Not many people make their own tortillas. Since they’re not like bread or pancakes, perhaps they seem intimidating. But the corn-based flatbreads we know as tortillas date to well before 1000 BC, when technology was nonexistent. Yes, tortillas and the process of “nixtamalization” existed that long ago.
“Nixtamalization” requires cooking and soaking corn in an alkaline liquid, and then rinsing to remove the alkaline solution, which can be caustic. Besides making the corn more nutritious, nixtamalization also makes it easier to remove the tough hulls, softens the corn, and changes the structure so that once it is ground, the corn forms a cohesive dough—which is crucial for making tortillas.
Nixtamalization was a very important process for those early tortilla makers, since the maize they used, which was a staple food, was low in niacin. Without nixtamalization, the population would have suffered from vitamin-deficiency diseases—or they could have starved, even though there was sufficient food, because of the lack of essential nutrients.
Early civilizations used different substances for creating the required alkaline solutions, included slaked lime (the mineral, not related to the fruit), ash or sodium carbonate.
When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his trip to the Americas, he brought corn with him, which quickly became popular in Europe. That popularity later spread to Africa and Asia. Unfortunately, the nixtamalization process didn’t travel with the corn, so in populations that adopted corn as a staple product and didn’t have another source for niacin, vitamin deficiency diseases such as pellagra were common.
These days, our diets are varied enough that nixtamalization isn’t important for nutrition, but it is important if we want to process corn into tortillas rather than end up with crumbly bits of corn.
While it’s possible to buy the chemical lime for cooking and soaking dried corn, the easier thing to do is to buy premade, fresh masa that’s ready to work with. You can also buy dried masa—known as masa harina—that needs only to be reconstituted with water.
Fresh masa can be found at ethnic markets or at tortillerias that make their own corn tortillas. Even if the masa isn’t on display, it may be available for sale, so it’s worth asking. Tortillas made from fresh masa are very different from those made from masa harina, so it’s worth seeking it out so you can see which you prefer.
A pound of fresh masa will make about a dozen tortillas, depending on the size of the tortillas. If you buy extra, you can refrigerate it for a few days, or freeze it for longer storage.
Dried masa harina can be found at many supermarkets, sometimes in the baking aisle, sometimes in an ethnic section. It’s usually packed like flour, in bags of 4-5 pounds. The Maseca brand is one that’s quite popular, but there are others. Bob’s Red Mill also sells masa harina in smaller packages, and it can be ordered online if not found in the market.
Masa harina is more perishable than all-purpose flour, so it’s a good idea to store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer unless you know you’ll be using it very quickly. Besides tortillas, masa harina is also used to make tamales, among other things.
Aside from the fun of it, there are other good reasons for making tortillas at home. You can make them exactly the size you like—which is great if you want tiny ones for appetizers—and you can eat them fresh, which is when they’re at their very best.
To make corn tortillas, a tortilla press is a very handy tool. It’s not complicated, and it’s certainly not a modern tool, but it does the trick. A small ball of masa turns into a flat, compact circle of dough with very little effort. If you don’t have a tortilla press, you can use a rolling pin or flatten the masa with the bottom of a heavy frying pan. But if you plan on making tortillas at home—even just once in a while—a tortilla press is much more efficient. The dough should be placed between two empty plastic bags, or two halves of one bag, as described in the recipe for Fresh Masa Tortillas (p. 25), before pressing—to avoid sticking.
While corn tortillas are traditional, flour tortillas are also quite popular. Since you don’t need to buy special flour to make them, they’re a little more convenient to make on a whim.
To cook the tortillas, you don’t need any special equipment, but a comal is the traditional pan. It’s a round, heavy pan, often made from cast iron, with very short sides. Those short sides—really more of a lip—make it easier to get the tortillas in and out of the hot pan. You can use your fingers to slide the tortilla to the edge of the pan, and then grab it with your fingertips and flip it over to cook on the second side. Or, if you prefer, use a pair of tongs to grab and flip the tortillas.
If you don’t have a comal, you can use a griddle or a cast iron frying pan. Tortillas are cooked in a dry pan, so you need a pan that can be heated empty—therefore, a nonstick pan is not recommended. Cast iron is ideal because it conducts heat evenly and holds the temperature steadily.
Tortillas are almost irresistible when they’re fresh and warm, but they also reheat well. When they cool after cooking, they’ll get a little bit stiff and will be prone to cracking, just like the tortillas you buy at the grocery store. Reheating will fix that.
To reheat the tortillas, warm them on a hot griddle or pan for 10 seconds or so on each side, and then wrap them in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm. As you heat them, you’ll feel them begin to get softer and more pliable. If you cook them too long, though, they’ll dry out completely and become crisp.
You can also heat the tortillas in the microwave. Wrap them in a slightly dampened, clean kitchen towel for 30 seconds, or until they’re warm.
You can use your homemade tortillas to make tostadas, enchiladas or tortilla chips, the same way you’d use commercial tortillas.
Store excess cooked tortillas in a plastic bag after they have cooled completely, the same way you store bread. In a humid environment, the tortillas will mold quickly, so you might want to store them in the refrigerator. However, refrigerated tortillas will dry out faster than tortillas held at room temperature. If you live in a dry area, you can store your homemade tortillas at room temperature for a few days.
Since there are no preservatives, plan to use your homemade tortillas quickly, or freeze them for longer storage. If you decide to freeze them, put pieces of parchment paper between them to keep them from sticking together. Then, when you need a few tortillas, just remove as many as you need and heat them before serving.
FRESH MASA TORTILLAS
Tortillas made from fresh masa dough are generally thicker than those made from masa harina, and they tend to look more rustic because the corn is more coarsely ground. The finished tortillas also feel more elastic, and they have a stronger corn flavor.
