All photos by Cara Eisenpress (@BGSK)
The main thing you need to remember when making falafel is that simplicity is the ultimate goal. Falafel are not veggie burgers. They are not flavored little fried-bean patties. At its core, a falafel ball is a true three- or four-ingredient masterpiece, cooked in just three steps.
Einat Admony—owner of the falafel joint Taïm, as well as Israeli restaurants Balaboosta and the brand-new Bar Bolonat—knows this as well as anyone. “I never liked falafel much until I opened Taïm and developed this recipe,” she writes of the straightforward falafel in her cookbook. In fact, her reputation as one of NYC’s best falafel makers may have been accelerated by the onslaught of gluten-free eaters, since her bean balls contain no flour or breadcrumb filler.
Gluten-free or not, the point here is that minimalism is crucial. All that’s needed to make good falafel are dried chickpeas; some herbs, spices, and onions; and hot oil in a pot—no flour, no baking soda, and no oven.
Falafel are fried balls of chickpeas that hail from the Middle East. In Israel particularly, they represent the pinnacle of street food—cheap to make and rich in protein, falafel stands thrived there as immigrants looking for inexpensive sustenance arrived in the 20th century. (Though fava beans appear in falafel in nearby countries like Egypt, an inherited Jewish intolerance toward fava brought about the dominance of chickpeas in today’s Israeli falafel, according to Joan Nathan.)
Thankfully, there’s no need to go to Jerusalem to get your hands on proper falafel. Here’s how to make a great falafel sandwich at home:
1. The beans
You must start with dried beans when making falafel. If you use pre-cooked beans—also known as what’s in a can—your falafel will have the wrong texture and moisture content, and as a result it won’t cook properly. (That’s when you’ll start to add ingredients like flour or breadcrumbs, leaving falafel territory.)
One cup of dried chickpeas will yield you about a dozen falafel, which, unless you’re opening your own falafel stand, is all you’ll want to fry. Since the beans soak, you’ll want to buy ones that haven’t been on the supermarket shelf forever.
You can experiment with other types of beans, so long as you’ve not fava-averse. Green lentils and dried favas are good options for expanding beyond the chickpea.
2. Preparing the beans
As you’ve now heard, the beans for falafel are never boiled. First, they soak. Then, they fry. That’s it. When beans soak overnight, the water starts cooking them, so by the time 12 hours has passed, they’re no longer raw. Rather, they’re par-cooked in a sense, soft enough to process into falafel dough (more on that in a minute). So, this is how you prepare beans for falafel: Put them in a pot or bowl, pour water until the level is a few inches above the beans, cover, and leave for at least 12 hours. That’s it.
3. Vegetables and seasonings
Sticking with the theme of simplicity, all you need to add to your falafel are onion, garlic, salt, and some spices or herbs. For each cup of dried beans, you’ll want half a medium onion, two small cloves of garlic, ¾ teaspoon salt, and a handful of either parsley or cilantro—or both—plus big pinches of dried ground cumin and coriander.
Seasoning are where you can get a little creative. Chopped black olives, harissa, and minced red peppers are Taïm standbys. Mint and fresh thyme make delicious herb additions to the regular cilantro and parsley combination while staying within the Middle Eastern playbook. But the chickpea base can also work with flavors from other regions: sundried tomatoes and oregano for Italy, chili powder and cilantro for Mexico, and gochujang for Korean. Of course, you’ll then want to assemble your sandwich with the appropriate condiments, too.
And for dessert? At Bar Bolonat, Admony says, “I’m doing chocolate falafel.”
4. Making the dough
Your food processor is a solid workhorse when making the dough for falafel—though, in truth, the appliance really comes in second to a meat grinder, which is how Admony’s mother made her falafel.
To get the right consistency, drain the soaked chickpeas well. Add them to the food processor with your minced onion, minced garlic, chopped herbs, spices, and salt. Then, process. The goal is to achieve dough where the chickpeas have been nearly pulverized but the overall texture is not too pasty. Pulse the processor slowly until you reach the desired consistency.
5. Shaping and setting shaped falafel
Your first thought upon picking up the dough will be that it won’t hold its shape in a deep fryer. Because of the lack of binder, you won’t be able to roll your falafel dough like a cookie; that will make it fall apart. Instead, pinch the dough and lightly pat it into 1½-inch balls.
You must fry falafel. “There is no other way,” says Admony, “I really don’t believe in baked falafel. You can never get the crunch that you get from the fryer.”
Deep frying is nowhere near as intimidating as you think. At the same time that you start processing the falafel, heat a few inches of high-heat oil (safflower is great) in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Leave it there while you prep the falafel and shape the balls. It will get hot! When you think it might be hot enough, drop a small piece of falafel batter into the oil. It should sizzle immediately, then turn golden brown in less than a minute. If you have a thermometer, you’ll want the oil to be at 350°F.
When the oil is ready, pick up a falafel ball with a fork and gently lower it into the oil. Repeat with two more balls—cook three at a time so you don’t crowd the pan. After two minutes, turn the falafel around to cook all sides, then cook until it’s golden brown all around. When you pull them out, place the balls on paper towels to soak up the oil. Though you don’t want to make falafel too far in advance, they’ll keep their crispiness for up to an hour if left at room temperature.
Though a loaded falafel may seem like a good idea late at night at the falafel truck, the only sauce necessary for your homemade pita sandwich is tahini sauce—it doesn’t have to be hummus. You can make tahini sauce by thinning out a few tablespoons of tahini with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice, and water. Season with salt and fresh herbs, and you’re ready to drizzle.
If you’re interested in a fully tricked-out falafel, here’s what you’ll need: harissa or a green hot sauce called s’chug, baba ganoush, amba (a tangy mango condiment), and hummus.
8. The Bread
Use pita, preferably fresh. You can make pita at home without too much trouble. Also, if you don’t want to eat bread, you can just pick up a falafel ball and eat it like meatball, with your fingers or a toothpick. Set out tahini sauce or hummus for dipping.
Like sauces, salads for falafel can be seriously simple and delicious. A straightforward cabbage slaw would certainly grace your falafel in Israel. To make it yourself, shred green cabbage and mix with a little lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and minced parsley. Toss and let sit while you prep the rest of the falafel.
Looking to load up your falafel again? Fry some eggplant, add sliced egg, cut your favorite pickles into bite-sized pieces, press on some raw onions, add Israeli salad, or throw on some red peppers. Just be sure you can distinguish your beloved homemade falafel amongst all the other stuff.
Watch out when you assemble. You’re in the game of creating a series of perfect bites—falafel, sauce, bread, and salad—and you’ve got to make your moves carefully. After two or three years at Taïm, Admony perfected the assembly, so that falafel eaters could chomp into a mix of ingredients in every bite: “You take six balls, put two on the bottom, then salad, then four balls,” she says. That way, “each bite has the same balance of flavors.”