Bread Baking in the Southwest: a Native American Tradition

Savor the Varieties of This Native American Staple

Southwest Travel Expert


We can possibly blame the U.S. government for our addiction to the traditional Indian breads indigenous to the Southwest area. As a consolation for forcing the Navajo people to make the painful "Long Walk" and relocate to New Mexico in the late 1800s, the government gave to them the ingredients that would become the breads that are still made by their descendants today.

Fry bread – thin rounds of dough fried in oil, then covered in cinnamon and sugar when done (ask any State Fair or Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta goer), or made into Indian tacos – is a favorite to this day. So are traditional oven breads baked in an horno.

Native bread baking in an horno. — Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

The horno, the Spanish oven, was initially used in Europe, then gradually introduced to other Latin countries in South America. It eventually found its way to early America and was used by the natives and first settlers here.    

Packed with layers of straw and mud and formed into the shape of a beehive, it can be used to cook meats and vegetables, but one treat that is particularly traditional in the Southwest is pueblo oven bread, or pueblo Indian bread.

Baking bread is a long-standing tradition that links Native Americans to their ancestors. Mostly managed by the women of the family, the bread is made in large batches to not only accommodate one's own immediate family but also others in the community.

You may sometimes find two hornos in a backyard: one small (that can hold 25 loaves) and one larger (that can hold 75 loaves, for special occasions such as "feast days"). The popular piñon wood, indigenous to the area, is used for the fire, adding to the taste.

After achieving the desired heat, the fire is brushed aside and the mud walls take over the baking. Holes in the horno can be used for viewing the entire process or can also be covered (with mud or wet cloth) to enhance the browning effect.

Before the baking can take place, there is much preparation (patience required). The dough is usually made the evening before. Lard, flour, salt and dissolved yeast are mixed in a large bowl, with a little warm water added during the kneading process. Covered in a warm place for five to six hours, the dough will be kneaded twice more before it's shaped into balls and put in pans to rise yet another time before it is finally baked.    

Loaves are slid in and out of the horno with a long flat paddle, and after an hour, they're ready when tapping produces a hollow sound. Flavored butters and jams make the experience especially worth the wait. For fun, sometimes the women get creative and shape the loaves into animals or flower shapes.

In the days before thermometers, the way the women knew the oven was hot enough was by inserting a wisp of sheep's wool inside to see if it turned brown. Modern technology has moved us forward, with some hornos even being fueled by gas, but the wood definitely makes for better taste.

Green chile bread in Santa Fe, New Mexico. — Photo courtesy of Paul Sableman

Tourists, when visiting Albuquerque, New Mexico, can purchase such loaves made by native residents at the nearby pueblos themselves, or from those who sell their wares in the historic Old Town. Underneath the portals of the old adobe buildings (now shops and cafes) dating back to the town's origins 300-plus years ago, craftsmen of all sorts spread their goods (mostly jewelry) on blankets on the sidewalks for passersby to purchase.

Restaurants, too, such as the Pueblo Harvest Cafe at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, sell not only fresh oven bread daily, but also fruit pies and cookies baked in the horno. Seasonal specialties are made throughout the year. Look for the Ohkay Owingeh (a local tribe) Ovenbread Pudding on the menu.

The Hyatt Tamaya in Bernalillo hosts bread-baking demonstrations, with the baker being a resident of one of the nearby pueblos, as well as friendly and open to answering questions about her craft or sharing family stories during tasting. Of course with anything, adjustments in techniques and recipes vary among the pueblos; the Jemez Indians use whole wheat flour, for instance, and the Zunis make a sourdough loaf. Sometimes potato flakes, green chile or sage are added, buttermilk is used in place of water and butter in place of lard.

Just a reminder: The indian pueblo bread or the fry bread is 700 calories each, so it maybe shouldn't become a staple of everyone's diet, but it sure is a pleasure to indulge in when visiting the great Southwest.

About Jennifer Boren

Jennifer Boren, a longtime resident of Albuquerque, loves the traditional native culture and its many wonderful tastes.

Read more about Jennifer Boren here.

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