Corn tortillas are, of the two dominant tortilla types, far and away the best kind of tortilla. Granted, that may sound like the sacrilegest of sacrileges coming from me—a former Californian passionately devoted to the burrito—but it's not. Because it's true. And truth can't be sacrilege. Right George Carlin? No? Oh. Well, anyway, doesn't matter. Corn tortillas are the best for 3 good reasons:
- They are as versatile as bread but, being unleavened, aren't reliant on the dilatory flatulence of yeast and instead can be made, like, super fast and shit.
- Because corn tortillas consist only of a single vegetable, water, and calcium hydroxide, they are free of the gluten that both complicates the cooking of other breads and upsets the stomachs of the legitimately diagnosed and/or trendy hypochondriac.
- Despite containing absolutely no added fat (a claim flour tortillas can't make) they still have an incredibly delicious, savory, and complex flavor, thanks to an amazing little process called nixtimalization.
- They posses the incredible power to turn anything into a taco. Anything.
But why make your own corn tortillas? After all, every grocery store is stocked with shelves of the pre-made variety. Aren't those fine? No. No they aren't. The flavor of a tortilla is dependent on its texture, and that texture is inextricably linked with the time elapsed since it was cooked. Store bought corn tortillas are days, if not weeks removed from when they were prepared and their dried-out, rubbery texture is good for very little other than frying into chips. Think of fresh baked vs. day old bread. Same goes for tortillas.
Another great reason to make tortillas at home is that they actually don't take much more time to make than store bought tortillas take to properly reheat. Done correctly, a store bought tortilla needs to be re-heated for about 30 seconds on each side. That's about twenty seconds less than it takes to cook a tortilla from scratch. Without exaggerating, I bet making fresh tortillas adds 5 to 10 minutes to the overall time of making a meal for four people, all while tremendously improving the flavor. There are a lot of shortcuts I take in the kitchen, products that I could make from scratch but decide in the moment would take too long vs. the flavor lost. I'll buy chicken stock, pre-made sausages, canned beans, various pickles, etc, but in the last three years I have bought tortillas in the store only once. Seriously. They're so easy to make and taste so good, there's absolutely no reason to buy them at the grocery store.
A Tale Of Two Masas:
Corn tortillas are made from masa, a dough made from dried field corn (the same stuff that makes grits, not the sweet stuff you eat in the summer) that has been treated using a cooking process called nixtimalization. Nixtimalization has been used for thousands of years in Central America to make grinding corn a little easier (though still tremendously difficult), improve flavor, and, unknowingly, improve nutrition. The basic process involves cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution (generally water and calcium hydroxide), letting it soak overnight, then rinsing/scrubbing the skins from the corn. At this point the corn is called nixtamal. Cook it in water or stock until it puffs up and softens and you have hominy or pezole. Grind it at this stage (it is still very hard) and you have masa. To learn more about nixtamal, including how to make it at home, check out this incredible post by Dave Arnold on his rarely updated blog, Cooking Issues (though the podcast by the same name is very much active and I HIGHLY recommend it).
Making nixtamal is actually very easy to do and it makes your house smell fantastic, but grinding the corn into masa poses a bit of a problem. Using a traditional metate y mano is back breaking hard work and cheap hand crank grinders don't quite get the masa smooth enough (trust me, I've tried). Stone grinders produce the best textured masa without making you sweat for hours over a metate, but they can cost thousands of dollars. Though stone grinders are ubiquitous in Mexico, they're a bit harder to find here, so your best bet for great masa is to buy it already made. If your city has a significant Mexican population chances are there is a tortilleria somewhere in the vicinity grinding nixtamal into masa. Find that place, buy that masa. Fresh masa is perishable, so keep it in your fridge and use it as quickly as possible. Old masa won't make you sick, it just won't taste good.
If you don't have access to the fresh stuff, you're still not out of luck. Dehydrated masa flour is available in pretty much every supermarket in America, the most common brand being Maseca. Whatever brand you buy make sure that it specifically says it's for tortillas or that it's been nixtamalized (the ingredient list should include lime). There's a orange bag labeled P.A.N. that looks like masa but isn't. It's untreated, ground corn for arepas. Don't buy that (or, buy it and make arepas).
