Flatbread is one of the oldest breads around. Archaeologists have even found it in ancient tombs. While it may not be new, “we seem to be using flatbread more than ever now,” says Michael Boroskas, executive chef at Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester.
Diners there devour about 200 to 300 flatbreads every day, some pizza, some with a salad on top and still others served alongside ethnic dishes such as curry. And Boroskas is not alone in his observation.
Operators everywhere are finding many reasons to love this simple menu item.
Let us count the ways:
- They're not pizza
Flatbreads sometimes get mistaken for pizza, or even called that on menus. They're like a pizza, but not a pizza. Before you go making the two terms interchangeable, hold the pepperoni!
The difference is in the details. While pizzas certainly can get pretty gourmet and “out there,” customers for the most part expect tomato sauce and mozzarella when they see pizza on the menu.
Enter flatbreads. Steadily climbing the trend ladder for several years now, flatbreads give chefs the license to create flavor combinations that wander quite far from the Italian countryside. Figs and gorgonzola, caramelized onion and goat cheese, pancetta and eggs, just to name a few of these diverse options.
The history of flatbread lends itself to the allure of travel and exploration. The term flatbread, taken back to its roots, simply refers to any bread made from unleavened dough. Throughout the ages it has taken the form of naan, chapatis, pita and tortillas.
Today, foodservice chefs have the choice of starting with those types of breads, prepared frozen dough, or making their own dough from scratch.
How about a chicken teriyaki flatbread? A breakfast flatbread? A flatbread with Thai chili sauce and fresh vegetables? A flatbread created with only local ingredients? A flatbread garnished only with fresh rosemary and little olive oil? The world is far from flat.
- Simple is sensational
One tip most chefs agree on: Don't crowd the flatbread.
“Rather than approach it like a loaded pizza with lots of cheese and toppings, I think simpler is better; two or three flavorful ingredients that work perfectly in tandem and don't look too busy,” says Jacob Moyer, executive chef, Bay Laurel Catering, University of Washington, Seattle. “If it's kept simple, there are endless flavor possibilities.”
Combinations that have proven to be especially delicious at Bay Laurel Catering include: roasted local pears or apples with blue cheese and walnuts (hello autumn menu item!); prosciutto, figs and gorgonzola paired with a flavorful olive oil; another flatbread with basil pesto, ricotta and roasted pepper; and yet another with sundried tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and olives.
When the air gets the first chill of the colder seasons, Moyer introduces a slightly heavier combination of wild mushrooms, roasted cippolina onions (which tend to be sweet) and goat cheese. To intensify the flavor, the mushrooms and onions are sautéed in a little olive oil beforehand. Roasted garlic is also a great flatbread flavor booster, with its mild, sweet flavor. Paired with artichoke hearts and fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic makes for another simply sensational flatbread topping combination.
Moyer starts with frozen, pre-sheeted pizza dough, hand stretches it lightly until it's thin and not perfectly round (for a rustic/hand-crafted look), proofs the dough, brushes it with olive oil, adds the simple toppings then bakes to set the dough. Just before serving, he likes to finish the breads on a grill to add grill marks. The finishing touch is to overlap the flatbreads on a platter for presentation.
At Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Schools, flatbreads debuted at the end of last month, having been tested earlier in the year at a food show for 100 high school students, who were “very excited to learn we would test this item in the fall menu,” says Amy Harkey, MS, RD, LDN, assistant director of child nutrition services.
The flatbread will be served with just cheese, and toppings may be added at a later date. For now, “leaving it plain keeps a vegetarian entrée option available,” Harkey says. A win-win.
- They're so versatile
Versatility is the name of the game in terms of how flatbread can be menued. Cut into small slices, it's a perfect appetizer platter for an event. A full-size flatbread can be a light lunch option. Cut in half, it could be the perfect small-plate/sharing item.
And it can be breakfast, too. The Essentials café at University Hospital in Columbia, MO, serves a breakfast flatbread topped with scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, pico de gallo, shredded smoked cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, says Becky Hassinger, manager of dining and nutrition services.
Students are loving the sausage, egg and cheese breakfast flatbread at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, says Kelley Brackett, marketing/communications assistant.
“At some locations, flatbreads are prepared as display cooking,” Brackett says. “We found that students will happily wait in line if they can see it being made fresh on a flat-top or griddle.”
- A Showcase for Signature Ingredients
At the Morgan Dining Room in midtown Manhattan, flatbread was introduced last summer and has been picking up speed steadily ever since, says Jared King, executive chef, the Morgan Dining Room, the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.
It's easy to show off special ingredients on flatbreads there, such as a house-made red onion jam and farmer's cheese (similar to cottage cheese, but drier and more sour), King says. Alfonzo olives, cured in red wine and red wine vinegar, bring a lovely acidic bite paired with roasted garlic.
The flatbreads at the Morgan are made from scratch and the fennel-spiked dough itself becomes a signature ingredient in its own right. (See recipe, p. 33.)
“I like to be hands-on with the dough,” King says. “The frozen product isn't bad, but I just like to get my hands in there.” To get the very thin flatbread he prefers, King runs the dough through a pasta machine. “You get an oblong shape and it's uniformly flat, so it cooks really well.”
Once the flatbread is hot, there are additional opportunities to show off. If you are lucky enough to have an herb garden outside your kitchen door, it's a great idea to chop up some fresh parsley, oregano, rosemary and just about any other herb and use it as a crowning touch on top of flatbread after it's been grilled.
- More Bang for Your Buck
“Interestingly, our most popular flavor combination is also the most simple and inexpensive: caramelized onions with crumbled chevre and herbs,” Moyer says. He says that even if you do use higher-end ingredients, you're not using too much of them on each flatbread, making for modest food cost but with the taste of luxury for customers.
“Flatbreads are low-cost, and you can make a good mark-up,” adds King. Obviously, a flatbread with truffles will never be cost effective, but items like goat cheese and fancier cured meats can look — and taste — like a million bucks without even coming close to breaking the bank.
Flatbreads are also low maintenance: most flatbreads taste just as good at room temperature, so you don't have to obsess about holding.