A package of fresh corn tortillas is a blank canvas for the home cook. But after the glory days of tacos and quesadillas pass, when the chips and chilaquiles have had their due, after the sun sets on tostadas, migas, and flautas nights, there always will be a couple sad, old tortillas left to wither in the back of the fridge.
Well, dust off your stale tortillas, folks. I’ve got a plan for them, and it’s called soup. Most people think of tortilla soup as a chicken-based soup that’s garnished with a small helping of fried tortilla strips. However, there are plenty of recipes that instruct you to stir in cornmeal, toss tortillas in the broth as a thickener, or puree the soup, tortillas and all. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and regardless of how you skin cats, avoid using them to thicken your soup because stale tortillas are a much better option.
The number of tortillas you use depends on how thick you want your soup to be. If you’re worried about making it too thick, start with just a couple tortillas (less than one per serving of soup). This thickening method takes a few minutes so you can easily add more if the resulting broth is too thin.
Here are the basic steps for thickening soup with corn tortillas:
- Toast the tortillas to add flavor. Here’s my logic: a piece of toast is always better than a piece of stale old bread, right? If the tortillas aren’t that stale, then maybe you don’t need to toast them. Toasting will increase the length of time needed to make them dissolve. Because the tortillas will disappear into your soup, it doesn’t matter how you toast them or how toasted they become, but avoid burning them. You can pop them in a toaster oven, bake them in the oven for a few minutes, or do whatever’s most convenient for you.
- Soak the tortillas in hot liquid. I usually tear my tortillas and place them in a bowl. Then I ladle some of my soup broth over the bowl. Give them a couple minutes to soften and absorb liquid, then use a blender or food processor to puree the tortillas and soaking liquid into a slurry. If you don’t have a blender or the like, you can whisk the tortillas into a slurry. It’s likely to have tiny tortilla pieces remaining. Even blending your tortilla slurry will leave some granules. If they cook in the soup pot for long enough, they should disappear.
- Stir the corn tortilla slurry into your soup until completely combined. The thickening effect happens quickly; if you decide you want an even thicker soup, simply repeat these steps with more tortillas. You could also cook the soup with the lid off the pot for a while to reduce the water content, or puree all the contents of the soup to make a thick broth.
One final note: simply replace the word “tortillas” with the word “bread” and the steps outlined above still apply. Tortilla soup’s Iberian cousin is named gazpacho.