Making tortillas is one of those things that is insanely easy. Only it’s not. Once you know the tricks and have a few batches under your belt, it’s effortless. Until then, it’s an exercise in frustration. I’ve been working on this for a couple of weeks and have made it to the passable stage.
I knew I wanted to serve tacos at Miriam’s birthday party this year–it lends itself easily to accommodating any set of dietary restrictions, including Miriam’s, without being a pale substitute of the “real thing”–but my intention was to go buy some nice fresh corn tortillas. After all, I live in an area with a lot of Mexican immigrants and good Mexican food is all over the place.
I went to the biggest of the Mexican markets, Lola’s in Santa Rosa, where they sell several brands of tortillas, including their own. Imagine my shock to find that every last brand, even the storemade ones, was filled with preservatives and other nasty things. The only straightforward ingredients ones were at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and were both pricey and only so-so (some were pretty stiff and old looking).
So I picked up a big bag of masa flour. That’s just corn that has been treated with lime (calcium carbonate, not citrus) to make more nutrients available and then ground and dried into flour (even though they look alike, you don’t want to use cornmeal here). Maseca brand (which seems to be the big name brand) Masa Instantanea de Maiz. The 2 kilo (4.4 lb) bag makes (in theory) several hundred tortillas and cost me all of 3 dollars.
Now, I’d made tortillas before, in Nicaragua, and it was pretty easy. I didn’t mix the dough but I learned how to form the tortillas by hand (on a plastic covered plate) and put them on the griddle. So that’s how I tried it this time.
Attempt #1 (2/23/08):
I used the masa today to make tortillas. It was 1/2 cup of masa to 1/3 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Supposed to make 4 tortillas.
You mix for 2 minutes with your hands and adjust water and masa as needed to make the dough. Then divide into 4 balls, press, and cook for 50 seconds on each side on an ungreased pan/etc.
I couldn’t find my tortilla press so I decided to do it by hand. I started with a small plate, but they stuck. So I put a plastic produce bag on the plate which worked very well.
I couldn’t get them as thin and large as a press would have, though they weren’t even as thick as a Salvadorian tortilla. They fell apart some and I tried adding a bit more water but I’m not sure that was the problem.
I found they needed more than the allotted time to lose the uncooked taste, but that might have been because they were thick. There wasn’t any trouble using an ungreased pan, though mine is a well seasoned cast iron.
They tasted really good but a bit dry. I honestly thought the dough recipe would have fat in it. Because I had to cook them a bit more than suggested, they didn’t roll up well, but I could sort of use them for tacos.
They aren’t party ready I’m afraid.
Then I did some web searching and found a couple good sites with pictures. One uses a little shortening in the dough, the other does not.
It seems that:
- I do need a press.
- I need to knead the dough longer and better than I did, to help it develop (this avoids the stiffness).
- I should add a bit more water to help the tortillas steam.
I also was told that one of the secrets is to let the dough sit (covered) for 30 mins after kneading, but not to make it too far in advance.
Attempt #2 (2/26/08):
1/2 cup masa flour
1/3 cup water
pinch of salt
(same as last time)
This time I kneaded it well for 2 mins, covered it with a towel, and left it to sit for 30 mins (more like 40 because I got a phone call just before my timer went off.
I still can’t find my tortilla press but, looking at pictures of them, I realized that they don’t have a lip. The roundness of the tortilla is purely due to the fact that you’re applying even pressure on to a round ball of dough.
So I used a comal (not sure of the spelling) I happened to find in my cupboard (that’s a tortilla cooker, mine appears to be cast aluminum) as the base and a salad plate (Corningware) for the top. I put both into plastic bags, which was way easier than having loose pieces of plastic.
I rolled the balls of dough and pressed and ended up with a perfect round tortilla. I had to flip it around to get the thickness even and I couldn’t get it to be any bigger than about 3.5″ or so in diameter. I realized that was the diameter of the part of the plate that touches the table, so next time I’ll try a dinner plate.
The tortillas peeled off easily and cooked up well. They tasted great but the thick one (I did a double-size ball in an attempt to get a bigger tortilla and it was only somewhat wider) was a bit doughy and cracked when folded.
I think maybe I should add more water even though it will be slightly stickier because I think that will make them stay together better and steam cook, which is a point some of the sites I read stated.
With two people working at a time, and more than one pan on the stove, I think I could churn them out pretty quickly. The rolling and pressing is less than the cooking time and easy now, so if I can cook 4 tortillas at a time, I could do 100 in half an hour of nonstop work (make it an hour to include mixing the dough, set up, etc). I’m not counting the dough resting stage.
If I could only get the tortillas thinner and larger, I think they’ll be real winners.
This is from attempt #2. That’s the biggest I could get them.
Attempt #3 (3/1/08 & 3/2/08):
These are the ones I served at the party. I mixed up a big 8 cup (of flour) batch and added water and salt. Miriam and I kneaded it well for at least 2 minutes. Then I covered it with a damp towel and let it sit for half an hour (more like 45 mins because I got a phone call).
The pressing and cooking part took about an hour for 50 or so tortillas. Just me doing it. With a better press and more practice, I think I could cut the time in half. Another pan would have helped too.
8 cups masa flour
5 cups filtered water
1 tsp salt
Take some masa, roll into a golf ball size, place on the middle of the bottom of the press, and press the heck out of it. With a press you probably can just push hard, but with a plate, you have to roll it around a bit to get the tortilla even. I still didn’t achieve thin tortillas, but that was okay. They weren’t too thick and they looked more or less like the ones in the pictures of the sites above.
For the press, I used a dinner-sized Corelleware plate on the comal, both in zipper plastic bags. I loved not having to futz with loose plastic but there was a disadvantage because it was harder to get some of the softer ones off the plastic.
As I cooked up my first couple of tortillas, I played around with some of the parameters. When the dough was totally non-sticky and came off the plastic with ease, it tended to break in half, including after being cooked. If I added more water, it cooked up really well but was impossible to get off the plastic. So I came up with a brilliant idea (which I’m sure is not original, but I’ve not seen it before): make the dough more wet, form the ball, then roll it in a bowl of dry masa flour. Then press. Success! there was plenty of extra water on the inside to cook up soft but the outside was dry and peeled off easily.
I used the flat side of a cast iron griddle that lay over two burners on my electric (flat) stove. At high heat turned down a bit. No fat on the griddle. I have limited counter space so the bowl of dough went on the stove. The side of the bowl next to the griddle got pretty hot and the dough dried out easily; I had to add water a lot.
I cooked them for about a minute on one side, turned over, then 30-60 seconds on the other side, then over again for a few seconds. I know I overcooked a few but I didn’t want them to have a raw taste either. Just taste as you go along and you’ll get the rhythm of it.
To keep them fresh, every so often, I transferred the finished tortillas from the plate on the stove to a crock lined with a clean dish towel. It’s a good thing Miriam kept eating them or I wouldn’t have been able to fit them all in.
The hardest part was reheating the next day. I made a batch half the size of the one above the morning of the party, but they were cold by party time too. I still don’t have the hang of it. Obviously, these are best eaten just after cooking, but that’s not always practical. You can fry them but that isn’t what you want. We tried just putting the ceramic bakeware (not the crock, but a regular casserole dish) in the oven but only the couple tortillas on top got warm. Still, they came out nice and people enjoyed them.