Flatbread (flatbrød) is a traditional Norwegian unleavened bread. It is dry, flat and crispy and usually made for the Christmas season. Flatbread can be made with any combination of flours, even pea flour and potato flour. It was an essential part of the Norwegian diet for a thousand years, since the time of Vikings, but has now been replaced by commercial yeast bread.
Flatbread used to be the daily bread for farmers and peasants, during the Nordmenn times. The word ‘flatbrød’ was mentioned for the first time in the stock books from the Bergen Manor in 1519. It was noted that they had 14 barrels of flatbread from Sunnhordaland and the manor was told that the flatbread from Hardanger was baked on stone.
The technique and recipes of flatbread baking was passed on from generation to generation. Women who could bake flatbread were highly regarded. On the West Coast it was said that there was ‘little care in the home if there isn’t a good stock of flatbread’ and that ‘there is not a married girl who does not know how to bake flatbread, spin and weave’.
Flatbread has been an important and valuable food source for Nordmenn. Because the bread is formerly an ‘unfermented pastry’ it can be stored for long periods of time. Nordmenn would have a day of flatbread baking in the autumn to prepare the winter stores. The bread could be stored in barrels or stacked on shelves. It usually lasted over a year and sometimes longer if the weather was dry. Flatbread has been known to last 40 years! It is said that the older the flatbread, the better the taste, just like wine.
Flatbread had different thickness qualities for different uses. Thin crisp flatbread was commonly used for entertaining guests and was served with fine garnishes such as jam and soft cheeses. The bread could be made thick and rough for a more hearty meal with soup and stews.
Flat bread making was an art form. The bread was commonly rolled out to a millimeter thickness, a round disk of 60 cm in diameter. A long stick was used to help pick up the large dough circle and lay it onto a large round hotplate over a fire for baking. The baking was difficult as it was important to maintain a medium temperature under the plate – a hard task using fire as the heat source. It was usual for the house wife to spend all day in the baking room. It became very hot work so often it was the duty of the children to bring the housewife water and food regularly. In Romsdal it was common for two ‘bakstekjerringer’ (baking wives) to share the work between them – one rolling out and the other baking off.
In the early 1900s, flatbread was commercially made. This convenience started the end to the long baking tradition of flatbread. Thick bread became popular in Norway especially after the great movement of people from WWII. The tradition of flatbread has almost slipped away and there are only a few who carry on tradition in the home. There is now only one major commercial producer of flatbread – Mors Flatbrød made by Stabburet. It is sold in supermarkets in Norway and exported to the U.S. The flatbread tradition is kept alive at heritage and folk museums and farms. Today electric skillets for home baking and the flat sticks can also be bought at regular electrical appliance stores and you can buy skillets for open fires at camping stores.
However, you certainly don’t need all the fang-dangle equipment and flours to make flatbread at home. The most thing that you will need is time. We have already done our flatbread baking for the Christmas season and I must say it was much easier than pie! There are many different recipes and flours you can use, but we did a simple version that worked very well with baking on our stove.
The quantity below makes a lot of flatbread so you will have stocks for all of the Christmas season. It can be stored in a dry cool place for a very long time. Fresh flatbread is fine but it gets much better with age. It is not necessary to make the traditional 60cm diameter size bread (most of us don’t have the traditional skillet for it). Making frypan sized bread is more practical (and fits in your frypan…lol). It is usual to break up the bread to eat it so the shape and size of the bread is not important.
750g brown flour
500g fine white flour
half a tablespoon of salt
1 litre of sour milk
barley flour for kneading
Mix dry ingredients together. Fold in milk. The mixture will naturally be a little wet like a paste more than a dough. It is good to let the dough stand for a while but, of course, it won’t rise.
Sprinkle a good amount of barley on a clean bench and gently knead the dough to form a log. Divide the dough into workable sizes. If you are using a traditional skillet then you want about 200g of mixture to make a 60cm diameter flatbread. We divided our dough to be small enough fit into the centre of our palm. This meant they fit into our fry pans perfectly when rolled out.
Roll out a piece of dough, using more barley flour, into a very thin sheet. The thinner it is the better. All water needs to be evaporated from the dough while in the frypan – so if it is too thick it will burn beforehand. Unfortunately when the dough is so thin it is hard to pick up. We use our rolling pin, rolling up from the end, to pick up the dough and lay it on the frypan. This is when a flat stick is handy when you are making 60cm flatbread.
The frypan needs to be at medium heat because essentially you are baking out the moisture. Do not grease or use any oils on the frypan. It needs to be dry. Lay the rolled dough onto the pan. It will take a minute or two to harden the bottom and then you can flip it over. You can dust off the excess barley flour with a cooking brush. If your dough becomes golden brown on both sides but the inside is still moist it means that the dough wasn’t rolled out thin enough. Don’t worry, it is not a waste. Take the flatbread off and put it on a wire rack – it can be finished off in the oven later. If there is any barley flour left in the pan, just discard it before starting the next batch.
Then repeat – roll out, pan bake, brush away and set on rack. We used three frypans at once to speed up the cooking time because there is a lot of dough. And, we also used the Romedal method – Lilu and I rolled and Moose baked.
To finish off any pieces that didn’t quite dry out during the baking process, heat the oven to 100 degrees celsius. Put the flatbread on a rack and into the oven to dry out more. Monitor the crispness and then take them out to cool.
I have found that because hand rolled flatbread can be uneven sometimes parts of the bread can be a little chewy when fresh. The best solution – leave it out to dry for a couple of days. We did that for all of our bread. Every day we nibble on a little piece, and every day the bread gets better and better. It is true that flatbread needs to mature to be at its best.
Flatbread is broken up into pieces to be eaten. It can be used as a side for soups and stews, especially fish. For a meal it is common to use salty meats, jellied meat, jam, sour cream or mayonnaise, brown cheese and soft cheeses. As a snack, the pieces are broken smaller to be used with berries, jam and cheese. It is also good with dip and just plain with good butter. The Viking way of eating flatbread is with cured ham and sour cream. Flatbread can be broken up into bit size pieces and eaten as a breakfast cereal with milk and honey.
I have always wondered why Norwegians make their regular sandwiches with only a bottom layer of bread. I swear it is because of the long standing tradition of flatbread with condiments piled on top. (You can’t sandwich flatbread.)
As mentioned before, flatbread can be made with any variety of flour. It is sometimes good to replace a little of these flours with wheat flour to help the dough form. These doughs were often put through a meat grinder to make them tougher otherwise they can be too loose to roll out. Here are some the basic traditional recipes:
1kg of barley flour, 6oo mls of water and 1 teaspoon of salt. (It is good to replace a little flour with wheat flour to help it fix.)
1kg oat flour, 6oo mls of water and 1 teaspoon of salt. It can be useful to use a pasta machine to roll this dough out before the last thinning roll. Bake on a lower heat.
Pea Flour Flatbread
1kg of pea flour, 400 mls of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. This one can get a little thick so cook on a low heat.
300g each of oats, barley and rye flour, 1 teaspoon of salt and 600 mls of water. Roll in oat flour.
These recipes can also be adjusted to add in potato dough (which actually started the Lefsa tradition), butter and sugar for sweeter doughs and sometimes cardamon. I’m sure you can also experiment with different herds and spices too.
You can view more traditional flatbread baking pictures on the Norwegian digital museum website: flatbrødbaking