by Iliana de la Vega and Isabel Torrealba
Though basic in nature, the tortilla is a foundational element of Mexican cuisine and culture and worthy of culinary significance and respect. Of course, tortillas are not foreign to American cuisine, yet for such a common food item, lack of understanding still exists. A tortilla is a flat, round disk made from corn dough or wheat flour. Both kinds are frequently used in Mexican food, but the latter is traditionally, and most commonly, used in the northern states of Mexico. For this article, we will focus only on the corn tortilla.
The origin of the corn tortilla goes back to pre-Hispanic times, when the Aztecs initially referred to it as tlaxcalli. The corn masa, or dough, was shaped into various sizes and always made from corn that had been nixtamalized (a process whereby dry corn kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution—typically limewater—making them softer, easier to digest and more nutritious). Tortillas, tamales and many other products were made from this corn masa.
To make modern-day corn tortillas, the same type of masa is formed into small balls (the size of the ball depends on how big you want the tortilla to be) called testales, which are then flattened into rounds. In the early days, the flattening process was extremely time-consuming; it was done by shaping the balls with a fast, synchronized, 180-degree rotation of both hands in opposite directions until round, thin and even disks were formed. This required large amounts of dexterity and practice, and it was commonly said that a woman was ready to marry once she could make a perfect tortilla.
Luckily for us, the same results can now be achieved with a tortilla press and some thin, DIY plastic circles. Simply cut the plastic (the sides of a plastic zip-close bag work well) into two circles matching the size of the press. Cover the press with a plastic circle, place a masa ball in the middle, cover with the other plastic circle, close the press and add some pressure. Open the press, carefully remove the top sheet and place the tortilla over the palm of your hand by lifting it with the bottom sheet. Remove the other plastic circle and follow the instructions below to properly cook the fresh tortilla.
Since making the masa from scratch is quite labor-intensive, many use the commercial kind (such as the Maseca brand), which is fairly good and makes a very decent tortilla. To make them this way, follow the recipe and let the dough rest for 10 minutes inside a covered plastic bowl (use a damp, clean kitchen towel to cover). After 10 minutes, check to make sure the masa is properly hydrated by forming a small ball and pressing your thumb against the center of the ball. If the edges crack, the masa is too dry; if it sticks to your hand, it’s too wet. The correct consistency should resemble that of play dough.
Now let’s discuss some of the common “don’ts” of corn tortilla making. Corn tortillas should never be made using cornmeal or kernels from sweet corn; always use nixtamalized corn masa made from field corn (also commonly referred to as dent corn). Never add salt or oil to the masa, and never cook tortillas on a grill or reheat in the microwave. Instead, use a comal (a kind of cast-iron plate typically used for tortillas) or a flat griddle. Once the tortilla is placed on the comal, don’t lift it before at least 30 to 40 seconds have passed or it will break. Lastly, if using store-bought tortillas, avoid those that are sweet or feel cakey, and those that are not pliable enough to fold without breaking. ¡Buen provecho!