I never had falafel until I was well into my adult years. I never even heard of falafel until sometime after college. Growing up in an Italian American home in the Boston Area, falafel wasn’t a thing. Right after college, I moved to San Antonio for 6 years. There is not a lot of falafel in Tex-Mex cuisine. It wasn’t until I moved to the Washington DC area that I even HEARD of falafel. And even then, it would be another dozen or so years before I would try it.
By time I had changed professions, and began working in the culinary field, I was more aware of falafel. I still hadn’t seen one, eaten one, and certainly never prepared one. One day, my head chef and I were working on a menu for the upcoming week. I was responsible for deli preparations in our kitchen. The chef challenged me to come up with something new, something different for the deli. I can’t fully explain why, but I blurted out something like “OK — how about I make falafel.” The chef quickly said sure, that sounds good. Mind you I had never even SEEN a falafel at this point.
What did I get myself into??
I spent the entire weekend scouring the internet for every falafel recipe I could find. I must have looked at three to four dozen. Of course, they were all similar, but everyone had its differences. At first I was overwhelmed and confused, and wondering what I got myself into. I had no idea how I would make falafel for the 30 or 40 people we regularly got at the deli for lunch.
But after a while, I sat back and focused on what was similar about all the recipes. I began to cobble together what would become “my” recipe for falafel. I wish I could remember all 40 or so recipes that I looked at so I could give some proper credit. They all shaped my approach in some way. But I did keep track of the one I most closely followed. My recipe is very similar to that of Samatha Ferraro at Little Ferraro Kitchen. I have modified it to meet my own approach over the years.
It is reasonable to say that I am not a lifelong expert at falafel. I didn’t grow up with it, and no grandparent taught me how to make it. I have no secret family recipe handed down through the generations . All that is my way of saying — If you have issues with the ‘authenticity’ of this recipe — don’t say I didn’t warn you. But know that I approach falafel now as a ‘routine’ part of our meal plan. And I also look upon falafel as a great way to be introduced to a different food culture. One that you might otherwise not have tried, but would like if you did. The flavors are delicious and the ingredients are all familiar. They are even vegetarian.
What is falafel?
I have since become very fond of falafel, and often seek it out when traveling. It is a favorite street food when I am in NYC. I have had falafel in Madrid, Rome, Barcelona. Florence, and Montreal. I can name a dozen restaurants in the Boston area that serve falafel (some are better than others). I have tried it with both tahini sauce and tzatziki. While I like both, I am more partial to having them with tzatziki. Feel free to have it either way. If you want tzatziki, I have a recipe here. For tahini sauce, I’m going to point you to Samatha’s tahini sauce recipe at her blog.
So what is falafel anyway? Falafel is basically deep fried patties or balls of ground beans, along with herbs and spices. Dried chickpeas, dried fava beans, or a combination of both are the most common basis for falafel. Most recipes on the web call just for chickpeas, and that is what mine is today. It is more common in Egypt and North Africa to use fava beans. In Lebanon and Israel it is more common to use chickpeas. .
The exact origins of falafel are difficult to pin down. Many parts of the Mediterranean claim it originated “there”. Between the lack of reliable written history, and national pride of ownership, there is an ongoing debate on the origins of falafel. I won’t solve that today here, nor will I even try. What I will say is that falafel are part of the daily cuisine across North Africa and up through the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean into Turkey. It is more common in North Africa to use fava beans, where in Lebanon and Israel it is more common to use chickpeas.
Serving and Making Falafel
Falafel are often served in pita bread as a pocket, or wrapped in a flatbread. They are served as street food and as a mezze. Falafel are dressed with tahini or tzatziki, and served with tomatoes, lettuce and onions. They are at once both simple and complex. Although the recipe seems like a “project”, I really urge you to try making falafel yourself. Especially if you’ve never had falafel.
As for actually making the falafel, it is a fairly straightforward process. It looks like it takes a long time when you look at the recipe, but most of that time is waiting. Waiting for the chickpeas to soak, and waiting for the falafel mixture to sit before shaping. Mixing ingredients, shaping, and cooking are all straight forward and don’t take much time at all. Falafel isn’t really a spontaneous decision because of the soaking time, but it is easy and delicious.
I do recommend a bit of special equipment. Falafel is much more difficult to do without a food processor. It will give you the most consistent and even breakdown of the chickpeas and the greens. In a pinch, you can use a blender, but it is more difficult and the results are less consistent.. I’ve made falafel with a blender, but the results were far less even. If you are not careful, you get chickpea mush near the blender blades, and almost whole chickpeas at the top. I had to keep turning off the blender and stirring the chickpeas. Stick with a food processor if you have one. I have full respect to those who made falafel before the days of modern equipment. There is no way I want to grind the chickpeas and greens by hand. I am thankful to have the assistance of modern technology here.
