If at first you don’t succeed, wait a year and try again. Yes, I know that isn’t exactly how the adage goes, but it seems to be my M.O. when I get discouraged over failed recipes. Falafel has confounded me as much as it has enchanted me, from my first-ever taste of it at a now-closed corner diner near the campus of UNC-Greensboro to my most recent experience of it at Miznon in New York’s Chelsea Market. It was that most recent taste that inspired me to give falafel another go.
I love the texture of these crispy little gems and especially the vibrant flavor that is jam-packed into every delicious bite. Falafel is a Middle Eastern specialty, made from ground-up chickpeas and a ton of fresh herbs and spices. It is usually shaped into balls or disc shapes and fried until crispy, though I have also seen oven-baked falafel, which has a somewhat pale and less visually enticing appearance. Undoubtedly, it can be made in an air fryer—and perhaps someone reading this will chime in to share their results of that method. I have tried both fried and oven-baked falafel a few times but got increasingly frustrated with each fail, and then put off trying again for longer and longer stretches of time. How could this be so difficult, I wondered? The dish eventually moved to the top of my culinary “bucket list,” and I’m pleased to say that I finally won the falafel challenge.
As it turns out, falafel was only difficult to make because I was resisting the instructions that were right in front of me the whole time. I tried to make them from canned chickpeas (which doesn’t work) and then I tried making them with canned chickpeas that were subsequently roasted and dried out in the oven (which also doesn’t work). When I finally gave in and tried them the correct way, they turned out terrific! What is the correct way, you ask? Using chickpeas that have been soaked but not cooked.
My favorite thing about cooking—besides the obvious enjoyment of delicious food that’s made cheaper at home than you would buy somewhere out—is the science behind it, and it turns out there is a perfectly good reason that soaked, uncooked chickpeas are the best bet for perfect falafel. Thank goodness for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the culinary genius who runs “The Food Lab,” and a frequent contributor on the Serious Eats website. He is sort of an Alton Brown for the new generation, and his scientific explanation on falafel is the best I’ve read to date. Here’s the upshot: soaking rehydrates the chickpeas so you can work with them, and it keeps the sticky starches trapped inside. Those starches get released when the chickpeas are cooked during frying (or baking), and that starch release is what helps the falafel rounds hold together. If the chickpeas are already cooked (as in canned), the starch is spent, and you end up with a mess. My ridiculous attempts to return canned chickpeas to a firmer, drier texture by roasting them in the oven didn’t work because they were still already cooked. This time around, I followed the science offered by J. Kenji, and guess what I ended up with? Near-perfect falafel.
In a weird twist of fate, the best way also happened to be the easiest of the methods I had previously tried. Soaking the chickpeas took almost no effort, then I drained and rinsed them in a colander, rolled them around on paper towels to wick away excess moisture, and then pulsed them in my food processor with a fat handful of fresh herbs and generous amounts of Mediterranean spices. Further following J. Kenji’s advice, I kept my falafel small, using my large cookie dough scoop to compact them into rounds, which I fried up nicely in a shallow skillet. For the love of flavor, why did I wait so long to follow the rules?
Falafel is great as a pick-up snack, dipped in tahini-lemon sauce. We enjoyed it as a sandwich filler, nestled with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles into a warm, whole grain soft pita. My husband and I agreed that the flavors in this revelatory batch of falafel could stand to be a little bolder, and maybe even a bit more garlicky. I will play with the seasonings a bit on my next go, and you can bet that I won’t be waiting a year.
1 cup dried chickpeas, sorted and rinsed
4 cups cold or room temperature water
Several scallions (white and green parts)
About 2 cups loosely packed fresh Mediterranean herbs* (see notes)
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and rough-chopped
1 tsp. each cumin and coriander seeds*
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Several grinds black pepper
A few teaspoons flour (if needed), as a binder for overly wet falafel mixture*
Falafel is of Middle East origin, so the Mediterranean herbs work best here. Parsley (curly or flat), mint, dill and cilantro (also called “fresh coriander”) all work great in this recipe, but I would not recommend basil, thyme or rosemary. It is essential that you use fresh herbs for this recipe, as they contribute texture in addition to flavor. After rinsing the fresh herbs, take time to also dry them on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towel, so that you don’t add unwanted moisture to the falafel mixture.
I prefer the intensity of freshly ground seed spices, but if you only have pre-ground cumin and coriander, it’s no problem. Use slightly less, perhaps 3/4 tsp. of each.
Ideally, the chickpea mixture will hold together without the flour binder. But I found that a few sprinkles of flour were necessary to pick up lingering moisture. I used a tablespoon of garbanzo bean flour, but all-purpose or rice flour would probably work also.