If there’s one thing in the Western food world that just can’t be done justice by the processed and packaged food market – it’s corn tortilla. You can find flour tortilla and versions of corn tortilla at just about any supermarket in North America, but I assure you these imposters are nothing like the luscious real deal you’ll find south of the border.
According to Maya legend, tortillas were invented by a peasant for his hungry king in ancient times. The first tortillas discovered, which date back to approximately 10,000 BC, were made of native maize with dried kernel. The Aztecs used a lot of maize, both eaten straight from the cob and in recipes. They ground the maize, and used the cornmeal to make a dough called masa.[5
The flavor that a flour tortilla lacks is really a pity, but even the corn versions that are mass produced are missing the earthiness and texture that real tortillas provide.
The best thing about making your own tortilla is not just the improvements in the taste of your dinner (or breakfast, or lunch!) but that they’re cheap and easy! All you need is masa harina flour (maseca) and some water and salt to mold it into a nice dough. If you ever played with playdough as a kid you’ll have absolutely no trouble getting the right texture and moisture content for the tortilla mixture.
The recipe I’m giving here is really only a guideline, as you can add a few drops of water or dashes of maseca alternatingly to get the right consistency. Once you start mixing the ingredients together you’ll understand exactly what I mean by playdough texture. The maseca is so smooth and soft that once water is added it forms a beautifully silky dough. You’re looking for a consistency that is moist and doesn’t crumble or crack when pressed and rolled out thin (except for the outermost edges) but that also is dry and pliable enough that it doesn’t stick to your hands or counter top. You should be able to play with the dough and squeeze and form it into shapes without it crumbling, or sticking to your skin.
Once you get this texture begin portioning the dough out into small balls about 2 inches across at most (for small tortillas, which I prefer) and place a frying pan on the stove between medium-high and high heat. If you’re using a gas range you can get away with medium-high because the heat will be more intense and consistent. If you’re using a glass top/electric range top you can set it to the higher heat setting to get a nice hot surface.
Cut a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil into a 6 inch round approximately, and using the palm of your hand – press one of the dough balls into the center of it (use shiny side if working with foil). Work the dough outwards with either your hands or a rolling pin until it’s thin and smoothed out, but not as thin as the store bought flour tortillas you see in the grocery store. You want them a little thicker for texture and so they aren’t dry once fried.
Once your pan is heated up nice and hot pick up the first tortilla on the paper or foil, and flip it over onto your hand, gently peeling off the paper/foil so that you can toss it onto the pan. Cook for between 30 and 60 seconds per side. The tortilla should start to char and color in a few spots, but should stay somewhat pliable and not become a firm hard disk. If your first tortilla becomes a bit stiff once fried – throw the rolled balls back into a bowl and add a smidge more water to keep the dough a little softer, this will help the after-cooked texture.
Have a tea towel handy while frying the tortillas, and begin stacking them directly on top of one another, covered with a towel, to keep warm before serving. You don’t want to cook the tortillas in advance of your meal because they will become mealy and oddly textured once they’ve sat around and become cold. They really don’t take much time at all to fry, so prepare all your taco ingredients (or whatever you’re eating), then make the tortilla dough and portion and fry so you can serve everything straight away.
Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
For the best work flow making tortilla I find it’s best to roll all the portions into smooth balls, cover with a towel or plastic to keep from drying, and just roll one out flat as you go while one is frying. For example: you have 10 balls all rolled and covered, a piece of tin foil ready to go, and a pan nice and hot ready to go with a tea towel on the side to stack them in. You roll out one of the balls into a flat disk and toss it in the hot pan, then you spend 30 to 60 seconds rolling out the next one while the first tortilla is frying on it’s first side. Then you stop and flip the tortilla in the pan, wait 30 seconds, toss it between the layers of your tea towel, and then place your 2nd rolled out tortilla into the pan. I find that this work flow is best because you can adjust the thickness or thinness of your tortillas as you go. Once you fry one or two you’ll understand the texture a little better and you’ll be able to judge whether or not the next one should be thicker or thinner. This is the best way to learn how to get them juuuust right.
Note that when they come out of the hot pan they will be a little bit stiffer than you think they should be – but once they’ve been stacked together inside the tea towel they’ll sort of steam in their warm vapours and become soft and pliable again. I also threw a large bowl or domed plate on top of the towel to keep in even more moisture and warmth.
Making corn tortillas in Antigua, Guatemala
Dough for Corn Tortillas
1/2 cup – masa harina flour (maseca)
1/3 cup + 2 tsp – water, at room temperature (or more if needed)
liberal pinch – salt
And oh so damn delicious they are.
Enjoy – preferably with a cold beer or margarita!