The key was stopping or slowing the fermentation when the batter was just slightly sour and foamy. To further this experiment, I stored the unused batter in the refrigerator for two more days. Fermentation didn’t stop, but it slowed just enough that the batter continued to develop its tang without spoiling.

Here, the perfected injera recipe, along with other terrific Ethiopian dishes: A Lesson in Ethiopian Flavors