Corn Tortillas

This one took a while to come to fruition, and was maybe the most frustrating culinary puzzle I’ve ever tackled. These are so simple, which I think is part of the problem, but they’re also SO worth it. They’ve completely replaced store-bought flour tortillas for us, and are a completely different food from the brittle, crumbly, store-bought corn variety.

I don’t remember exactly what sparked my sudden demand that I NEEDED to make my own tortillas, but I do recall the eye rolling from Mrs. 10Chickens when the tortilla press arrived, as well as the well-deserved lecture about internet frivolity (this may have been around the same time that I ordered the big tub of powdered cheese).

At first, I failed miserably. I made every mistake you can possibly make, and put out a ton of inedible product. It didn’t help that any internet video I watched for help had a vaguely condescending undertone, like I was looking up how to tie my shoes. And, they were the cause of most of my errors. After reflection, I’m convinced these are propaganda produced by BIG TORTILLA to keep the general population content to buy their awful products. (Not really, but… well, stranger things have happened.)

So, what’s the deal? The process is absurdly straight forward: mix masa harina (corn flour; if I can get it at my local grocery store in rural Maine, you can get it wherever you are, too) with water, let it hydrate, then press into tortillas and cook on a dry, hot cook top. In practice, it’s the kind of recipe beloved by grandmothers around the world because it takes experience to get right, and can be easily sabotaged with fake advice.

Step one: mix your masa with hot water and a little salt, which is the first stumbling block. Odds are your bag of masa has a recipe on it. Read it and admire it for the work of fiction that it is. This is absolutely, positively about feel. The water to masa ratio is going to depend on all kinds of variables, like relative humidity, how the masa was stored, its age, etc. So, my method is: grab a heaping cup of masa harina, then heat a cup and a half of water BUT DON’T ADD IT YET. Get the masa in a mixing bowl, and salt it as you feel appropriate. Add half the water, and thoroughly combine, then see where you’re at:

Masa and salt

What you’re going for here is texture. It should be sticky, but not stick to a clean, dry hand. It should retain your fingerprints and be smooth without cracking when you press it:

If it’s too sticky, or looks like a batter, add more masa. If it’s very dry and cracks, add more water. IF YOU ARE IN DOUBT, go a little dry. It’s easier to work with than dough that’s too wet. This is one of those pitfalls that I was talking about.

From here, let it sit for thirty (30) minutes so the dough hydrates. In the interim, consider your cooking platform.

Yes, I have a lot of cast iron.

It took me FOREVER to come around to using this griddle. Almost all of the videos I watched had folks using nonstick pans or electric skillets, which in retrospect is completely perplexing. If you don’t have something like this, that’s fine. You’re just looking for something that won’t get hot spots (so, no cheap pans) and something with low sides for ease of flipping with a spatula.

Once you’ve decided on a suitable implement, get it heated over medium-low heat, with no grease or oil. It needs to be dry (which is why well-seasoned cast iron was my ultimate choice).

Step two: press your tortillas. The press I bought is cast aluminum, and very light. A lot of the reviews hammer this point as a negative, but look, you’re not trying to flatten the Hope Diamond. It’s tortilla dough; if you can’t get where you’re going with a light press, you’re doing something wrong.

When your dough is done resting, portion it into balls, and press it. The size of the ball is dependent on the size of your press, so do some experiments. My second big word of advice is to go thicker than you think here, as they’ll be easier to work with in the next steps:

I use a cut up zip-top bag for ease of manipulating the dough. I wash it and get a few uses out of it before it disintegrates.
Pressed

In the above photo, you can see this is in between two layers of the plastic, which helps to manipulate the very fragile tortilla. I like to peel the top layer off, turn the tortilla out into my hand, and then peal off the rest, before resetting for the next pressing. Also note, i didn’t smash this into a molecular paste. You want some width here.

Step three: onto the heat. This is the final big lie I kept finding on the internet: you should only flip these once, and cooking should be done in two minutes or less. FALSE. You do want the first flip to happen pretty fast, or else the back side of the dough will dry and crack, which means the internal steam will escape instead of puffing your tortilla. BUT, the heat doesn’t need to be bananas, and in fact, very high heat is counterproductive:

After the first flip

Typically, I’ll do my first flip within thirty seconds of these hitting the griddle. I’ll let them sit on the second side for closer to a full minute, then flip back to the starting side, where they should puff:

Kinda hard to see, but they’re puffing up.
It looks more impressive in person.

Step four: steam. Get them into a bowl lined AND COVERED with a couple kitchen towels, and let them sit. I like to add them immediately off the grill, and keep adding as new tortillas come off. They’ll steam a bit with the residual heat, which means a nice, soft, pillowy bit of perfection:

Tacos every day.

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