Tortillas

tortilla

A couple things impelled me to finally try my hand at homemade tortillas. The first was a conversation with my friend who professed the desire to wrap most of the meals I cook for us in a tortilla. I make a lot of veggie stir fry or fresh salad dishes, usually accompanied by some kind of cereal grain and legume, which would indeed be delicious in a flexible, foldable, flatbread. When I first started the No Trash Project, I did a little searching for a package-free tortilla source. I inquired at a few of the many wonderful Mexican food establishments located on the outskirts of Providence. On a couple of occasions I was able to purchase corn tortillas from one vendor who kindly parceled some out for me from a large bulk bag. But the bag was of course plastic, and while it seemed a little better than buying a plastic pack of 12 tortillas from the grocery store, I wasn’t satisfied with that option. Still, I thought I may be able to find a vendor who makes them fresh in-house that would be willing to let me purchase them with a reusable container. Over time, while I busied myself with other packaging problems, I guess I just adapted to a tortilla-less life. But my friend’s love of all things bread reignited my tortilla interest (and craving). So what about making my own? Ouff, it seemed like quite a project. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that lard or shortening was required—at least for flour tortillas, and finding a bulk source for either ingredient would likely be more difficult than finding unpacked tortillas. But what about corn tortillas? What goes into making those?

Then, while looking for recipes for my blue cornmeal, I wondered if I could use it to make tortillas. So I did some research. As it turns out, whole grain stone-ground cornmeal—which retains some of the germ and fibrous hull of the kernels—is great for crumbly cornbread, but won’t hold together on it’s own in a tortilla. Makes sense. Instead, corn tortillas and chips are made from a corn flour called masa (Spanish for dough). To make it, corn kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), and then hulled, leaving the soft endosperm of the grain. This is called nixtamalization, an ancient food processing technique that originated with Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Today, store-bought tortillas are produced with mechanized industrial processes. The processed corn is called nixtamal, which has a distinct flavor and texture. It’s easier to grind into a smooth dough that will hold together in a tortilla and the nutritional value of the corn is actually increased. The alkaline solution convert’s the grain’s bound niacin (vitamin B3) to free niacin, making it available for the body to absorb. The corn also absorbs some of minerals in the lime, increasing the calcium content. Another benefit of nixtamilization is that it decreases mycotoxins (molds) that commonly infect corn crops and can be harmful to humans. This information is a bit jargony but I’ve been learning a lot of these terms in my biology class and as a grower, maker, and eater of food I think it’s fascinating stuff!

masa

Okay so then where does one get masa to make homemade tortillas? Well, one doesn’t. Not from a store anyway. At least not in New England. It is certainly possible to make it from scratch at home, a project I’m very interested in, but it will require finding a package-free or bulk source for the ingredients (dried flour corn kernels and pickling lime) and I’m still not set up with my own food processor or grain mill… I know, I really should get around to that. But I learned that masa harina (Spanish for flour) is widely available on grocery store shelves. Simply reconstituted with water, masa harina becomes dough, ready to be rolled or pressed into tortillas. I called around to see if I could find a store that offered it in a bulk dispenser but had no luck. So, I did something I rarely do these days and decided to purchase a packaged food item. I bought masa harina in a paper bag and transferred the flour to the large glass jar above to preserve freshness. I planned to compost the bag, but instead ended up using it as fire starter in my wood stove on a recent raw and chilly night.

Once I finally acquired the flour, I discovered that making the tortillas is ridiculously easy. I started with half a cup of masa harina, and as per tips I found on the internet, I slowly added a little water, mixing it in to the flour with my hands until I had a dough that seemed to be a good consistency. Not too wet and not too dry. Then I separated the dough into small balls and rolled them out on my counter with a wood rolling pin. Many online instructions for this process will tell you to roll or press the dough (in a tortilla press) between two sheets of plastic to avoid sticking. But I was able to manage without the plastic. I just made sure to put some dry flour on the counter and my roller. When it did stick to the counter, I simply lifted the dough with a large spatula. I used my wide mouth stainless steel funnel to press out small taco size tortillas. I then cooked them over medium-high heat in my cast iron skillet, setting the dough on one side for about 20 seconds, then cooking for 1 minute on the other side, and back again to the first side for another minute. And that’s it. So simple. Tip: I found that placing the cooked tortillas in a covered container will keep them warm and help retain moisture until you’re ready to fill them.

tacos

For lunch I made fish tacos with leftover tilapia (from last night’s dinner), black beans, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro, lime and pepper. Oh my goodness, they were so delicious. As with so many projects that have resulted from the quest for package-free foods, I’m really pleased with the outcome. It led me to learn a lot more about corn and corn products, and a little more about the agricultural history of the crop. I also gained the unique satisfaction that comes with making my own foods from base ingredients, which is in part due to the superior freshness of homemade meals and the cost savings. And of course, I get the enjoyment of a delicious food without the plastic packaging I used to regularly send to the landfill.

