Batter luck next time: Swetha Sivakumar has tips for the perfect idli, dosa - Hindustan Times
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Batter luck next time: Swetha Sivakumar has tips for the perfect idli, dosa

BySwetha Sivakumar
Apr 13, 2024 09:51 PM IST

See why dal is essential; how methi can help; why the rice really must be parboiled – and shortcuts that will make it all easier. In this week’s Sound Bites.

If you’re having trouble making idli and dosa batter at home, don’t beat yourself up. Getting a microbial culture to grow well but not too well, takes a lot of practice. There are factors outside one’s control at play too, such as the weather.

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Once the code is cracked, though, it becomes so easy, it feels like reflex. Here are some of my favourite hacks, honed through years of failure and annoyance (largely at myself, sometimes at the batter.)

The first thing I learnt was that urad dal plays a crucial role.

Idlis and dosas may be made of fermented rice, but that rice isn’t going to ferment as well without this dal. Why? Because one needs a fair amount of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) to form in such a mix.

LAB is an umbrella term for strains such as Lactobacillus casei, Lactococcus lactis and Streptococcus thermophilus that produce lactic acid during fermentation. This acid is what gives idlis, dahi, dhokla and sourdough bread their sour tang.

In nature, LAB are found in soil, in the roots and shoots of many plants, and in legumes such as urad dal. There, they share a symbiotic relationship with plants, drawing nutrition from their root systems while helping them fight fungi and other microbial pathogens.

Adding soaked and ground urad dal to the mix doesn’t just help generate lactic acid. It also releases enzymes that help break the starches in the batter down into smaller units of sugar, which feed the microbes and help them multiply. So the dal really speeds things up.

At a pinch, moong or chana dal can be used instead, but urad is the most effective, and yields idlis that are whiter, softer and airier.

In fact, the same off-putting slimy texture one encounters in boiled urad dal is the reason it is perfect for idlis. The sliminess comes from a gum called arabinogalactan, which helps enfold air and form bubbles in batter. The gum holds on to this air even in very high temperatures, which is why the eventual steamed idlis are light and “fluffy”.

Some seasoned batter-makers like to add a few fenugreek or methi seeds. This is a bit of an insurance policy, in case the urad dal is old and has weakened and waned.

In dosas, fenugreek lends a wonderful aroma, from the aromatic compound sotolon packed into the seeds. It adds a rich brown colour to dosas too.

Now to the rice for the batter. I’m afraid it really must be parboiled (which is rice boiled while it is still in its husk). This causes retrograded starch, which forms a thicker, more viscous batter than fermented raw rice can. (Incidentally, parboiled rice absorbs nutrients from the husk, and is therefore healthier too.)

The thicker batter traps gases more effectively. I have conducted experiments in which I fermented batters made with raw rice and parboiled rice side by side. The parboiled rice fermented much faster too (as much as six to eight hours faster, thereby reducing the risk of spoilage).

Incidentally, it helps to keep temperature consistent during fermentation; the ideal range being 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. The closer to 40 degrees Celsius, the faster fermentation occurs, but opt for consistency over heat if you can only have one of the two.

It takes eight to 15 hours to ferment batter. After 24 hours, you must refrigerate the batter (no matter how under-fermented) or, sadly, throw it away. The risk of spoilage is too high if you continue fermenting it beyond this point.

Someone once asked me what I make of shortcuts such as idli rice and idli rava. I am in favour of anything that makes the home cook’s already-difficult job any easier, of course, but here’s my take in some detail.

Idli rice is a subset of parboiled rice selected for the purpose of making white, fluffy idlis. It typically has thicker grains and higher levels of amylopectin, allowing the batter to absorb water more easily, making for moister, and therefore softer, idlis.

Idli rava is a crushed form of idli rice that does not require soaking. Just add warm water and urad dal for batter. It’s a good readymade option. The granular texture yields idlis that are not pasty. However, the larger particle size will keep you from spreading the batter thinly on a tava, so I generally avoid making dosas from idli rava.

On that note, happy fermenting. However you choose to do it, I promise it does get easier!

(To reach Swetha Sivakumar with questions or feedback, email upgrademyfood@gmail.com)

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