Proficiency in Italian and counted cross-stitch are two things I thought I might learn during quarantine. I don’t know what happened to all those months, but I can’t speak Italian and I haven’t sewn one stitch. Instead, I spent my time learning to make some of our favorite foods. First on the list: flour tortillas.
For the past several years, I have traveled a Tour de Texas, teaching for the Central Market Cooking School. Central Market is owned by HEB, a grocery chain that serves much of the state, and its tortilla is the standard by which I measure all others. Leaving Texas, I would pack my suitcase with tortillas for my home freezer. (There are a number of options, but the butter tortilla is my hands-down favorite.) Five months ago, around the middle of April, I defrosted the last package.
The time had come to teach myself to make a flour tortilla just like that one — light and airy, chewy, sturdy enough to hold fillings and packed with flavor. A good tortilla is the very reason I make sure there are leftovers. I look forward to lunchtime, when I warm a fresh tortilla over the flame of my gas stove, charring it a little, and then wrap it around last night’s dinner. Some mornings, I can’t think of anything until there are soft scrambled eggs, crumbled cotija, salsa and hot sauce wrapped up in a warm tortilla. Got chorizo? That’s a weekend breakfast burrito classic.
To find a path to the ideal tortilla, I consulted cookbooks on my shelves, from Diana Kennedy’s “Essential Cuisines of Mexico” to Enrique Olvera’s “Mexico From the Inside Out,” where I learned about the origins of the Sonoran flour tortilla. I pored over Alex Stupak’s “Tacos” and Lisa Fain’s “The Homesick Texan Cookbook” to see how the tortilla was interpreted. I searched online for recipes from bloggers and from aggregators. After dozens of variations on the theme, I learned that the tortilla, from book to book, site to site, is made with a consistent ratio of 4 parts flour, 1 part water, and ½ part fat. The only outlier? Baking powder.
Over the course of several weeks, I tested different flours, including one from a small mill in southern Texas that was recommended on a subreddit. (The tortilla rabbit holes were extraordinary.) The best results, consistently, were tortillas made with bread flour, as recommended in Kennedy’s book. All-purpose flour lacks the proteins to form a sturdy tortilla. High-gluten flour made a tough tortilla. Bread flour made a chewy, light tortilla and a stretchy dough that rolled out gloriously into thin-as-air rounds.
I made tortillas with warm water, which helped the fat and flour mix smoothly. I tried Fain’s recipe that called for milk instead of water, and it added flavor to dough made with shortening.
Once I had the flour and liquids sorted, I started swapping out fats. An all-butter tortilla is delicious and flavorful, and when warmed, its aroma is reminiscent of buttered toast. The dough is a little tricky, though. When I mixed shortening and butter, the tortilla retained the buttery flavor and the dough was more workable.
Lard is the classic addition to the Sonoran tortilla, so I tried leaf lard (which I keep around for pie crusts) and made a porky, silky tortilla. Because so few households have readily available lard, I tried bacon fat, too. This was my favorite, particularly as it contained tiny, crispy bits of bacon. Duck fat was terrific, too. My husband, a vegetarian, preferred the butter-and-shortening tortilla. Any of these fats will make a delicious tortilla. Use what you have.
After weeks of experimentation, I called Mexican chef Pati Jinich, cookbook author and the award-winning host of “Pati’s Mexican Kitchen,” whose eighth season just premiered on PBS, focusing on Sonora. I had done my research and needed confirmation, some tips, and more than anything, intel about that baking powder (which I thought made tortillas too caky).
Jinich confirmed that the ingredients for a traditional tortilla made in Sonora, the land of flour tortillas, are flour, water and lard or beef suet. “When they make it with the beef lard, there are little crispy bits and it’s just delicious.” I shared my bacon fat revelation and we both said “Yum” at the same moment. She thinks the baking powder was a Texas twist, possibly to account for differences in the flour when the tortilla crossed the border.
To cook tortillas — and so much more — Mexican kitchens are equipped with a comal, or griddle. If you don’t have one, heat a dry cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Every stove is different, and depending on how thin your dough has been rolled, the heat and timing will need to be adjusted.
Making tortillas is straightforward. I mix the dough and let it rest so it won’t fight back when rolled. I use a dowel to roll out each tortilla much thinner than I could ever achieve with a pin, so thin I can see my hand through it, then transfer it quickly to the hot, dry griddle.
After I griddle each tortilla, I wrap it in a tea towel. It will steam, stay warm and flexible, and be there to welcome the other tortillas as you roll, griddle, flip, and stack them, too. Please do not miss the chance to take the last one off the stack, butter it and eat it while it’s so hot it’s steaming.
Keep the tortillas wrapped in a towel right on the kitchen counter, incorporating them into your meals during the day. Jinich and I discussed longer storage (although she says in her household full of growing kids, it’s not an issue.) At the end of the day, she says, any remaining tortillas should stay wrapped in the towel, slipped into a zip-top bag and refrigerated. They won’t last more than a couple of days. She is no fan of freezing tortillas, and I’ll admit the homemade ones do not freeze as well as the Central Market tortillas, but it can be done.
