If you learned to make falafel from a grandparent who’s been making them forever, or if you’ve read a food science book or two, you probably already know two secrets for really good falafel:
1) start with raw soaked legumes, and
2) raise their pH with baking soda (or another similar edible base).
Raising the pH of the mix solves a very important problem: Without baking soda, the raw, soaked chickpeas will have a difficult time cooking all the way through in such a short deep fry. A very small amount of baking soda helps bean starches burst and gelatinize more quickly, so it’s the perfect thing for their brief dip in the deep fryer. Baking-soda-free balls would remain quite mealy and raw-tasting after frying, and they’d never really get to become the light and fluffy falafel we all know and love. Some folks add baking powder to the mix instead, which is a combination of an acid and a base; but baking powder is overall slightly basic, so it has a similar effect on chickpeas (if this makes you go “wait, how?!”, scroll down to the note on baking powder that’s above the falafel recipe). There are a few other tricks to making sure the chickpeas cook up nice and fluffy, so baking soda/powder is not absolutely essential to good falafel, but it’s a commonly used technique and works like a charm.
Raw chickpeas on the other hand are a non-negotiable. Why not just start with cooked chickpeas and cut out the need for baking soda in the first place, you might ask? Well, that would be a bit like making hash browns by starting out with mashed potatoes; I have to admit, fried mashed potatoes do sound delicious (I mean, that’s kind of almost like tater tots or potato chop, right? 😍), but they’re just not the same thing as hash browns, which absolutely must be made with raw grated potatoes to get the right texture. Similarly, you’d never make mashed potatoes by first puréeing raw potatoes and then cooking them, and likewise, you’d never make hummus by puréeing raw chickpeas and then boiling them. While it can be fun to play around with ingredients and techniques, sometimes an ingredient must be cooked at the right stage for a dish to really be itself.
If you ask me, recipes for deep fried balls of already-cooked chickpeas should really be called something more like “falafel-inspired bean croquettes” or “garbanzo-tots.” I mean, don’t look at me—naming things is not my strong suit, but those balls could take branding lessons from tater tots. Tater tots don’t try to masquerade as hash browns—they’re tots, and they’re very ok with that! But words mean things, and that’s especially important in preserving some essential features of cultural food icons like falafel. But anyway, I digress. On to the testing!
falafel testing: soaking water contents and times
What we already know, and what I’m testing
So anyway, we know that raw soaked chickpeas are essential for good falafel, and we know that baking soda helps them get that desired fluffy texture. Plenty of people have proven that using science and traditional practices. So I didn’t bother testing whether you can make falafel from canned chickpeas, or whether baking soda solution works better than plain old water, since we already know those answers (you definitely can’t, and it sure does!).
Instead, to satisfy my own curiosity, I thought it would be interesting to test different soaking strategies, asking two questions:
- How long do chickpeas need to soak in baking soda solution?
- Does it matter when you add the salt?
Why I’m testing these two variables
Adding salt to the soaking liquid tends to make beans hold their shape a bit more once cooked, so my worry was that adding salt to the soaking liquid might counteract some of that starchy gelatinization we’re working toward by adding baking soda. I normally add salt to the soaking liquid when I’m making beans for other recipes, and I was curious if adding the salt to the soaking liquid would have an effect on the chickpeas’ texture once fried.
But even more than the question of when to add the salt, I was super curious exactly how long chickpeas need to soak. I’ve always soaked mine for about 12 hours, but wondered if soaking them longer might lead to a significantly fluffier final product.
How the testing works
I tested 4 different soaking times/strategies, as well as 2 different kinds of soaking solutions, for a total of 8 different mixes.
The 4 soaking strategies were:
- 12 hours at room temperature (22°C, or about 71 or 72°F)
- 16 hours at room temperature
- 24 hours in the refrigerator
- 24 hours at room temperature (with the liquid changed once halfway through, since it’s not super safe to leave beans to soak for that long without changing their water)
The 2 soaking liquids contained:
- baking soda on its own
- salt + baking soda
here’s what I found
The bottom line: It doesn’t really matter whether you add salt later or earlier in the process, although the beans that were salted later were slightly fluffier overall. What matters the most is whether you soak your beans for as long as possible in baking soda solution. The best falafel of the bunch were soaked for 24 hours in a baking soda solution, with salt added directly to the mix instead of to the soaking liquid.
