Not all matzah is thin and square — learn how to make it the old-fashioned way.
We all know a matzah when we see one: a thin, flat, square cracker, punctuated with parallel rows of holes. We know how a matzah behaves, too. Stored properly, a matzah never gets stale, never gets moldy, never bends (but it does break). We know matzah; our tribe has eaten matzah since biblical times. So, it may seem odd to ask, “When did a matzah get that way?”
Square: The matzah got square when Isaac Singer invented the matzah machine in 1838 in France. (Fun fact: This is a different Isaac Singer from the one who invented a sewing machine in 1850 in New York.)
Singer’s matzah machine made a rectangular product; before that, matzah was round. Some rabbis immediately objected to the machine-made matzah, either because the baker must intend to make a matzah (and how can a machine have intention?) or because the machines put people out of work. But most of the Jewish community in Europe accepted it.
Thin: Everyone made thin matzah — but how thin? In the 16th century, Rabbi Yosef Karo recommended not to make it as thick as a handbreadth. In subsequent centuries, authorities describe matzah as “thick as a thumb” — still way thicker than machine-made matzah.
Hard and breakable: In Talmudic times, the bakers would stick the dough to the wall of the oven and flip it off the wall with a peel when the matzah was sufficiently baked.
Lasts forever: Because machine-made matzah never gets stale, it became a valuable product in urban Europe. Matzah bakers could begin producing it months in advance. In more rural places, some people made ultra-thin matzah by hand, but others made soft, thick matzah. They had to make the softer, thicker matzah right before the holiday so it would not spoil.
More than a century has elapsed since many communities last saw a thick, soft matzah. Now that we have freezers, though, we can make soft, thick matzah long in advance.
Making Soft Matzah
Matzah, whether thin or thick, has a remarkably simple recipe. It has two ingredients: flour and water.
Flour: Regular flour might not do for kosher-for-Passover matzah because it might have too much water added at the mill, rendering it chametz (leavened) and unfit for Passover.
Matzah bakers use special flour, ground on purpose for matzah, so check your labels.
Water: According to Rabbi Yehudah in the Talmud, we draw the water for matzah the day before baking and keep it in a cool place in a closed vessel overnight (Pesahim 42a).
How much water? That depends on many variables. The temperature and even the humidity in the bakery will make a difference for matzah as for any sort of bread.
If you use whole wheat flour, as little water as possible and an oven at its highest setting, you will get a product that looks like Matzah Shemurah (matzah “watched” to make sure it’s made in less than 18 minutes). The scholarly team of Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotovsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan estimate that a kilogram of flour will absorb about 400 to 480 milliliters of water (less than a cup of water per pound of flour).
Preheat the oven as hot as it goes — try the broil setting. It still will not get as hot as the ovens in matzah bakeries. In a cool room, mix the flour and water quickly and thoroughly, so that no grain of flour stays dry. Then instantly roll it out into a thin rough disk. Prick the surface of the disk with a fork so water vapor can escape as it bakes. Place in the oven and watch it carefully. In a minute or less, it will look done.
Pull it out of the oven, and you will have a pretty good facsimile of a Matzah Shemurah.
Zivotovsky and Greenspan describe watching an Israeli woman from Yemen making a soft matzah the way she did in the old country. She kneaded the flour and water together into a disc and plunged it into the oven. She took it out when she was sure it was baked through. “From start to finish, it was under 5 minutes,” they said.