Corn tortillas are my comfort food. I use them as carrying cases for simple, satisfying meals and I use them a lot. They are a mainstay on my lazy Sunday breakfasts and always around when it’s time for a feast.
Part of that comfort factor comes from having them in my fridge at all times. While not as resilient as Twinkies, they can hold up for a time if properly wrapped in the fridge. Best part, if they do happen to get funky, I can walk a block to the Mexican market, plop down a dollar, and get a stack of 30. It's almost unfair how cheap they are.
So, why then am I making corn tortillas if they happen to be one of the simplest, cheapest, and tastiest pleasures I have? Well, because Rick Bayless told me so:
“Fresh-baked corn tortillas are, like fresh-baked bread, one of life’s greatest pleasures. And, like an authentic French baguette, corn tortillas go stale just hours after being griddle-baked... So at least once, have the full experience when you’ve got time to track down the fresh-ground corn masa (or powdered masa harina) and have laid your hands on a tortilla press.”
With the hint of better things beyond, I decided to take the plunge and make them fresh, even if that meant ruining one of my life’s simple pleasures.
Luckily, the recipe is basic: I just needed corn masa (or masa harina), water, and a tortilla press. The list made the flour tortillas Blake and I made a while back look like haute cuisine.
Corn masa is made from corn soaked in lime water. That mineral solution removes the the skins from the corn kernels and also adds some much needed health benefits. Bayless suggest picking some up at a tortilla factory, but I couldn’t find one. My local Mexican grocery store didn’t have any idea what I was talking about, though in all fairness, my Spanish is atrocious.
I did find a recipe for recreating the process myself, but bailed because corn is not really in season and it looked mighty hard. I did easily track down masa harina, though. While it might not be completely ideal, it is, like regular flour, easily stored and available whenever I’m ready. Some day I'll get a step further, but for now, one down.
Water would be easy enough, so sow I just needed a tortilla press. Two poor years ago, all Blake and I could scrounge up was an empty Corona bottle to flatten out the tortillas. I believe I’ve moved up since then. I set off for my local Mexican grocery store to find a contraption whose only purpose in life was to squash some tortillas.
And this is what I found. It looked solid enough in the dim afternoon light of the store. It had a big lever for pressing down the dough. How could it fail? It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the clunker for what it was. I could have made this junk in high school shop class.
Maybe I was overreacting. Who was I to judge the merits of something I’d never used before? Maybe this funky looking thing could flatten something.
Like I said before, there really isn’t any secret to the recipe. Every one I found consisted of just two ingredients, masa harina and warm water, and all called for roughly the same proportion between the two. It is 1 1/2 cups of masa harina to 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of warm water. That’s easy. What did differ was the wait after the two ingredients had been combined. Bayless asked for 15 minutes, while one asked for an hour, and one wanted no time at all.
Somewhere in there was the truth. How long do you have to wait to make a better taco?
I cut the recipe in thirds, and started with the hour-wait one. I mixed the masa and water and then kneaded everything into a ball.
I wrapped it ins plastic wrap and left it out on the counter. After 45 minutes I made the 15 minute version. When the buzzer went off, I finished up with the no-wait batch.
Meanwhile, I prepared my cooking station. Though I encountered a few different methods, Bayless recommended a two step process. I probably should have looked for other recipes, but I’ve yet to be let down by the man.
He sets one skillet over medium heat and another one over medium-high. The freshly pressed tortilla goes on the medium skillet for thirty seconds. When done it is tossed back to the hotter skillet for another thirty. It’s flipped on the same skillet and cooked for a final thirty seconds.
About those tortillas. I placed two square pieces of plastic on the press, one on the bottom and the other on top. This will keep the dough from sticking to the wood.
The hardest part about making fresh ones is getting them the right thickness. A weak press will leave them thick and doughy, which is completely distracting to the taco eating process. I like mine thin and pliable and that’s where my little wooden friend finally showed his flaw. To get the tortilla the right thickness I had to lean my entire body weight atop the flimsy handle. I was under constant fear of breakage and massive fracturing splinters. It was serious. I’m looking at scoring one of those nice cast iron ones here in the next week or so, because this was a chore.
But it can be done. After a few seconds of teetering atop the wooden monstrosity, I managed to flatten the dough into perfect circles that were ready to be cooked.
The cooking sounds easy, but coordinating such meticulous flipping is harder than it sounds. I think the method is right on, but relying more on your senses might make it a less stressful time.
I made a fantastic chorizo, potato, and mushroom filling, and Abby and I sat down to taste-test the three different versions.
The differences were subtle. None of the tortillas disintegrated immediately upon contact with the filling. In fact, the biggest problems were directly associated with how thick the tortillas were, not how long they had waited to be cooked.
That said, the hour wait did infuse the tortillas with a more pronounced corn flavor and made them a bit sturdier. Great, then. The longer they wait the better...right? Unfortunately, that also meant they were harder to squash and thus less likely to be a better tortilla. That's all negated, of course, if you have a proper tortilla press and not one of these lumbering guys.
The no-wait tortillas were more consistent, though they didn't have the full corn flavor that the hour or even the fifteen minute version did. A very passable version can be made quickly. But if you wait and have the right equipment, you'll definitely be rewarded.
Not a complete revelation like Bayless had promised, though, in fairness, I didn’t have the fresh masa. I'm not even sure if the stuff I bought was the right kind of masa harina. But it did work, and was so easy I've made it twice since then. I probably won't be tossing out my stack of tortillas from the fridge, but it is a nice splurge when I have the time. Now, if I can only get one of those nice presses.