While the 24 hour baking soda falafel were the best, the 16 hour baking soda ones were also decent. The ones that soaked for 24 hours in the refrigerator did not take in enough water and were some of the worst (refrigeration really does seem to slow down the soaking process). The ones soaked for 12 hours were similar in texture to the refrigerated ones—12 hours at room temperature is not long enough to yield the best results.
While adding salt to the baking soda soaking liquid generally made them slightly less fluffy, this difference was much more noticeable with a medium soaking time. At 16 hours, the ones soaked with salt and baking soda were not very fluffy, while the ones soaked with only baking soda were noticeably fluffier, almost as fluffy as the ones soaked for 24 hours. But once it got to 24 hours, it all evened out, and the ones brined with salt and baking soda tasted very similar to the ones soaked with just baking soda. Still, the baking-soda-only ones slightly edged out the salt-and-baking-soda-soaked ones, even at 24 hours.
What this means for you: If you’re short on time, you can absolutely get away with soaking the beans for 16 hours, as long as you use baking soda water and salt them later by adding it directly to the mix. And if you want the absolute best falafel, soak the beans for a full 24 hours in baking soda solution, changing the solution about halfway through. If you’re soaking them for 24 hours, you can get away with adding salt to the soaking water, but they’ll be just a tiny bit fluffier if you add salt to the mix instead and just stick with baking soda water for the soak.
confounding variables + other things I want to test for next time
While I did take care to measure everything exactly and eliminate as many variables as possible (same fry temperature and time, same quantities of ingredients in each batch, down to the gram, etc.), obviously this is not a perfectly controlled scientific study, and there are a bunch of confounding variables and things I’d want to test next time. Here are a few important things to keep in mind in your own falafel experiments:
- Chickpeas come in lots of different sizes. Mine were on the small side, but I suspect larger ones might need to soak for a bit longer. I’m guessing that larger chickpeas would not be as good at 16 hours, and absolutely must soak for the full 24.
- Older chickpeas nearing their expiration date will take a lot longer to soak than newer ones. It’s really best to make falafel from the freshest dried chickpeas possible—look for ones with a late expiration date and try to shop at a market that has a lot of turnover on dried beans (e.g., a well-frequented Middle Eastern market or a popular bulk food store that restocks their supply often).
- I’m also wondering whether the 24 hour soaked beans were far and away better than the others because they were exposed to a bit more baking soda than the other beans (the solution was changed halfway through). Next time, I would love to see how different quantities of baking soda in the soaking water affects the beans. Essentially, you want to add as much baking soda as possible without having them taste weirdly soapy. The amount I used tends to be around the amount recommended in most recipes, but I think it might be possible to use a bit more without affecting the taste of the falafel.
a quick note on baking powder
Baking soda is certainly a base, and you might think baking powder is entirely neutral, but baking powder is actually somewhat basic too (at least according to my test strips and the brand of baking powder I use—if you’ve got some pH strips and baking powder at home, please feel free to test yours and let me know what you get!), so I postulate that it lowers the pH of falafel with an effect similar to baking soda. However, baking powder is less strongly basic so it needs to be added directly to the mix to have the same effect, and it also adds a bit of airiness from the carbonation produced from its reaction of acid/base. It’s really up to the cook whether they want to use one or the other.
I determined that baking powder is basic by running a few pH tests. I suspected it might be basic because it always reacts with fruit and other things as if it is a base (e.g., it turns strawberry cake batter purplish, just like baking soda does). I ran a few tests where I dissolved the same amount of baking powder and baking soda separately in the same amount of boiling water. I then stirred to dissolve each and measured their pH levels. The baking soda solution was very basic (as you might imagine, it’s pH is 9 or possibly higher, since my strips have an upper threshold of 9), and the baking powder solution wasn’t far behind, at around 8 or 8.25.
