When El Milagro, Chicago’s finest maker of tortillas, announced last week that it was closing for two weeks, the city was rocked by despair. No one begrudged El Milagro’s reasons for the temporary shutdown—several employees had tested positive for the coronavirus and one had died, and so the owners decided the best course of action was a serious deep cleaning and to continue to pay the workers while they were off. It was just that everyone was sad that their favorite tortillas were going away. Even before the shutdown became official, panicked shoppers cleared grocery stores of their El Milagro stock. Sure, there are other corn tortillas in the world. But they’re just not the same.
For a taco-loving Chicagoan who also happens to write about food for a living, there was only one logical course of action: to learn how to make tortillas from scratch. I ordered a cast iron tortilla press from MexGrocer.com and began to investigate what I should do with it when it arrived.
The first thing I learned is that if I were really serious about making tortillas from scratch, I would buy dried field corn and nixtamalize it myself like all the best tortilla-makers have done since tortillas were invented. That means I would simmer the corn in a pot of water mixed with calcium hydroxide (known as “cal” in Spanish and “pickling lime” in English) and then let it soak overnight. Then I would remove the skin from each kernel of corn—the water bath should make this happen pretty easily—and then grind the corn in a mill. This is only way, according to Diana Kennedy, who has been the leading English-language expert on Mexican cuisine for the past 50 years, to produce tortillas worthy of the name. (Kennedy’s from-scratch corn tortilla recipe in The Art of Mexican Cooking runs seven pages.)
There were several roadblocks on this route to tortilla perfection. First, neither field corn nor cal were available in my neighborhood grocery stores, and the pandemic made it hard to source and expensive to purchase online. Second, I don’t own a mill. Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats worked out a method using a food processor, which I suppose I could have used... if only I had the corn and cal.
So I resorted to the two next best things. The first was Maseca, the pre-ground masa harina ubiquitous in supermarkets. Kennedy claims that most tortillas in the U.S. are made with Maseca, and this is why perfect tortillas north of the border are so few and far between. José Ralat, the taco editor of Texas Monthly, goes even farther in his new book American Tacos: A History and Guide: “Tortillas made from masa harina possess a chemical, bitter taste—if they have a taste at all—that seems to deaden any flavor that’s not corn. Unfortunately, it kills the corn’s aroma, too.”
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This made me depressed. Fortunately, my neighborhood grocery store is something of a Room of Requirement: sometimes, if I am desperate and look hard enough, an ingredient I need will magically appear. In this case, it happened to be a four-pound bag of premade masa dough from La Guadalupana, a local producer of tortillas and tamales. It was made with nixtamalized corn. Huzzah!
My tortilla press finally arrived one sunny afternoon and I went to the kitchen to get started. I mixed up a bowl of Maseca dough according to the instructions on the package (which corresponded to most of the recipes I found online and also the one Kennedy included in her book The Art of Mexican Cooking) and set it aside so the corn could absorb the water. Despite what Kennedy and Relat wrote, it smelled pretty corny to me. But I’m also used to working with wheat flour and gringo-style corn meal, not ground field corn, so maybe my sense of smell isn’t as sensitive as it could be.
I should say here that a tortilla press isn’t absolutely essential for making tortillas at home. Truly expert tortilla-makers in Mexico, the fabled abuelitas who have made tortillas their life’s work, know exactly how much to pat and stretch each lump of dough between their hands to create a perfectly even, thin, and round tortilla every time. (The magic number, according to Kennedy, is 33 strokes.) You can also use a rolling pin. But I really have to admit that the part of tortilla-making I was most looking forward to was flattening the dough with the tortilla press. It reminded me of the fun I used to have when I was a kid playing with Play-Doh. There’s something very satisfying in taking a pliable substance, putting into a simple machine, and then pulling a lever to change its appearance completely. Masa dough even feels like Play-Doh—or it should, when it’s properly prepared.
So I made half a dozen masa balls from the La Guadalupana dough. Then I lined the tortilla press with plastic so the masa wouldn’t stick—and yes, this is a perfectly authentic step, universal across tortilla recipes—put a ball on the lower plate, lowered the top, and pressed the lever. Unfortunately, I was so excited I forgot to put the plastic over the masa ball, so the finished tortilla stuck to the top of the press and fell apart when I tried to scrape it off.
