by Iliana de la Vega and Isabel Torrealba
Tortillas are the unrivaled accompaniment to any meal in Mexico. And as such, they perform the same role as bread in European cultures and rice in Asian cultures. All tortillas are flat, round disks made from cooked nixtamalized masa (corn dough) or wheat flour, and their original purpose was to serve as plates and silverware, holding and complementing all types of food—a very common thing to see all over Mexico.
Unlike corn tortillas, flour tortillas call for salt and some type of fat such as lard, shortening or—as we’ve seen in recent times—oil or butter. The techniques and equipment used to make flour tortillas are completely different than those used for corn, as well. Whereas corn tortillas are flattened with a tortilla press, flour tortillas must be flattened and shaped into circles with a rolling pin. And it’s important to mention that even though both kinds of tortillas are found throughout Mexico, flour tortillas originated in the Northern states of the country and had not been introduced to the Central/Southern states until recent decades. The proximity of the Northern states to the U.S. may explain why flour tortillas are more popular in this country and why they are more prevalent in the American derivations of Mexican food.
Before making the dough, decide what kind of fat will be used. Lard will make for a very flavorful tortilla, but it will also make it a bit tough. (Some recipes call for baking powder, which can make the tortillas fluffier but because it can also make them quite tough, we don’t recommend it.) We like to use shortening to achieve perfectly soft and easy to handle tortillas.
To make the tortillas, mix the ingredients together until the dough has a smooth and homogenized consistency, then allow it to rest before dividing into small balls. Once you’ve formed the balls, it’s important to let them rest another 20 minutes so that the gluten can relax before shaping them into the desired thickness and size using a rolling pin. In contrast to corn tortillas that need to be cooked immediately after flattening, several flour tortillas can be rolled and stacked before cooking on a comal (flat griddle). As the tortillas are cooked, they can be placed inside a cloth napkin, which is usually then placed inside a canasta (woven basket). One last note: Don’t worry if your tortillas are not perfectly round—they will be equally delicious no matter what the shape!