While we are talking about Mexican Food Recipe Basics, we have to talk tortillas… corn tortillas. Every culture has their own flatbread and corn tortillas can be called the “Flatbread of the Americas.” They remain the backbone of Latin American, Mexican and American Southwest cooking. Where would the taco, enchilada or even chips and salsa be without corn tortillas?
When I began thinking about adding corn tortillas to our collection of traditional recipes on our blog, I had to stop and think about it seriously for a while. If corn tortillas have been around for thousands of years, and you can find many, many recipes for them on the internet, what on earth do I have to add that will be different? What tid-bits can I share with you to make them better? Or easier?
Then I realized that I don’t follow all of the century old traditions. Besides using a few modern conveniences like store bought masa harina, an aluminum tortilla press and new fangled zip top bags (the Mayans would be envious). I break a few of the “tortilla rules” along the way.
Here are my tips for “breaking the rules” and making homemade corn tortillas that are perfect every time:
First, there’s the dough. I usually use masa harina when making my tortillas. Most recipes I find say that the dough should be soft, but on the dry side with the texture of play dough. I don’t. I think a”dry” dough has a tendency to crack and tear when you try to remove it from the tortilla press or counter top. The edges often split, as well. I actually prefer the dough to be moist and soft like a sugar cookie dough or a soft thumbprint cookie. The difference is that I use hot water (I don’t know why, but it works) and a little more of the water than the traditional corn tortilla recipes call for. That way, the dough resists tearing and stays supple after cooking. There is nothing worse than having your tortillas split in the middle and dump out your taco filling… well, maybe there could be a few things worse.
Second is the salt. Many of the recipes I find don’t call for salt. I add about 1/2 tablespoon to 2 cups of dry masa harina and whisk it together before adding the water. The little bit of salt brings out the corn flavor.
Next tips are about pressing out the dough. Unlike four tortillas that are stretched by hand like pizza dough, corn tortillas may be rolled out with a rolling pin or, better yet, pressed in traditional tortilla press. You can pick up a very inexpensive one for around $15.00.
You will also want to use a small zip top freezer or storage bag. Nothing has revolutionized tortilla making like the zip top bag. Now-a-days, a zip top bag is cut down each side so that it opens up like an alligator’s mouth and is laid on the open tortilla press. The dough is then pressed between the sides of the zip bag so it can be easily removed from the tortilla press. The thickness of the bag is just right for peeling it away from one side of the dough, but the bag is also large and gets in the way when removing it from the other side of the dough. And, because it is plastic, it will melt if you get it on the pan or griddle.
I found a cure for that, I don’t cut the zip bag. And, I only use it for the “top” of the press. Instead, I cut a square of parchment paper and place it on the “bottom” of the press. Then, I place the ball of dough on top of the parchment and the zip bag on top of the dough. I close the press and press as usual. After opening the press, I remove the zip bag from the top of the tortilla.
Here’s the neat part about the parchment. The parchment allows you to remove the tortilla from the press and either stack them (with the parchment separating them) to cook later or, put them directly on the pan without worrying about melting plastic. The parchment allows you to press the tortilla much thinner than you ordinarily would without tearing it. As the first side of the tortilla cooks and becomes firmer, the parchment loosens from the tortilla and easily peels away… no tearing!
I know… magic!
My last tips have to do with cooking the tortillas. Keep the temperature at medium heat and only use about 1 tablespoon of oil on the pan that is wiped away with a paper towel. Use the same paper towel to re-apply oil when necessary. Remember, you are not frying the tortillas.
Don’t over cook the tortillas! The tortillas should only cook for 1 minute on the first side and a little less than that on the second. Remember that the tortillas should stay soft and flexible because it needs to wrap around an enchilada or turn into a soft taco. Taste the first tortilla make sure the cooking time is correct and slightly adjust if necessary. The tortillas will continue to cook a tiny bit after you remove it from the pan and stack the warm ones together.
Wrap the warm tortillas is a clean kitchen towel to keep them warm. If you are not going to serve them right away, let them cool completely before storing them in a zip top bag.
These tips really do work for me. Perfect tortillas every time. You may need a little practice to get the “hang of it” but, don’t worry… it is only dough! If the tortilla tears, roll back into a ball and try again! You might even want to make more dough than you think you will need the first time you try. Masa harina is really cheap, so are salt and water so… go for it! You’ll be great! I know it!
See you soon!
- 2 cups masa harina (not corn meal, not fresh masa)
- ½ tablespoon salt
- 1¼ cups warm water (reserve 2 tablespoons)
- 1 tablespoon oil for cooking
- Parchment paper
- plastic zip top bag
- Whisk the masa harina and the salt together in a large mixing bowl. Push the masa harina mixture to the sides of the bowl leaving the center open making a "well."
- Pour the warm water into the center of the well and, using a circular motion, stir the masa harina into the water. The dough should be soft and moist and resemble sugar cookie dough. If necessary add the reserved water. Or even an additional tablespoon. The amount of water may vary slightly depending on the humidity or the freshness of the masa harina.
- You may shape the dough into a log or disk, wrap in plastic wrap and use later in the day or even the next day.
- Cut 16 squares of parchment paper large enough to cover the entire bottom of the tortilla press or, if you are rolling out the dough, about 8 inches square.
- Roll the dough into 16 small balls (slightly smaller than golf balls).
- Heat the griddle or pan over medium heat. Drizzle the pan with a little oil and wipe of the excess with a paper towel.
- Place a square of parchment paper on the bottom of the tortilla press. Place one ball of dough in the center of the press then move it slightly closer to the hinged side of the press (as the press closes, the dough will be forced forward and squish out of the front of the press. Moving the dough back prevents this).
- Place the zip top bag on top of the ball of dough close the press and press the tortilla to the desired thickness.
- Open the press and peel off the zip bag. Take the pressed tortilla by the parchment paper and lay it dough side down on the pre-heated griddle. As the tortilla begins to cook, the parchment is easily peeled away without tearing the tortilla.
- Cook the tortilla for 1 minute on the first side and slightly less for the second side. The tortillas should be soft and flexible, not over cooked and stiff.
- Repeat for each tortilla.
- Wipe the griddle or pan with the oiled paper towel when necessary. The tortillas should not require more oil than that.
- Place the tortillas on a plate and wrap with a clean cloth to keep warm.
- Serve immediately.