Only Use Dry Chickpeas
From my own experience, I have come up with one iron clad rule about making falafel. ALWAYS start with dried chickpeas. NEVER use canned. Any recipe you see telling you to start with canned is setting you up for disappointment. Canned chickpeas are too wet and mushy to start with, so that is what you will get in the end for a falafel.
I have tried it both ways (I didn’t have dried one time), and was sorely disappointed. The falafel start out too wet, and are difficult to get to hold a shape when you form them. Then when you fry them, many will just disintegrate. You can counter that effect by adding copious amounts of flour or egg — but then what is the point. Canned may be convenient, but it is certainly neither easier or tastier.
I can also tell you that many street vendors and restaurants use canned chickpeas, and you can tell. The centers are always mushy and limp. The worst falafel I ever had was the consistency of over wet mashed potatoes. That is NOT what you want.
So start with dried chickpeas. Then soak them. Put them in a large bowl and cover with several inches of water. Put a tea towel or plate over the top of the bowl and then . . . leave them alone for the next 10 hours (at least! — I’ve even read soaking them for a full 24 hours). This first step takes about one minute of active time. That’s it. You have to have patience. Just don’t skip this step.
After the Soak
The chickpeas have been soaking for at least 10 hours — now what. First off, you should notice that they have grown. Somewhere between two and three times their original size. This is what you want, so time to head to the next step. This is the one where you ‘work’ for a few minutes. I think you’ll find it isn’t really that hard.
Assemble your remaining ingredients — onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley, cayenne, cumin, coriander, and salt and a bit of flour. Hold off on the baking powder and baking soda for now. Set up your food processor, and a large mixing bowl.
Once you have everything in place, drain the chickpeas. No need to reserve the water. Just drain it all away. One thing that is interesting about falafel is that it is one of the few (only?) dishes where the chickpeas are not cooked right after soaking. They won’t be cooked until they are fried, so at this point you are still working with the raw chickpeas.
Place them in the bowl of your food processor. Mine is large enough to take all of them. If not, that’s OK — run them in two batches. Just make sure to get them both approximately the same consistency. Either way, you want to pulse your food processor ten to fifteen times until you get the right consistency. I pulse instead of running the food processor steady. I feel that if you run it, it can get away from you too quickly and you’ll end up with raw hummus, and not falafel base.
What you are looking for at this point is a consistency of a coarse, wet sand. Not a fine beach sand, but coarse sand. You want to make sure there are no whole chickpeas left either.
Time for the Greens
When your chickpeas are right, time for the next step. Scrape them out of your food processor bowl into the large mixing bowl you set out already. Put the food processor bowl back on the machine and set up for the next step. No need to rinse it out at this point. Whatever residue is left from the chickpeas can just incorporate into the next step.
Add the onion, garlic, parsley and cilantro to the work bowl of the processor. Pulse these ten to fifteen times until you get a bright green paste. Dump that into the mixing bowl with the chickpeas. Be sure to scrape the food processor out good at this point and get as much of that flavor as you can. .
With your chickpeas and herb paste now in the mixing bowl, you can also add your flour and spices — cumin, coriander, and cayenne. There are purists that say there is no need to add flour to falafel mix. That may be true for some, but I have had better results when I didn’t skip it. Also important, don’t skip the cayenne, even if you add just a pinch. It is a small amount for this size batch, it doesn’t add much heat. What it adds is ‘depth’ to the flavor. Of course, if you want them hot — add more. But don’t skip it.
Hold off on adding the baking powder and baking soda. You want to add that just before you shape and fry (or freeze) the falafel. Add it too soon, and by time you fry, the chemical reaction will be done, and it will be like you didn’t add any. If you don’t add it at all, you won’t get that fluffy inside effect that makes falafel so delicious.
Mix It and Rest It
So with everything in the bowl (except the powder and soda) us a heavy spatula and mix it all up. You want to keep mixing until you get an even, consistent pale green color throughout. That will let you know that everything is mixed evenly. Time to let the mix rest for a while. Cover it and put it in the refrigerator for an hour or so. Overnight would be OK, but isn’t necessary.
By now you’re probably thinking “This is going to make a TON of falafel and I don’t eat that much” This recipe makes about 3 ½ dozen falafel. I find that 4 falafel make a nice serving size for a healthy meal. For 2 adults, that’s only 8 at a time. What will you do with the remaining 34 falafel? Freeze them. In my experience they freeze really well and can last for up to six months. That way, the next time you want falafel, you can have them in as much time as it takes to fry them, making it all much quicker
How to Freeze
To freeze them, you still want to shape them, so get out a sheet pan that will fit in your freezer. Line it with foil or parchment paper. When you start shaping the falafel, put what you won’t be using “now” on the baking sheet to freeze. You can put them fairly close because they don’t grow while freezing. When done shaping, put the cookie sheet in the freezer overnight. Once the falafel are each frozen solid, transfer them to a zip bag or container to leave in the freezer. When you are ready to use, just take out what you need. I’ll cover below how you cook from frozen.