One strange thing I had not anticipated is that it is impossible to get baking powder to dissolve completely in boiling water (at least the brand I was using). I stirred and stirred, and even tried a separate test where I simmered a small amount in water for several minutes, and it never fully dissolved no matter how long I simmered and agitated it (also no matter how strong or diluted I made the solution). I even let the solution sit for a couple hours at room temperature after boiling, to see if it made any difference, and the pH actually seemed to rise about 0.5 or 1 from where it started.
This is kind of annoying, because it means that I can’t get a truly accurate reading of baking powder’s pH. But it’s still useful because it means that it’s at least effectively basic when cooked with. Since those little granules won’t dissolve after boiling, I’m assuming they also won’t dissolve in other cooking situations. Perhaps if these granules could ever dissolve completely, the pH would indeed be different, but they don’t, so it’s effectively basic in any case.
Anyway, I’ll be amazed if anyone is still with me at this point, and if you are, thank you for coming to my TED talk, and here is a falafel recipe for your patience. It’s very similar to my old one, but I’ve updated it a bit and included some metric measurements.Print
- Prep Time: 55 minutes
- Total Time: 17 to 25 hours
- Yield: about 30 to 35 falafel
To soak the beans:
1 1/2 cups dry chickpeas (285g)
2 teaspoons baking soda (10g)
8 cups room temperature water (1880g)
To make the falafel mix:
3 medium cloves garlic
1 medium bunch cilantro
1 small bunch green onions
soaked chickpeas (above)
1 1/2 teaspoons baharat *
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon salt (or add more/less to taste)
1 pinch baking soda
3 tablespoons all purpose flour (25g)
To fry and serve the falafel:
1 quart neutral-flavored oil for deep-frying (e.g., peanut, canola, corn, etc.)
optional: Jerusalem salad (or watermelon Jerusalem salad)
optional: Tahini sauce
- To soak the chickpeas: Cover the chickpeas and baking soda with the room temperature water. Stir until the baking soda dissolves.
- Cover loosely and keep at room temperature for at least 16 hours, ideally 24. If you’re leaving the beans at room temperature for 24 hours, change their baking soda solution once about halfway through (2 more teaspoons baking soda + 8 more cups water). If your kitchen is very hot, don’t soak them for the full 24 hours.
- To make the falafel mix: Finely mince the garlic in a large food processor. Add the cilantro and green onions to the food processor and pulse a couple times to chop them up a little.
- Strain the chickpeas over the sink. Add the drained, raw chickpeas to greens in the food processor, and process them until the mixture is finely minced. You’ll still see little minced grains of chickpeas (it’s not supposed to be a smooth purée), but there should not be any large pieces. It should resemble very fine couscous.
- Add the baharat, sesame seeds, salt, 1 pinch baking soda, and flour, and pulse the food processor a couple times to combine. You should be able to press some of the mixture into a cohesive ball, but it should still be able to crumble apart if you squeeze it wrong (i.e., it won’t hold together as well as pie dough, but it will hold together better than wet sand).
- To fry the falafel: Set up a safe fry station on the stove or in a dedicated deep fryer. Turn the heat to medium-high so that the oil rises to 360° F and keep a close eye on it.
- When the oil is almost hot enough, start to form the first 5 or 6 falafel. Take a heaping tablespoon of mix in your hands and gently squeeze it together by making a fish around it and cupping your hands around it. Each ball should be no larger than 1 heaping tablespoon, otherwise it will have a hard time cooking through to the right consistency on the inside.
- Once the oil reaches 360° F, gently drop in the first 5 or 6 falafel. Let them fry for about 4 minutes, until they’re deep brown on the outside (but not burnt) and fluffy on the inside. Constantly adjust the heat to keep the temperature of the oil somewhere between 350 and 370° F. Remove them with a slotted spoon or spider to a paper towel-lined plate, add the next batch, and repeat. Continue to work in batches until all of the falafel are fried.
* If you don’t have any baharat and don’t feel like making a complicated spice blend, feel free to use a combination of cumin, coriander, paprika, and black pepper.