Corn Tortillas

I have some significant food memories of freshly made corn tortillas! The first memory takes me back to a drive down the Baja Peninsula about 50 miles south of the California border. I was accompanied by my brother and another friend as we stopped for a bite to eat during our trip south to Ensenada. We stepped into a restaurant that was perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and promptly ordered lobster burritos (hey we were on the coast, in Mexico and in our early twenties…so why not?). We were amazed when the food trays came to our table: a platter of lobster, freshly made beans, tomato salsa, avocados, rice and of course freshly made corn tortillas. Everything was amazing…even for our tastes, but those tortillas really stood out. In fact, I can still smell them when I close my eyes.

The next memory takes me back to Mexico…only this time I’m in Puerto Vallarta. I was on holiday with some friends without a care in the world. Our mornings began with a stroll across the street to a tortilla factory, where they sold extremely fresh tortillas for…well, pretty much nothing. It was the first time I ate tortillas in the morning, along with scrambled eggs and probably some fresh Queso Oaxaca (again, I was young).

My third standout memory takes me to an island in the middle of Puget Sound in the USA’s Pacific Northwest. My wife and I were camping with my brother and his wife and we simply had to have some tacos…so, we made grilled tacos over the open fire filling them with whatever else we had on hand. The smell of toasted corn coming from the tortillas is still fresh in my mind, even though this memory occurred a few years ago.

Making your own tortillas is very simple, but you do need to source the masa harina, which should be simple to find if you are near a large city (or near Mexico). The flour is important because it has a distinctive flavor which comes from soaking dried and finely milled corn kernels in a solution of calcium hydroxide (sounds dangerous, but it really isn’t). You can use either yellow or blue masa harina for this recipe.

Makes about 8-10 tortillas

  • 200 grams (2 cups) masa harina (see tips)

  • 320 ml. (1 ¼-cups) warm water

  • ½ teaspoon sea salt

  • 1 tablespoon unrefined rapeseed oil (optional)

  • Mix the flour, water, salt and oil (if using) together and knead the dough until just barely sticky. The dough should be very smooth.  Cover with a damp towel and let the mixture rest for about 20 minutes.
  • Heat a skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. Pinch off a small ball of the dough (about the size of a golf ball – I like them to weigh about 45 grams or 1 ½-ounces) and place it in a tortilla press lined with baking paper.  Press down hard several times, then carefully peel off the tortilla and place it in the preheated pan.
  • Heat just long enough to dry one side, then flip and dry the other side (there should be just slight hints of black spots on the tortilla).
  • Keep warm between a towel and enjoy immediately.

Jack’s Fresh Tip

Masa harina should be relatively simple to find for most people. Look in markets specializing in Mexican or Latin American products, online or even in natural food stores. Remember, this is not simply corn flour. It is the dehydrated mixture of treated corn ground very fine like flour and mixed with water. It has a very distinctive flavor.

The oil is optional in the preparation of these tortillas. It lends a certain degree of viscosity to the tortillas that prevent them from cracking too much before and after cooking. The use of a fat is common in Mexico and Latin America – usually something like a hydrogenated fat. You can easily make this recipe without the oil if you prefer. You can also use extra virgin olive oil as an alternative.

To make the tortillas without a press, place the dough between two sheets of baking paper and roll out with a rolling pin or press down with the bottom of a heavy pot.

Enjoy corn tortillas when you have the urge to make a taco or burrito…or in the morning with a tofu scramble.

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