Who doesn’t like tacos? As with any good taco, it all starts with the humble tortilla. I’m talking corn tortillas (no flour tortillas here). And while you certainly don’t need to make your own tortillas, I’m here to gently convince you that you can and you should. Warm, freshly made corn tortillas right off the griddle anyone?
When I lived in Chicago, I could buy freshly made tortillas (hot off the press, literally) right down the street from where I lived (although, most likely from GMO corn, blah). But here in Philadelphia it’s another story; all I’ve encountered so far are mass-produced tortillas, which have a taste and texture similar to cardboard.
Homemade tortillas are straightforward to make. All you need is masa harina (which translates into ‘dough flour’) and water. Masa harina is a special type of corn flour. And because I’m a (food) science nerd, here’s a little background on how masa harina is made. Field corn (maize) is treated with lime (more specifically, slaked lime [aka calcium hydroxide]) through a process called nixtamalization (an ingenious process that was developed by the Aztecs thousands of years ago). Lime, which is highly alkaline, helps to break down the corn’s tough plant cell wall (hemicellulose) and soften the corn. This process allows the masa harina to form a dough when you add water — unlike plain old corn meal.
If you are feeling very ambitious, you can make your own fresh masa from scratch. According to Serious Eats, all you need are hominy corn and pickling lime (calcium hydroxide), a big pot for simmering, and a food processor for grinding. Definitely need to try this at some point. In the meantime, I have two bags of dried masa harina from Gold Mine Natural Foods (1 lb bag of organic blue corn masa and 1 lb bag of organic white corn masa), which happen to make very good tortillas.
So, what else do you need to make tortillas? A (cast-iron) tortilla press definitely comes in handy, though is not essential. In the name of resourcefulness, you could press the tortilla between two plates, pie pans, or even a pair of books.
Now all we need to do is make some tacos utilizing our fresh tortillas. What’s your favorite taco filling?
I’ve got a delicious vegetarian taco in mind (check back in a day or two for details).
The white tortillas are just plain white corn masa harina; the blues ones are blue corn masa harina; as for the burnt orange ones, I added some smoked paprika for coloring and smokiness (of note, the paprika dried out the dough a bit, so you’ll have to compensate by adding more water).
Homemade Corn Tortillas
makes about 20 tortillas (you could easily cut the recipe in half)
2 cups dry masa harina (used organic Gold Mine white and blue masa)
about 1 1/2 cups hot tap water
For the dough: Place the masa harina in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle. Add the water, little by little, kneading with your hands until all the masa is incorporated and you have a soft ball. Kneed another 2-3 minutes. Form into a ball and cover the masa with plastic wrap. Let it rest 20 minutes at room temperature; this allows the masa to fully absorb the water. At this point, if the masa is too dry, you can add a little more water. If too wet and sticky, add a bit more masa. The dough should have a soft, playdough-like consistency, not too stiff, but not too sticky.
Pressing the tortillas: Cut two squares of plastic slightly larger than the size of your tortilla press (from a large zip-lock bag). Line the bottom of the tortilla press with one square of plastic. Break off a piece of dough and form it into a ball, about the size of a golf-ball (make sure to keep the rest of the dough covered to prevent it from drying out). Lay the piece of dough on the plastic in the center of the tortilla press. Lay the second piece of plastic on top of the dough. Close the press and gently squeeze to form the tortilla, about 1/8″ thick and 4″ in diameter. Open the press, remove the top plastic. Gently flip the tortilla over on to your other hand, and carefully peel the other piece of plastic off the tortilla.
Cooking the tortillas: Heat a large griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When the griddle/skillet is hot, gently lay the tortilla in the warm skillet. After about 30 seconds, the edges of the tortilla will dry slightly and the tortilla will release from the skillet. With a metal spatula, flip the tortilla and cook another 15 to 30 seconds. Flip once more and cook another 15 to 30 seconds. The tortilla should puff in places (a gentle press with a metal spatula encourages puffing). Place the tortilla onto a clean kitchen towel and cover to keep warm.
Repeat: Press and cook remaining tortillas. Stack each baked tortilla on the previous one. Keep tortillas well-wrapped in the towel to keep them warm.
Reheating tortillas: I like to reheat my tortillas on the open flame of a gas stove. Place a tortilla directly over the flame and cook for 15 to 30 seconds. Flip and cook another 15 to 30 seconds until warmed through (I like a little char around the edges).