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Hint Time: Dosa Do's and Dosa Don'ts

April 10, 2002

Making dosas can be frustrating at first. It's a technique that must be learned, just like any other. Here are some tips to help you along the way:

* Some of the ingredients may be difficult to find at your neighborhood supermarket, but they're readily available at any Indian market. While you're there, it's a good idea to shop for spices too. The prices will be much lower and the quality better than at most other places.

* The rice and the dal can be ground together, but the result is better if they are worked separately.

* When you rub the prepared batter between your fingers, the ground rice should be very fine, no thicker than granulated sugar.

* To ferment the batter, try leaving it in the oven overnight, covered. If it is a gas oven, the heat from the pilot light will probably be enough. For electric, turn the oven on to 225 degrees for five minutes, then turn it off.

* To make sure that it is fermenting well, check on it a couple of times in the 8- to 12-hour period. You should be able to see a rise in its volume, and it should also start smelling slightly sour. Ideally, when ready, the fermented dosa batter should have almost doubled in volume and become thick and foamy.

* If after 4 to 5 hours you do not see much fermentation in the batter, sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of salt on the surface and return it to the oven.

* The final batter should be fairly thin, the consistency of cream.

* The best tool for cooking is a well-seasoned cast-iron griddle. Failing that, any heavy pan will work. Nonstick pans are fine, if they are heavy enough.

* Heat the griddle over medium-high heat. The batter should begin to cook as soon as it touches the pan, but if the griddle is too hot, the batter may clump.

* To prepare the griddle for the dosa, rub the surface with an oiled paper towel. There should be no perceptible traces of oil in the pan, just a darkening of the surface.

* Once you've poured the batter onto the griddle, work quickly. Use the back of a ladle and very lightly but evenly smear the batter in circles, spreading it outward as thin as possible. Imagine that you are drawing a spiral beginning with a point at the center of the griddle. Too light a pressure on the ladle will result in a thicker dosa. Practice is the mantra.

* A round ladle makes the dosa start out thicker in the center and thin out on the edges. A flat-bottomed ladle will make dosas that are thinner and more even. In India, a katori or small, flat-bottomed brass bowl is also used with great dexterity for this purpose. (These are available in Indian stores.)

* Once you start spreading the dosa batter with the ladle, move in a continuous circular motion and do not lift away the ladle until all of the batter has been spread.

* Don't go back over the batter to fill in holes, they're a natural part of most dosas.

* Most cooks don't cover their dosas when cooking. But this trick, demonstrated to me by my mother, speeds up the cooking and makes the dosa easier to remove from the pan without the necessity of adding more oil and without losing the crispness.

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