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9 Responses to Tortillas

  1. Cocomama March 18, 2013 at 5:15 am #

    Congratulations on your delicious victory! I have to admit that I am surprised masa is not available to you to buy. It is so readily available here we take for granted that we can be selective about who we purchase it from and many families disagree about who makesthe best. We all have our preferred masa places that we’ve been buying from for generations.

    One of my fondest memories as a id was having Sunday brunch at a little place on Olvera Streetwhere mexican abuelitas would slap masa in their hands shaping them into round discs before laying them on the griddle to cook.That would certainly take the plastic out of the process of tortilla making and would be more authentic too! ;)

  2. Buck March 19, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    Awesome. Cocomama, where is Olvera Street?

    • Cocomama March 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      Olvera Street is in Los Angeles. It is credited as being the very first street in LA (i think that may be an urban myth). The restaurant where the ladies make tortillas is called La Luz de Dia. I hope you can visit there!

  3. abby March 26, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Such a timely post! I was just researching what it would take for me to make my own tortillas last night – both flour and corn. I was hoping to find more organic masa harina availbale, but so far found only one online source. I found a few (gluten free) flour tortilla recipes that sound easy and delicious (and no lard!). If you are interested I can send you a couple links.

    • Colleen March 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      Hi Abby! Yes, yes, yes! I would love to check out those gluten-free, lard-free flour tortilla recipes! Have you tried any of them out yet? And I’m curious, what is the brand/source of the organic masa harina that you found? I too was hoping to find organic but came up short. Does it come in a paper or plastic bag? I’m becoming less shy about asking my local grocery stores to stock items. Do you have a good co-op or independent grocer nearby?

  4. abby April 3, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    I haven’t tried them yet! We need to have a tortilla night soon. There are 2 recipes that I bookmarked to try. I particularly like the simplicity of ingredients in this one http://recipes.sparkpeople.com/recipe-detail.asp?recipe=821341

    and then this one – Whole grain flour tortillas – http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/whole-grain-flour-tortillas/ (the “all purpose gluten free flour” could be home made of course)

    The organic masa harina I found on Amazon, by Gold Mine Natural Foods. They have their own site as well, where you can purchase direct http://shop.goldminenaturalfoods.com/searchprods.asp They are based in San Diego. I don’t know if it comes in paper or plastic (we haven’t ordered yet) but they seem accessible, so a phone call should be easy.

    We have a small co-op and a very small independent natural grocer, both of which we frequent (pretty small town here). I special order a few things, but it has to be within the realm of what their distributors carry. I actually hadn’t thought to ask about organic masa, so thanks for the thought. If you try and like either of the recipes, it will be fun to hear. We are thinking about ordrering a cast iron pan just for the purpose of tortillas, as we tend to eat a lot of them and are trying to shift away from the last few packaged goods we purchase (we don’t cook in metal so don’t have any metal cookware, but I think it might be tricky to cook tortillas on glass).

  5. Tim McCormack August 6, 2013 at 2:36 am #

    I was pretty excited when a housemate brought a tortilla press back from Mexico, but after the first use we’ve been having trouble with dough sticking to the metal. Using cling wrap solved that, but that’s not a solution I want to keep using.

    I think what I’ll do in the future is find some more durable but flexible plastic to use a pressing surface, which is what I used before I had access to a press. (Put the dough between thin plastic cutting boards and use a rolling pin to flatten it.) Perhaps I just need to work on getting the right liquid content, though.

  6. Mia January 28, 2014 at 3:20 am #

    Hi Colleen,

    FYI I made my own flour tortillas using coconut oil instead of lard, and since that’s much easier to get in bulk I thought you might be interested. It worked really well I think because of the fact that it’s a saturated fat, and like lard it is solid at room temperature so it makes for a similar component.

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