I know this is a super click-baity way to start a blog post, but I've got a life-changing trick for making the perfect falafel. I really do! It's life-changing, it's a trick, and I've got it.
But before I get to my life-changing falafel trick, most good recipes have a few things in common, so I'll start with one or two more well-known tricks of the trade. Take the fabulous falafel recipes of Maureen Abood, Sami Tamimi, Yotam Ottolenghi, Rawia Bishara, and J. Kenji López-Alt (just to name a few): above all else, they all tell you to start with raw, soaked legumes (whether chickpeas or fava beans), and you should definitely take their advice, because this is absolutely the most important part of making killer falafel.
And yes, I'm painfully aware that using raw beans normally makes cooking more complicated and time-consuming (hence my usual method for making hummus), but falafel is one major exception. You simply grind the raw soaked beans and then deep fry them. The falafel should get deeply crunchy on the outside and steamed-through on the inside. If you start with canned chickpeas, on the other hand, you will end up making fried hummus balls, which is no doubt tasty, but sounds less like falafel and more like something you'd find at a midwestern county fair. [update: if you want to simplify things by baking instead of deep frying, check out my recipe for baked falafel crumbles].
So we can all agree that you've got to start with soaked, raw chickpeas. But I've always had a problem whenever I've made falafel this way: they tend to get perfectly crackly and brown on the outside way before they've cooked through. In my unfortunate experience, this has led to an inside that is really gritty, mealy, and borderline raw. So I tried lowering the frying temperature, which didn't really seem to do anything to solve the problem, but just made the crusts really greasy.
Eventually, I found that there were two things that seemed to help: First (and perhaps most obviously), it's important to make your falafel a little smaller than you might think, so I started actually using a measuring spoon instead of eyeballing it. I was shocked to learn that the ideal falafel size is just about one measly tablespoon. They puff up a little as they fry (whether or not you add a leavening), and so one heaping tablespoon is the ideal size, otherwise they will be done on the outside before the insides have had a chance to cook.
But here's the other strategy I use to solve this problem, and this is the "life-changing trick" part: I use a baking soda brine for the chickpeas. I got this idea from Harold McGee's famous food science book, where he writes that baking soda can help beans cook faster and become much softer, and I recently learned that my good friend Sham from Vegan Iraqi Food makes his falafel the same way.
Two teaspoons of baking soda in two quarts of the soaking water seems to make a big difference in how fluffy the falafel insides get, but it doesn't add the flavor you would get from adding too much baking soda directly to the mixture.
But you might think that the softening effect of baking soda might also cause the falafel to become less crunchy (nooo!)—allow me to reassure you that this couldn't be further from the truth. If anything, it makes them fry up even crunchier. Adding this little bit of baking soda to the soak is like taking your chickpeas from the texture of new potatoes to russet potatoes. Think about the difference between French fries made from red potatoes and ones made from russets. Waxy potatoes just don't get as crispy on the outside, and they can sometimes be a little mealy and unpleasant on the inside. On the other hand, russet potatoes fry up soft and fluffy on the inside, and get unbelievably crunchy on the outside. So think of this as the falafel version of the best fries you've ever had:
yield: about 30 to 35 falafel
active time: 55 minutes
total time: 13 hours
for an alternative to deep frying, try baked falafel crumbles
soaking the beans
1 1/2 cups dry chickpeas
2 teaspoons baking soda
8 cups room temperature water
Cover the chickpeas and baking soda with the room temperature water. Stir until the baking soda dissolves.
Cover and keep at room temperature for at least 12 hours.
making the falafel mix
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch cilantro
1 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 (or 1 tablespoon more, if necessary)
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 fine couscous.
Add the baharat, sesame seeds, salt, 1 pinch baking soda, and flour, and stir to combine. Let the mixture rest for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Once rested, 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). If you're not sure, err on the side of pie-dough-consistency and add another tablespoon of flour.
frying and serving the falafel
1 quart neutral-flavored oil for deep-frying (e.g., peanut, canola, olive oil, but not extra virgin)
optional: Jerusalem salad (or watermelon Jerusalem salad)
optional: Tahini emulsified with some lemon juice and water
Once you're getting close to 30 minutes of resting, 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.
Once the mixture has rested, start to form the first 5 or 6 falafel. Each ball should be about 1 heaping tablespoon. Shape the balls in one of two ways: 1) gently pack it into a tablespoon using the palm of your hand, and then gently slide it out by rotating the falafel out like a revolving door, or 2) take a heaping tablespoon of mix in your hands and gently squeeze it together by making a fist around it and cupping your hands around it.
Once the oil reaches 360° F, gently drop in the first 5 or 6 falafel. Let them fry for about 3 to 4 minutes, until they're deep brown on the outside (but not burnt). 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.