How many centuries have cocinera made tortillas? What could be simpler? Why bother assuming you live in a location with sufficient demand that fresh tortillas are available every day? Experiments with risen bread is one thing, but flatbread made of corn – simple, right?
I’ve never made tortillas despite having gotten a press long ago. It’s too easy just to buy them, relatively fresh. But with my interest in bread plus reading Planet Taco I had to give them a try. Now unlike Alton Brown I wasn’t going to start with raw corn and make nixtamal, but somehow doing something more than just using masa harina seemed appropriate.
So I found a recipe that claimed to be the best homemade tortillas – simple, use a mixture of hominy and masa harina. But hominy, at least that which you buy canned in stores is not the same. For one thing it’s probably white corn. For another the germ is probably missing, off being grits you know.
So I searched a bit and discovered yellow hominy is available locally so I got a few cans, rather than buy some dried yellow hominy over the net, my other choice.
So the recipe is simple: equal parts (by volume) of hominy and masa harina, about 1/4 tsp of salt (for each 3 cups of dough) and 1 cup hot water. The recipe wanted 1 1/2 cups and implied > 1 can of hominy would be required, but after draining the hominy I had 3 cups (IOW, one can would have been sufficient). So I figured, just double the recipe. Instead of using water I mostly used the liquid drained off the hominy (possibly a mistake, perhaps pure water would have reduced the stickiness I got later).
After quite a bit of time in food processor (perhaps too much) the hominy was about as close to puree as I was going to get. So in went the masa harina (specifically for tortillas, not tamal) and the salt already dissolved in the water. This slightly overloaded my food processor and I got soup, a dough about the consistency of a poolish. Having seen various people make tortillas obviously my dough was too wet. So I probably increased masa harina by about 1/3, IOW, so now more like a 4:3 ratio. Then I had sticky glue.
I figured I still needed to firm this up a bit plus cool it down. So I added probably about 1/8th as much rough cornmeal (I wanted the added texture) as masa harina and hand stirred the whole gooey mess (definitely past the food processor’s capacity) and into the fridge for an hour. After chilling some the dough was just barely workable, definitely sticky, but with a little masa harina on my board and hands, now the dough made 40 balls of roughly the recipe’s required “golf ball” sizes.
Now onto cooking and the pressing. A great suggestion I found at another site was to use a freezer bag, cut in half. The heavier plastic of the bag was excellent, although I needed to trim it more to avoid it folding back into the press. But pure bag didn’t cut it for releasing the completed tortilla (in fact I had to scrape it off the bag). So next I tried pan spray, worked just fine, but I really didn’t want the oil so my wife suggested just dusting with flour. Didn’t work, in fact, it even glued the tortilla even more to the bag. So spray it was which probably slightly changed the cooking.
Now the next challenge – recipe called for medium high heat on my comal (just a cast iron griddle on gas cooktop) which was too much. So like crepes, a couple of botched ones and finally I’ve got the heat about right. And so my last issue, that the press produced seriously uneven thickness was partially solved by pressing a bit, rotating 180 degrees, and doing the full pressing.
The next challenge was getting the tortilla freed from the second layer of plastic and onto the griddle without being distorted. The grab-it-in-one-hand-and-whap-it-down (the technique my wife learned in Mexico in a cooking class) just didn’t worked for me so after various tries I finally could get most tortillas down smoothly on the griddle.
Sure enough they set up fast and you should flip them several times. Due to the uneven thickness I used my spatula to try to press down the thick side.
Now all this probably sounds silly, but remember this is my very first time doing this. Millions (maybe even billions) of tortillas are made ever day, not exactly hard by those with any practice. But these days most are done by machine and purely with prepared flour. Even the hand-made ones mostly use the bagged mix. I suppose somewhere there is someone still spending hours grinding the nixtamal by hand, but the mixture of hominy and prepared masa harina seems like a good compromise.
So after all this, how were they? Well, even though I’ve eaten in restaurants, esp. in California, where they make tortillas fresh in front of you, the taste was the best I’ve ever had. Loaded with corn (but not quite corn) flavor. The freshness was really in the taste too, plus the lack of all the machine-made extras. I actually doubt I’ve had a better tasting tortilla.
But the shape, texture, and especially thickness left something to be desired. My pressing and transferring to griddle was too erratic and so I didn’t get the nice uniform shape I should have, or, for that matter enough size for making anything but tacos or eating tortillas on the side (worked good enough, but these wouldn’t have done well for enchiladas). And they were definitely too thick, but simultaneously the edges (the thinnest part) a bit too crispy. The thickest part was bordering on other types of flatbreads in texture – while not as thick as pitas or naan, definitely that same texture.
So, simple conclusion – even with very simple ingredients this is a lot tougher than it looks. But I figure the pros have been doing it for years (sorta like competing with your southern grandmother making biscuits) so to have a reasonable product on the first try isn’t too bad. And the hominy approach seems to me to definitely be worth it over just using the masa harina mix, even with better technique.