After the mix has rested, and you have your sheet tray for freezing set up, let’s get to shaping the falafel. First, it’s time to add the baking soda and baking powder. I’ll let you in on a little secret. After I took this picture of the fully shaped falafel, I realized I didn’t add the two ingredients. Ooops. I had to put them all back in the bowl, add the soda and power, mix it all again, and then shape them all again. It was worth it because it makes for a much better falafel.
To shape, I have and use a 2 tablespoon scoop. I find that size perfect for the falafel. If you don’t have a scoop, a tablespoon will do. Scoop the mixture two tablespoons at a time and shape into a small ball – about the size of a golf ball. You can leave the ball round, or slightly flatten. I slightly flatten because I think it fits in a pita better.
Time to Fry
Set what you’re using today on a plate and set the rest up for freezing. Time to cook. In my opinion, the absolute best way to cook falafel is to deep fry. Pan fry is close second, but deep frying offers the most even cooking. If you would rather not fry, you can bake them. I’ll leave a note on how to do that in the recipe below. Just know that you won’t get the same crunchy outside and pillowy inside.
Set up a large dutch oven with two to three inches of vegetable oil and heat up to about 350 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, an easy way to test if the oil is ready is to drop a small scrap of batter into the oil. If it sizzles, you are probably ready. Then try frying a single falafel in the middle of the pan. It should take 3 -4 minutes per side to brown. If it takes longer, then the oil is too cool. If it takes less than that, the oil is too hot, and the outside will cook before the inside is done. Adjust the temperature as necessary.
Once you get to the right temperature, fry your falafel in batches of 4 or 5. More than that, you will crowd the pan, and drop the temperature of the oil too much. Fry the falafel until they brown on one side, about 4 minutes. Gently flip over with a fork or slotted spoon and fry another 3 – 4 minutes until fully browned. To fry from frozen, I use the same exact approach. I do not thaw the falafel first, and put them in the oil still frozen. It takes about a minute longer per side, but that’s it. A 350F pot of oil is a wonderful tool for thawing 🙂
Remove from oil and place on a paper towel to drain while cooking the rest. They are done — now it is up to you how to serve. Open one up, and you’ll see the wonderful green color on the inside with the cruncy, brown outside. Both inside and out are delicious, It’s really a bit of food magic. I like them in a pita with tzatziki and some lettuce. They are also excellent alongside some tabbouleh or hummus. It is really up to you at this point.
I know that making a batch of falafel is a bit of a project — but so worth it. Once you make a batch and freeze some, you have a quick meal in the future. And of course, you’ll cook some when you first make the batch, and you won’t be disappointed. Healthy, delicious,
- 1 lb dried chickpeas
- 1 medium onion chunked
- 3 -4 garlic cloves peeled and halved
- 1 bunch fresh curly parsley 1 – 1 ¼ cups, stems removed
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro 1 -1 ¼ cups stems removed
- 1 TBS kosher salt
- 1 TBS ground coriander
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 3 TBS all purpose flour sub garbanzo bean flour for gluten free
- 1 tps baking soda
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 4 cups vegetable oil for frying
- Soak dried chickpeas for 10 – 12 hours in a large bowl filled with water. It is easiest to set out the night before you want to make falafel.
- When ready, drain the chickpeas in a colander.
- Place chickpeas in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse 10 – 15 timeless, or until they are the consistency of wet, coarse sand. There should be no whole chickpeas left.
- Transfer to a large bowl.
- In the same food processor, add the parsley, cilantro, onion and garlic
- Pulse together 10 – 15 times, until it almost looks like a paste.
- Add parsley/cilantro paste to the same bowl with the chopped chickpeas.
- Add cumin, cayenne, salt, pepper and flour as well.
- Mix the beans, herbs and spices together thoroughly until there is a consistent pale green color throughout.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Chilling the mixture allows it to hold together better, making it easier to form the falafel patties.
- Add baking powder and soda just before frying, mixing everything thoroughly.
- Form the falafel using a 2 TBS scoop or large spoon. Form each falafel into a small ball,
- Gently flatten each ball (optional, although I do it)
- Heat a dutch oven or large skillet with 2” – 3” of vegetable oil up to about 350 degrees F.
- Using a slotted spoon or wire “spider” carefully place the falafel in the hot oil.
- Add 4 – 5 falafel at a time so as to not overcrowd the pan
- Fry for about 4 -5 minutes, until the falafel begin to brown on the sides. Using a fork or chopstick, carefully turn each falafel over to be sure it fries on the other side.
- When fully cooked, remove from oil, and set on a paper towel to drain
- Properly cooked, falafel should be crisp and deep brown on the outside, and soft and bright green on the inside. Falafel are best served warm to hot with tzatziki or tahini sauce.