Even if you can get fresh masa, it's not a bad idea to buy a bag of the flour version. Though tortillas from Maseca don't have near the complexity of flavor that the fresh stuff has, they're still miles ahead of what you buy already made in the store.
Making masa dough from Maseca is easy. Dump some of it in a bowl, add a pinch of salt, then add two parts water for every three parts flour. The recipe is right there on the bag.
I never actually measure this though. Instead, I do it by feel because volume measurement are inaccurate and not measuring takes less time and is less messy. Plus, because there is no gluten, you don't have to worry about over-mixing the dough (gluten gets stronger when mixed, which is why, for example, it's critical to mix waffle batter the least you possibly can). So if you add too much water at first, or if the dough is too dry, just fix it. The end result will be no worse for it.
Stir that up with your hand until it comes together and then knead it for a minute or two. My guess is the kneading helps the now hydrated corn starch get a little sticky and make the dough more cohesive with itself. It should get a little tacky, but in a way where it's more tacky with itself and not your hand.
This dough is going to be pressed into a thin tortilla and if it's too dry that tortilla will have cracked edges and not cook correctly. To check to see if your dough is wet enough, pinch an end of it together like this:
See how the periphery of that is smooth? That means the edge of the tortilla will also be smooth. See how it holds its shape, doesn't fall over, and didn't get stuck to my fingers? That means it's not too wet. Make sense? If you're confused, follow the recipe on the bag once then then be like, "oh, I get it now."
Ok, so now you have masa. Be it fresh or rehydrated, all the following steps are the exact same.
The next thing you need is a crappy plastic bag and a tortilla press. Well, actually, you don't need a tortilla press. I've pressed tortillas out on the kitchen counter using a cutting board or a heavy pan and had great results. But tortilla presses make the process a bit easier and they cost like $15, so you should buy one. Be it cutting board or press, you still need a bag. The bag keeps the masa from sticking to whatever apparatus you're using to flatten it. Some recipes recommend using a zip-loc style bag that you've cut into squares, but I've found those to actually be too sticky. I've had the best luck with really thin, crappy plastic bags. Like the ones you put produce in at the grocery store. Cut one into two squares.
Place a plastic square on your press, place a ping-pong ball sized chunk of dough on that, then place another bag on that.
I'm pretty sure you don't need a photo to illustrate what the instruction "place a plastic square on top of the dough ball" looks like, but just in case.
Now press the dough out as thin as you can. This is probably when you'll learn that you put too much dough into the press. Scrape it off the bag, form a small ball, and start again. The flaw I've found on most tortilla presses is there's no gap at the hinge when closed while empty. This means that with dough in there, the press closes at a subtle incline, leaving your tortilla slightly thicker on one side. To fix that, flip the tortilla around and press it again. Problem solved.
Up to this point it pretty hard to mess up a tortilla, but the next part does take some deftness and is benefited by a bit of experience. It's also the most important part of making a good quality tortilla and almost no recipes pay much attention to it. Of all the tortilla recipes I've read on serious food blogs and in national food magazines, I have yet to read one that does any justice describing the process of cooking a tortilla. And I'm not saying that as a braggy food blogger (god I hope I say nothing as a braggy food blogger). I'm saying that as a really frustrated cook. I followed those recipes for years. I made literally hundreds of tortillas. And they were all subpar. It was so frustrating. It wasn't until I stumbled across a description of tortilla making in an old Diana Kennedy book that I read that when you cook a corn tortilla it should be flipped twice and then puff up with air. Every aspect of the recipe—the texture of the dough, the temperature of the cooking surface, the timing of each flip—is all set up so that the water in the dough turns to steam at the exact moment that the outside layer of the tortilla is strong enough to catch that steam. A tortilla that has puffed up properly has an unmatched texture that won't break when folded.
The way I prefer to cook tortillas is on a griddle over two different sized flames, one set at medium low and the other at medium high. If you don't have a griddle you can use two pans (preferably cast iron) set on those different temps, or you can make do fine with one pan on medium heat (if going the one pan route you may need to adjust cook times a smidge).
