Hey erryboddy! It’s TACO TUESDAY and that means we survived another Monday. It’s true; even during shutdown, when one day melds into another, I still don’t like Mondays. Thus, watching the back end of Monday toddle off into the sunset means we celebrate! With the noble taco and by default, the corn tortilla.
What is this delicious wrapper, this pliable disc of corny goodness that delivers tacoliciousness unto my plate? The tortilla, which literally means “little cake”, is an ancient food. Excavations have found that corn tortillas were already being made at least as far back as 3000 BCE, and may have been eaten thousands of years earlier. Once agriculture developed and the first villages formed, it didn’t take humans long to start working on corn tortillas and, by extension, tacos.
Corn was central to the Mesoamerican experience. Modern corn is a descendant of the plant teosinte, which can still be found in Mexico. Human interaction changed the crops from a plant with broad leaves but narrow tassels, that look more like modern wheat, into the large-cob, large kernel plants we know and love. If all of this seems rushed, it’s because I’m trying to cram about 7,000 years of agricultural history into a few short paragraphs. I recommend The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell for an in-depth and fascinating look at one of history’s most important crops.
Our Mesoamerican forbears figured out, in the corn-development process, that processing tough kernels in water treated with ground (slaked) lime–the rock, not the fruit–softened the tough outer hull of the corn and made it more edible. As an added bonus, this process, called nixtamalization, unlocks the niacin in the corn and helped those clever Aztecs to avoid the deficiency disease pellagra. Don’t Google images if you’re eating. Masa harina, the flour in tortillas, is ground from nixtamalized corn, and is noticeably finer and softer than standard corn meal. Which makes sense. They’ve had thousands and thousands of years to get it down.
Making tortillas is easy. Not open-a-bag-and-have-them-fall-in-your-lap easy, but still. Not hard. I’m not even going to do a special .pdf for the recipe; it’s that simple.
- 2 cups masa harina
- 1.5 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt (optional)
This will make about 15-16 tortillas; if you want to dial it back a little just reduce the amount of ingredients but keep the ratio intact. 1.5 cups of masa to 1.25 cups water will give you about 12 tortillas. And so on. And you don’t even have to add salt. I just like it.
The first thing you need to do, natch, is mix your dough. Just combine all two or three of the things and stir together. Check the consistency of the tortilla dough; it should be nice and soft, kind of pinchable, but not sticky. Kind of like a sugar cookie.
Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let the dough rest for about 15 minutes. Divide the dough into roughly golf-ball-sized balls, and keep the dough you’re not tortillafying under the plastic so it doesn’t dry out while you work. Crumbly tortilla dough WILL NOT WORK.
If you have a tortilla press, lay a piece of plastic wrap (or a sandwich baggie, split) over the plates of your press, to prevent the tortilla from sticking to the press itself. If you don’t have a tortilla press you can flatten it down with your hands and then roll it with a pin until it’s nice and thin. When I lived in San Antonio I got to watch abuelas pat out tortillas with their hands–no rolling pin, no press. And they were perfect. I don’t have those skills, nor do I have an abuela. Luckily for me, I have a tortilla press.
Look at him go!
Take that beautiful, flat tortilla and put it down in the pan you’ve got ready, warming up over a medium heat, without oil. What, no cooking oil?
No, that will crisp your tortilla, and you’re not looking to fry your shells at all here. If you were making tostadas you’d be on point, but you want these to remain soft and pliable. Anyway. Into the pan!
Super-traditional chefs (I’m looking at you, Rick Bayless) will tell you to have a second pan cooking at a hotter temperature so when you go to flip this beautiful tortilla, it will create a bit of a puff, which is a nice idea. If you don’t have the energy or resources to run a second burner or pan, just flip in the very same pan.
Though I do claim sole access to the George-please-flip-that-tortilla method. Stack your finished tortillas, cover them with a lint-free kitchen towel, and let them steam together while you cook your entire batch. This will help keep them soft for dinner.
And of course, the moment of truth comes through in the eating. What’s the biggest dilemma about tacos? That they fall apart? Crack down the middle? That they’re delicious but can be a total pain? That they’re hardly a hand-held food when they always split?
Well get a load of this.
Look at that. A little crisped around the edges. Totally bendy. Successfully holding my fillings in place, and sorry/not sorry, cilantro haters. Did I mention that it tasted better, and more fresh, than anything I’ve gotten in the stores for the last…all of my life? But wait, wait, check it out. This is just at the beginning of my dinner. What about a few bites in, what then? Can these tortillas withstand the combined force of teeth and hot food and wet food soaking into it?
Also, the filling is a chorizo-flavored seitan (or “fauxrizo”, as I like to call it), so it’s still meaty and delicious AND vegetarian. Vegan, if you don’t put cheese in your tacos, but I will *always* put cheese in my tacos unless circumstances do not permit.
So yes, get thee to a grocery store and pick up a bag of masa harina. And pour some water. Really, that’s all you need for delicious, homemade tortillas. And then you can get all sniffy and be like, “Of COURSE I made it myself.” And don’t wait for Tuesday to make this. As far as I’m concerned, every day is Taco Tuesday; you just need to carry that in your heart.