But I got to do it again! And again! And again! Many, many more times, because I just stacked the tortillas on top of each other and when it came time to cook them, they all stuck together and there was nothing to do but repeat the whole process. The tortillas from my press were thicker than the tortillas from the store or from restaurants no matter how hard I pressed, but they were smoother and more even than they would have been if I’d used my hands or a rolling pin.
Traditionally, you cook tortillas on a griddle called a comal. In the olden days, Kennedy writes, a comal was made from glazed earthenware, and the surface had to be treated with a paste made from cal and water before it was ready for cooking over a wood or coal fire. But more recently, Mexican tortilla makers have been using recycled lids of old oil drums. Comals are also available for purchase from MexGrocer.com or anywhere else you can find a tortilla press. But I elected to use a cast iron skillet, which has always served me well in making flatbreads and heating up store-bought tortillas. There was some disagreement among the recipes I consulted about whether the pan should be oiled or dry. Since I had just seasoned mine, it still had a nice coat of oil on it, and I elected to let it be.
I dropped a tortilla in the frying pan. I cooked it for a minute on each side. I repeated the process with the next tortilla. The first were undercooked because the pan wasn’t hot enough and they tasted raw in the middle. But after a while, I got the hang of it. The ideal is leave it on the griddle until it develops a few brown spots and starts to puff up.
By then, the Maseca dough was ready. I pressed and cooked those tortillas up, too. Then I tried to decide whether I preferred La Guadalupana or Maseca. I ate a lot of tortillas while I tried to figure this out, but we all have to endure hardships in our work. The La Guadalupana tortillas tasted much more strongly of corn than the Maseca. They also had a more leathery surface, like the El Milagro tortillas I bought from the store. The Maseca tortillas were softer and milder, but I still liked them. They made a blanker canvas for the tacos I had for dinner the next night, but they were also more brittle and likely to break when I bent them.
Tortilla making, I have concluded, is one of those kitchen tasks, like dicing vegetables, that’s very easy to do, and also very easy to do badly. It doesn’t take much practice, though, to improve. Perfection, however, take a lifetime. But it’s not terrible to be mediocre at it. After all, when all’s said and done, you still have tortillas.
Tortillas From a Mix
- 2 cups masa harina (such as Maseca or Bob’s Red Mill)
- 1½ cups hot water (from the tap is fine)
- ½ tsp. kosher salt
Mix the masa harina, hot water, and salt together in a bowl until the dough comes together and then knead it a little bit by hand until it feels like Play-Doh. If it’s too dry, add extra water slowly, by the tablespoon. Cover the bowl with plastic or a dish towel and let it sit for 15-30 minutes so the masa harina fully absorbs the water.
Preheat your comal or a griddle or cast iron pan over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles and evaporates within two or three seconds. (Diana Kennedy recommends using a dark, nonshiny surface for a tortilla that isn’t dry or underdone.)
Break off a chunk of dough and roll it into a ball. For a four-inch tortilla, it should be approximately the size of a golf ball. Continue until you’ve used up all your dough.
Line a tortilla press with plastic (a Ziploc bag cut to open like a book works well). Place a ball of dough on the bottom plate. Make sure the dough is sandwiched between the pieces of plastic. Press the tortilla. Admire its perfect roundness.
Carefully pull the tortilla from the plastic with your fingertips—it will be fragile—and place it on the griddle. Cook for one minute on each side, or until it has brown spots and starts to puff up. (The time for this may vary, depending on your griddle and your stove.) Some tortilla recipes suggest flipping it after the first 10 seconds or flipping it three times (at 30 seconds, 60 seconds, and 30 seconds).
If you plan to eat your tortillas immediately, stack them in a tortilla holder or a bowl lined with a dish towel to keep them warm. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and reheat as needed in the microwave or on the griddle.
- Day-old tortillas (or older than that)
- Oil (vegetable or canola)
Cut the tortillas into wedges. Heat an inch or so of oil in a wide pot or deep skillet over medium-high heat until hot; when you toss a tortilla wedge in, the oil should bubble around it immediately. Cook the chips in batches for about a minute or so on each side, until they’re golden brown and puffy. (Watch them carefully and adjust the heat to make sure they don’t burn.) Use a slotted spoon or a spider to place them on a paper towel-lined plate or tray to drain the oil and sprinkle with salt to taste while they’re still hot.