For breakfast burritos, taquitos or soft tacos (and never, says Jinich, “for tostadas or enchiladas, which are only made with corn tortillas”), if you have a gas stove, reheat the tortilla directly over the flame until slightly warmed, about 10 seconds. Flip and warm the other side for another 10 seconds. Without an open flame, heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet and toast the tortilla on a dry hot surface until pliable and warmed through, about 20 seconds per side.
I’ll get back to Central Market someday, and I’ll fill my suitcase with tortillas again. Until then, you’ll find me making fresh tortillas at home. Not only will we be enjoying quesadillas and burritos, now that I’ve talked to Jinich, I can’t wait to make a griddled sincronizada with ham, refried beans, Oaxacan cheese and chorizo layered between two tortillas.
Storage: The tortillas made with butter, vegan butter and/or shortening can be stored at room temperature, tightly wrapped, for up to 4 days; the tortillas made with animal fats will keep for up to 2 days. Warm the tortillas directly over a gas stove’s open flame for 10 seconds per side or on a hot ungreased griddle or skillet for 20 seconds per side. Frozen, the tortillas will keep for 2 months. Defrost and reheat as usual.
- 4 cups (500 grams) bread flour
- 8 tablespoons (113 grams) rendered lard, bacon or duck fat, slightly cold (see NOTE for substitution suggestions)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup (240 milliliters) warm water
Place a large plate and a clean tea towel near the work surface.
In the bowl of the stand mixer, combine the bread flour and the lard, the butter or the combination of shortening and butter. Add the salt and water. Set the bowl on the mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, and turn to medium speed, mixing for 2 minutes, until the dough is soft and smooth. (If making the tortilla dough by hand, mix the flour and fat together in a large bowl. Using your fingers, work the fats into the flour until pebbly, then pour in the water and work with your hands until the ball of dough comes together and the sides of the bowl are clean. Remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until silky and smooth, about 8 minutes.)
Lightly dust the work surface with flour. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and divide into 12 equal pieces, each weighing about 65 grams. (If your skillet is less than 9 inches in diameter, divide the dough into 14 balls, about 55 grams each.)
Working with one piece of dough at a time, flatten it into a disk and pull in the edges to form a ball. Lightly roll the ball under your palm until smooth and round and place on the reserved plate, seam side down, draping with the tea towel. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces. Let the dough rest for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.
Heat an ungreased 9-inch or wider griddle or skillet over medium heat. Have a large plate covered with a clean tea towel next to the stove. The griddle or pan is ready when a few drops of water tossed on the surface sizzle and evaporate immediately.
Lightly dust the work surface with flour. Working with one dough ball at a time, flatten it into a disk and flour it on both sides. Flour a dowel or a rolling pin and roll the dough, turning and flipping it over so it does not stick, until you get an 8-inch wide disk thin enough to see your hand through it (see NOTE for troubleshooting).
When the tortilla is rolled out, drape it over your hand and transfer carefully to the griddle or skillet. Do not allow it to pleat or fold. Carefully, lower it onto the hot surface. The edges will immediately start to cook, changing from translucent to opaque, rising off the surface. You might hear sizzles or pops as the tortilla blisters across the surface; after about 1 minute, use a spatula to lift and flip it over. There should be a scattering of browned freckles on what is now the top of the tortilla.
Carefully and lightly, use your fingertips to tap the tortilla here and there to encourage air bubbles in any areas that haven’t blistered. Cook until the underside is freckled with brown dots, 1 to 2 more minutes, and transfer to the towel-draped plate. Wrap the tortilla in the towel to keep it warm and to slightly steam it. If tortillas darken too quickly, raise and lower the heat to maintain a proper temperature in the pan.
Repeat with the remaining dough balls, rolling out each tortilla, carefully placing it on the hot surface and flipping as it lightly freckles, blisters and puffs up. As each tortilla is cooked, stack it on top of the cooked tortillas in the tea towel, and rewrap so they stay soft and pliable. If any residual flour from the tortillas starts to burn in the pan, roll up a kitchen towel and carefully wipe the pan clean between tortillas.
Serve right away or place the towel-wrapped tortillas into a plastic bag (do not seal) and let cool completely before refrigerating. If freezing the tortillas, remove the towel beforehand.
Substitutions: In place of lard, you could use 8 tablespoons (113 grams) slightly cold unsalted butter or vegan butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Alternatively, you could use 4 tablespoons (56 grams) vegetable shortening and 4 tablespoons (56 grams) slightly cold unsalted butter or vegan butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
Troubleshooting: If your tortilla is turning out more amoeba-shaped than round, embrace the irregularity. It takes practice and skill to roll out perfect circles. If your tortilla cracks at the edges while griddling, the dough is too dry. Weighing the flour and fats will help with dough consistency. If the tortilla, after rolling, is sticking to the work surface, it’s too wet. Generously dust the work surface with flour before rolling the tortilla. Generously dust the dough round. After rolling, brush away the excess flour from the tortilla with a dry pastry brush before transferring the tortilla to the griddle.
Calories: 235; Total Fat: 10g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 9mg; Sodium: 94mg; Carbohydrates: 30g; Dietary Fiber: 1g; Sugar: 0g; Protein: 5g.
From food writer Cathy Barrow.
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to email@example.com.
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