MAKES 2 DOZEN TORTILLAS
- 2 pounds fresh masa
- salt, to taste, if needed
- water, if needed
When it’s freshly made, the masa will be soft and pliable. If you’re not going to use it right away, or if you purchase it already refrigerated, you’ll need to knead it a bit to get it soft again. If it’s crumbly rather than pliable, add water as needed.
If you have a stand mixer, you can work the dough in the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Otherwise, knead by hand.
When you press (shape) the tortillas, you’ll want to press the masa between sheets of sturdy plastic rather than directly on the surface of the tortilla press. A gallon-size zip-top freezer bag is perfect. Cut off the zipper top and the sides, leaving the fold at the bottom of the bag. Lay the plastic on the tortilla press with the fold of the plastic near the hinge. If the plastic is a lot bigger than the surface of the tortilla press, you can trim it. It’s fine if it’s a little larger, but if it’s considerably larger, it will just get in the way.
Portion the dough into approximately 2-tablespoon pieces—you should get 12 pieces per pound of masa. Using a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, cover the pieces you’re not working with.
Roll the first piece into a ball, then flatten it slightly. Place the flattened dough onto the tortilla press, between the plastic sheets. Position it slightly off-center—slightly closer to the hinge than to the handle.
Close the press and use the handle to apply pressure to flatten the dough. Open the press, turn the tortilla dough 180 degrees, and press again to get it as thin as possible.
Meanwhile, heat a cast iron comal, griddle or frying pan over medium heat. You shouldn’t need any additional oil in the pan to cook the tortillas, but if it isn’t well seasoned, it’s fine to use a paper towel to brush a thin layer of oil onto the pan.
Peel the plastic off the tortilla dough and place the tortilla on the hot pan. Let it cook for 45 seconds or so on the first side. It should be lightly browned in a few spots on the bottom. Flip the tortilla over and cook it in the same way on the second side.
If I’m making tortillas to serve right away, I let them brown a little more, but if I’m making them in advance to serve later, I cook them a little less and do the browning when I reheat. The choice is yours.
It can take a little bit of practice to get the heat adjusted properly so your tortillas are cooked through before they’re over-browned. If you need practice, make several small tortillas to test the cooking time and temperature before you start making full-size tortillas.
Wrap the first finished tortilla in a clean kitchen towel. Continue making the remaining tortillas in the same way, piling them on top of each other and wrapping them in the towel as you go.
The tortillas might seem a little dry and stiff when you first take them out of the pan, but as they steam while covered with the towel, they will soften and become very pliable. This is actually a part of the cooking process and not just a way to keep the tortillas warm. The towel lets them steam without becoming wet or soggy, as they would if you put them into a covered container without a towel. It takes very little time to flatten the tortillas using a tortilla press, so you can make them as you cook.
COOK’S NOTE: If you’re working with fresh masa from a new source, it’s a good idea to make one tortilla, let it steam in the towel for a few minutes, and then taste it to see if it needs any extra salt and to test the texture. If the tortilla is thick and doughy, or if it remains dry or is crumbly and breaks rather than bends after a minute or two of steaming, add a bit more water to the dough and knead it in before making more tortillas.
MASA HARINA TORTILLAS
Tortillas made from masa harina are smoother and tend to be thinner than those made from fresh masa, since the dried masa is finely ground. They may also be lighter in color and are a little lighter in flavor.
If you’re using a brand other than Maseca, follow the package directions for mixing the dough.
MAKES 16 TORTILLAS
- 2 cups Maseca masa harina
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1-1/3 cups water
Combine the masa harina, salt and water and mix well by hand or with your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. The dough should easily come together in a ball and be soft enough to work by hand. When you flatten the tortillas in the press, they should easily form a round. The edges might look a little rough and ragged, but they shouldn’t split or crack. If the first test tortilla does crack, add a little more water and knead it in.
Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces, and form and cook them using the same methods as for the fresh masa tortillas.
Flour tortillas are not traditional, but they’re very common in the U.S. These are ideal for tacos or burritos, and they remain pliable after they have cooled, so they’re great for cold sandwich wraps as well. Because these don’t use any yeast or leavening, they are very thin.
MAKES 12 TORTILLAS
- 2 cups (9 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- up to 3/4 cup water, as needed
Into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, place the flour and the salt. With the processor running, add water in a steady stream as fast as the flour can absorb it. When the flour mixture begins to gather in lumps, stop adding water—you should use most of the water, but possibly not all of it.
Continue processing until the dough forms a ball, and then process for another minute. The dough should be soft and tacky, but not sticky. If the dough is very sticky, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process to incorporate the flour until the dough is no longer sticky.
If the dough is dense rather than soft, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process to incorporate it, as needed.
Let the dough rest in the covered food processor for at least 15 minutes, or up to 30 minutes, to relax the gluten and make rolling easier.
Flour your work surface, turn out the dough, and divide it into 12 pieces. Using one piece at a time, form the dough into a ball, then use a rolling pin to form the dough into a circle 6-8 inches in diameter, depending on what size of tortilla you need. Flour the dough as needed to keep it from sticking to the counter and the rolling pin, but use as little flour as possible.
Heat a cast iron comal, griddle or frying pan on medium heat.
Brush the excess flour off the tortillas before cooking. It won’t harm the tortillas, but flour that falls off during cooking will brown and possibly burn in the pan.
Cook each tortilla on one side for 30-40 seconds, until you see some brown spots on the bottom. The tortilla might start to bubble and puff up—that’s perfectly normal. Flip it over and cook on the second side for another 15 seconds or so.
Wrap the finished tortilla in a clean kitchen towel. Continue making the tortillas in the same way, stacking and wrapping them in the towel to keep them warm.