I lived in Mexico for three months during college, working with a local community center in a poor suburban neighborhood where everybody was better at Spanish than me. Something I brought back from that trip was a deep love for authentic Mexican cooking: I got to try everything from home cooking to street vendors to hole-in-the-wall taquerías to some pretty fine dining, and it was fantastic. And all of it, every single meal, rides on the tortilla. Mexicans eat everything with tortillas; they’ll put salt on them and chow down if there’s nothing else available.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a cook at that point, so I didn’t bring back much in terms of Mexican kitchen skills. The one thing I did learn, however, was authentic corn tortillas. The women at the community center though it was hilarious that a goofy American guero like me wanted to learn something that was mundane kitchen work for them, but I persisted and got an in-depth lesson in how to make those little golden discs that define Mexican cuisine. I was awful at it, but they were nice to me, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to hone my skill a lot. I taught my wife, who naturally immediately could make them better than I ever have, so now I’ll try to teach you, too.
Mexican food (the real Mexican food) is a great asset to anyone trying to eat a little more simply and healthy. It’s a far cry from its Tex-Mex cousin; fresh ingredients, exciting flavors, understated combinations. For us, being able to make tortillas at a moment’s notice has opened up a lot of possibilities in the kitchen. Hopefully it will for you too!
The dough is straightforward. I haven’t had the chance yet to work with fresh masa, and I haven’t been willing to get the equipment to make my own, but luckily you can get masa flour that does a really great approximation of the fresh stuff. They actually sell it in the international section of most grocery stores at this point, so you should be fine, but it’ll probably be cheaper at a Latino grocery store if you can find one. The key is to get corn flour, not corn meal or corn starch or anything like that, and to make sure you get the finer ground kind for tortillas and not the coarser stuff for tamales. Side note: we will definitely be doing a tamale lesson at some point on this site, because they are great.
Authentic Corn Tortillas – the recipe:
2 cups masa harina
2 cups water
Mix your dough: What works for me is roughly 1 part water to 1 part flour. The packaging says otherwise, and it changes a little day to day, so adjust as necessary. Mix it together and form it into a ball… don’t worry about overworking it, since there’s no gluten to worry about. Let it rest for ten minutes or longer so it can hydrate, and then check again to see if you like the consistency. You want to find that middle ground between being cracked and almost crumbly and being gummy and soupy. You’ll get a feel for it.
The tortilla press: You can technically use something other than a tortilladora or tortilla press for this (I’ve used a glass baking pan and a countertop), but you won’t regret getting one if you’re planning on making a lot of tortillas. They’re usually fairly cheap in Mexican grocery stores. Take a plastic grocery bag or a ziploc or something and cut it into circles or squares a little bigger than the surfaces of your press. This will be a barrier between your dough and the press, where it would just stick and be ruined.
Press the tortillas: Form your dough into balls roughly the size of golf balls. Take one and sandwich it between your two plastic pieces on the bottom plate of your press, a little towards the hinge side. Press the tortilla flat; it doesn’t need to be paper-thin by any means, but get it pretty skinny.
We’re now at the trickiest part of the process, where you will be frustrated the most as you learn: getting the tortilla from the press to the pan. By the way, have a flat pan or skillet at medium heat by now. Don’t worry about the whole “two pans at different temperatures” deal you see some places, it’s not necessarily helpful. Anyway, run your hand lightly over the plastic to help release the dough on one side, then flip it and do the same. Remove whichever is the top piece of plastic from your tortilla, then flip it over partially onto your hand, so that an inch or two of dough is touching your palm while the rest hangs gingerly in the air. Gently remove the other piece of plastic from the top of the tortilla, then gently ease your dough circle onto the hot pan, releasing your hand last of all. Or, alternatively, quickly and gingerly hold the tortilla on your fingertips and drop it onto the pan (this takes some practice, but less patience, so I often do it this way).
Sweet. Now your tortilla is on the heat, so the hard work is done, but it still needs some intelligent attention. Leave it on the first side for only about 10-20 seconds, just enough for it to cook and to see the edges dry out a little. Then flip it over and leave it alone. This is where I mess up, because I’m immature and impatient and want everything to be finished right now. But the key is to leave it on the second side for at least 30 to 45 seconds (it’s a lot longer than you’d think) before flipping it back again to the original side.
The way you know you’ve done your tortilla right is the puff. A properly cooked tortilla will create a pocket of air in between the two layers and basically inflate into a UFO shape. It’s gorgeous and so satisfying, especially because at first hardly any of your tortillas will do any such thing. You can often help them along after the second flip by pressing lightly on the top with a spatula to help the smaller bubbles spread. If it doesn’t happen, no worries, it’s still delicious and there’s no need to be a perfectionist and throw it out. Just keep adjusting the heat and the timing of your flips until you figure out a system that works.
And there you have it: authentic corn tortillas! Stack your completed tortillas, wrapped in a towel, and eat them within a few hours because they don’t keep well. Yesterday’s tortillas make great quesadillas, chilaquiles or other such delicious preparations. Let me know if you’re having any trouble, or if you had any great successes!