Old New World: tortillas, a love story

tortillas, folded in a clean kitchen towel to steam

I've made an awful lot of tortillas this month for Vegan MoFo, but when I was a novice tortilla maker a few years ago I had no idea what I was doing. I'd eaten my fair share, but that's a different matter.

Tortillas in the pre-contact Americas were always made of corn, so that's what I've been making as wheat did not make it's way to the New World until the early 16th century when the Spanish brought it over. The Maya sometimes added in pumpkin or squash seeds to the masa, but most common was a plain tortilla, called wah and its thicker relative, pim. Tortillas came in many forms for the Aztecs; there are passages in the Florentine Codex that refer to tortillas made of a "white flour" or "white and hot tortillas" but these were made of corn, not wheat. Finely ground corn is much paler than coarsely ground, and there were many colors of maize - including white. According to the Franciscan friar Bernardo de Sahagún: 

"The tortillas which the lords ate every day were called tononqui tlaxcali tlacuelpacholli, meaning white and hot tortillas...ueitlaxcalli, meaning large tortillas; these are very white and very thin, and wide, and very soft...other tortillas called quauhtlaqualli; they are very white, and thick, and large and rough. They also ate some buns that were not round, but long, which they called tlaxcalmimilli...Another kind of tortillas they ate were called tlacepoalli tlaxcalli, which were in layers, and they were dainty food...there were also many kinds of tortillas for the commoners."

I feel like it's a pretty huge omission to not detail the "tortillas for the commoners," but I'm glad that Sahagún was so enthusiastic and mostly encyclopedic. I haven't made most of the kinds he describes, but I get by. If you're nervous about making tortillas, there are a few things I've picked up along the way; to start, here's the basic recipe I use for reference - you've seen it a few times this month.

tortillas 

makes 12

  • 2 cup masa harina
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cup water plus more if necessary

Place the masa harina in a large bowl and stir in the salt. Add water and knead until the dough is firm but pliable. Form 12 balls of dough and cover them in the bowl with a damp  towel for 1 hour. 

Heat a flat pan over medium heat until drops of water dance and evaporate when flicked. Press between wax paper on a tortilla press or roll out into circles, then cook for about 2 minutes on each side. Fold stack of tortillas in a clean towel to steam for about 10 minutes.

homemade tortillas, imperfect and bumpy and tasty

notes 

If your dough is too crumbly, add water. If it's too sticky, add more masa. Do both a tablespoon at a time until you have a dough that is pliant, only slightly tacky, and does not crack. 

Make sure you form spheres, not ovals and not the somewhat "spinning top" shape used to make dumplings with thicker bellies. Your tortillas will roll out more evenly.

If your tortillas crack when they are rolled or pressed out, you need to add more water. Remove the cracked tortilla and add it back to the rest of the masa before you add more water to the entire batch. 

If your tortillas stick and pull apart on the wax paper when they are rolled or pressed out, you need to add more masa. Remove the sticky tortilla and add it back to the rest of the masa before you add more masa to the entire batch. 

I use a well-seasoned flat cast iron pan to cook tortillas. You can use a well-seasoned larger cast iron griddle if you have one to cook more than one at a time.

Patience is important; if you flip the tortilla too soon, bits of masa will stick to the pan and will eventually burn if you don't gently scrape them up quickly. 

Try, if you can without too much calamity, to burn the heck out of at least one tortilla so you get a feel for how hot is too hot, and how long is too long. You'll also learn when to turn the heat up or down with experience - I usually turn the heat down a bit for the last few tortillas as the pan gets very hot. I habitually undercooked my tortillas so they were still raw in the center before I accidentally burned one.

Cooked tortillas aren't perfectly smooth; in fact, you can tell when the first side is done by the small bumps that form. 

You'll soon get a sense for when to flip the tortilla, by the way it smells and the way the color changes. I tend to flip it the first time when the edges just start to curl up and remove it from the heat to steam after it has puffed up a bit, slightly inflated with air.  The tortilla will deflate when it is removed from heat. If you flip the tortilla too early, it's okay to flip it back.

Make sure you leave some time before serving to steam the tortillas in a clean kitchen towel. This helps the tortillas become flexible and soft. I do at least 10 minutes. I also turn the stack upside down when I finish the last one so that the hottest tortilla is on the bottom, steaming upward.

There's really nothing like a fresh, warm, homemade tortilla - and, once you get the hang of it, you can make more than a dozen in less time than it takes to pick up takeout!

a stack of tortillas