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!
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.
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.