How to Make Your Own Corn Tortillas with Masa Harina

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In anticipation of Cinco de Mayo next week, I bring you photos of my very own handmade tortillas!

I’d wanted to try my luck with homemade tortillas ever since I learned to make tamales with my friends from Mexico a couple of years ago. The desire was rekindled recently through my experimentation with Indian recipes (see my other food blog, America’s Test Chicken), where I gained experience making flatbreads.

So I acquired a fantastic machine for tortillas. I love this mechanical wonder!

It’s a tortilla press. Mine’s of cast iron, but you can get a lighter version of cast aluminum. I’ve seen these in JC Penney and, of course, on Amazon.com. Makes a GREAT weapon in case of intruders!

Before we had such things, people made tortillas by pressing the dough between their hands or by using a rolling pin. I’ve seen an enterprising woman use an empty wine bottle to roll them out. But it’s MUCH easier with a press, and a whole lot more fun.

First, a word about the dough. It’s made from ground corn, but not the cornmeal you know that’s used in cornbread. For real corn tortillas (not those hard, gum-ravaging yellow things you find in the kits), the corn is treated with lye – yes, I’m finding that this caustic chemical is used in food prep in multiple cultures. I encountered this in my research for my German pretzel recipe. Fortunately for us all, the lye is easily washed off and/or disappears during cooking.

Corn that is treated this way then ground is called masa (“dough” in Spanish), and it’s ground wet so that the dough is already formed. According to one of my beautiful new cookbooks, Tacos by Alex Stupak, one should always use freshly ground masa to make tortillas.

However, since I don’t have any lye or an industrial-grade corn grinder lying around and do not know any tortilla factories from which to acquire masa, I used masa harina (“dough flour”). This is sold in supermarkets (check the international food aisle) and Latin markets. Packaged just like flour, it’s the dehydrated form of masa. It’s also called Maseca because that’s the brand name you’ll see in the store, kind of like we say “Kleenex” to refer to all kinds of tissues.

Masa harina looks just like flour and white cornmeal, though the texture is different. It’s grainier than flour but finer than cornmeal. Here’s a shot of unbleached flour on the left, masa harina in the middle and white cornmeal on the right:

The only thing you have to do to masa harina is add water until it forms a dough you can then roll into balls:

You don’t add salt or any other ingredients, although Mr. Stupak gives variations such as adding beet juice, saffron or spinach. I haven’t tried anything like that – yet!

The dough takes much more water than I expected to hydrate it. A good starting point is 1 cup water to 1 1/2 cups masa. I added much more, probably 4 tablespoons or so. You’ll know it’s enough when the dough holds together, doesn’t stick to your hands and does not form small cracks when it’s squeezed. It has a weird, non-elastic consistency, like that of Play-Doh. And, when you work with it, it leaves a dry, grainy coating on your hands.

Now comes the fun part: Roll the dough into golfball-size spheres. The recipe here made about 8 or 9 tortillas. Cut a freezer bag on two sides so that you have a folding piece of plastic. Place this plastic on the press. Put a dough ball in the center of the tortilla press and mash it into a disk:

Then, keeping your fingers and toes inside the ride at all times, close the hinged side over the dough and use the handle on the opposite side to press the dough flat:

Tip: Hold the handle down firmly for two or three seconds before releasing it. This gives the dough time to expand all the way, resulting in larger, thinner tortillas. It’s actually kinda weird the way the dough creeps outward, but it’s totally safe!

When you open the press, you have a raw tortilla, magically pressed to the right diameter (about 7 or 8 inches) and thickness (about 1/8 inch):

Now you have to pick up the plastic with one hand and turn the tortilla over into your other hand. Peel away the plastic. Lower the top of your hand parallel to the surface of a cast-iron skillet or griddle preheated over medium-high heat. Tilting your hand, allow an edge of the tortilla to touch the hot surface then slide your hand out from under the round.

Cook the tortilla for only about a minute then flip it over with a spatula. You’ll see random scorch marks on the cooked side. It will puff up a little after you turn it.Cook for a minute or two more then it’s ready to fill and eat! And corn tortillas should be eaten fresh. I found it interesting that freshly made tortillas have two layers that can come apart, kind of like pita bread.

I might mention here that this press can be used to make flour tortillas as well, which I have yet to try. Same process, though.

Corn tortillas should not be reheated because they become brittle. Those made with flour can be reheated without much change. Many methods can be used to keep fresh ones warm, but by far the best way is to use one of the cloth tortilla warmers like this one:

Though it doesn’t match my kitchen decor AT ALL, it will keep fresh tortillas warm for about an hour and a half. You can use clean dish towels or plastic or terra cotta containers, but none measure up to the effectiveness of this thing. In addition, you can reheat cold flour tortillas inside it in the microwave.

If you want to be able to make corn tortillas a little in advance without them getting cold and/or soggy, you can’t beat the cloth warmer. There’s an opening at one end and you just slide the cooked tortillas inside as they are done.

This warmer is the same brand as my tortilla press, Imusa. This brand was founded in Colombia and is now based in south Florida. It is used extensively by the Latin community for their kitchen tools; it’s the exclusive brand offered in the bodega around the corner from me.

Speaking of Imusa, some time I might post pictures of my famous guacamole made in my newest toy that just arrived:

In Mexico, the mortar (bowl) is called a molcajete and the pestle is tejolote. Anyone who knows me will understand how excited I am to learn these terms in the original language.

So, happy Cinco de Mayo! I hope you get some inspiration from this post to try tortillas or anything new in the kitchen! I wouldn’t be steering you wrong to recommend my sangria recipe, either – Olé!

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