Ok, now back to the uncooked tortilla still on your press. Pick it up and peel off the top lyer of plastic. Gently invert the tortilla into your other hand so the uncovered side is laying flat in your palm. Peel off the other sheet of plastic. Part of the tortilla should be hanging off then end of your hand opposite your thumb. With your hand underneath, place that part gently on the cooler part of the griddle and slowly peel your hand away so that tortilla ends of flat on the cooking surface without trapping any air bubbles. It's easier to see this technique than to read it, so if the description doesn't quite make sense, watch this woman—who is a total badass—demonstrate the peel the hand away part perfectly.
Cook the tortilla on this first side only until it releases from the griddle, generally about 20 to 30 seconds. You just want to cook the surface of the tortilla. If you allow it to cook through on this first side it will dry out too quickly and then not expand later. Flip it over, still staying on the cool side of the pan, and let it cook for about a minute. The key with the second side is allowing the tortilla to cook all the way through (so the water in the dough is ready to evaporate) while also a forming a sort of skin that will, when flipped, be strong enough to catch the steam but not too dried out that its inflexible and breaks. After 45 seconds on the pan pick up the tortilla and examine the second side. It shouldn't be cracked or browned (a few spots are fine). Softly pinch it with the pads of your thumb and index finger. It should be smooth, taught, and separate slightly from the dough underneath. That said, it's easy (for me especially) to over-think this part. Don't worry so much about the above indicators and focus mostly on what comes next. Flip the tortilla (it should be back on the side it started) onto the hot part of the griddle. It should almost immediately start to fill up with air like this:
If it's stubborn, press on it with the back of a spatula. Sometimes only half the tortilla will puff up, when that happens I try coax the air into the un-risen section. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. If the tortilla doesn't puff up at all there's a chance it wasn't cooked through enough. Flip it back over for 5 or 10 seconds, then flip it again. If it still doesn't puff up, the biggest culprit is overcooking the first side. Turn down the heat on the lower part of the griddle and try to make the first flip a bit earlier. Keep making changes until it finally works (it could take a few batches to get it dialed in) and then commit to memory the consistency of the dough and how it looked after each time you flipped it. I have made well over a thousand tortillas over the years and still some days it doesn't work right.
Oh, and if your tortilla puffs up all full of steam be extremely careful when you move it off the griddle. That steam can burn you good.
If your tortillas aren't perfect, you're still in good shape. Imperfect cooking can be fixed with a little time and steam. Stack your hot tortillas up on each other and wrap them in a clean towel. The residual steam will soften them all up.
To prove that, on the left is a hard, too thick tortilla that I overcooked. Right off the griddle it was almost like a cracker and couldn't bend without cracking. After thirty minutes of sitting in a stack of steaming tortillas the same crisp tortilla was soft and pliable. So if your first few batches don't cook up perfectly, don't worry about it. Stack them all up and you'll be good to go in a few minutes.
A well cooked tortilla is hollow inside. This is great on its own because it lightens the texture, making the whole thing much less dense. But it can also be utilized to its own end. In the Yucatan they fill this empty space with refried beans, seal it back up, pan fry that, and then use it as a taco shell. It's called a panucho and it's the best taco you've probably never heard of.
Also, the thin part of the tortilla is called the face. Because it's delicate, it should always be the part of the taco you stack the fillings on. If made with the face on the outside, parts of the tortilla could flake off in your hand.
This tortilla puffed up well and straight out of the pan I was able to fold it up tightly without it cracking. This is essential for enchiladas or taquitos.
And there your have it. The longest explanation I'm sure you've ever read about how to make a deceptively simple food. But tortillas are just too good not to do well. Get this technique down and, if you're anything like me, you'll use it for far more than just taco night. I make tortillas with my eggs in the morning, when the evening's drinks have left me hungry after last call, or when I'm reheating any sort of bean or meat based leftover. Actually, almost any leftover that isn't pasta is better with a tortilla. Thanksgiving leftover tacos? Delicious. Are you vegan? Well, pretty much any mix of sautéed vegetables is better in a corn tortilla.
Point is, they're easy, healthy, delicious, and incredible versatile. Corn tortillas are one of my favorite foods. Go make a batch and see what I mean.