Corn tortillas are a simple mixture of masa and water, but the art of preparing and cooking good tortillas is harder than it looks. Rick Ortiz from Chicago's Antique Taco explains the process. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)

The first time I worked with fresh masa, I was making tortillas for a Mexican feast that friends and I were preparing for New Year’s Eve. I had bought the dough from Moctec Mexican Products, the Landover company that specializes in transforming dried maize into fresh, fragrant masa. I was smitten on first sniff, even after paying nearly $10 for the five-pound bag of white corn masa.

Consciously or not, I had developed an opinion that fresh masa was virtually foolproof, far easier to turn into tortillas than dough made from masa harina, the corn flour available for about $3 for a four-plus-pound bag of Maseca. But as I pressed the dough into tortillas for the griddle, I quickly learned that this fresh product is not the masa equivalent of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, so magical that it’s immune to the physical laws of the universe.

No, fresh masa can produce frayed, dry, unforgiving tortillas just as easily as masa harina can. Both doughs, in short, require technique to achieve the supple, steamy, multi-layered round that can make or break your taco experience. I wholly endorse this statement from “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations” (Clarkson Potter, October 2015), the forthcoming cookbook from chef Alex Stupak and writer Jordana Rothman:

“The difference between a great taco and a crappy taco is in the tortilla,” they write. “It’s that vital.”

That one sentence encapsulates everything I’ve been railing against with Washington’s new wave of taquerias: You cannot prepare great tacos with tortillas pulled from a bag. But as with so many dough-based edibles, whether bread or pizza crust, tortillas are maddeningly difficult to make. The only true way to improve your skills is to put yourself in the hands of an expert and then practice, practice, practice.

I turned to cookbook author and television host Pati Jinich for help. I explained my New Year’s Eve masa mess and asked whether the fresh stuff requires specialized handling compared with dough made with masa harina. She said no, but then offered a confession: This native of Mexico prefers the taste of reconstituted masa harina over the full-throttle flavors of fresh masa. The former resonates deeply with Jinich; it represents home, family, childhood.

“To me,” Jinich said, masa harina “still tastes nurturing.”

The difference between doughs is obvious by sight, smell and touch. Rehydrated masa harina from Maseca — Jinich gives the flour 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup more water than the manufacturer suggests — feels like a cross between soft Play-Doh and wet, compacted sand. It smells like toasted corn and looks like horchata reduced to a semi-solid state. Fresh masa has a thicker consistency, more like potter’s clay, and it smells like slightly fermented corn syrup, especially if it sits out for 24 hours before you use it. It looks like brown butter ice cream spiked with the fattest vanilla seeds known to mankind.

A day before our New Year’s Eve bash, Moctec President Victor Vazquez Jr. showed me how the company makes its masa. Dried field corn — colorful varieties considered too hard and harsh for human consumption — are nixtamalized with an alkali solution of water and calcium oxide (known as the abbreviated “cal” in Mexico). The pre-Columbian process, dating back thousands of years to Mayan and Aztec civilizations, performs acts of magic that seem Márquez-esque: The solution loosens the outer layer of the kernel, called the pericarp, for fast removal; it transforms the starchy endosperm inside into a substance that can be easily ground and made into dough with the addition of water; and it improves flavor and unlocks important nutrients that our bodies otherwise couldn’t absorb with non-nixtamalized corn.

Depending on the manufacturer, masa harina follows the same nixtamalization steps, though some large producers have learned how to reduce the amount of water and energy required. But they take the process one step further by drying the masa into flour. Some argue that masa harina is not a whole-grain product because the germ is removed from the corn kernel to promote shelf-stability (a spokeswoman with Maseca told me its masa is germ-free), but the Whole Grains Council seems to give corn flour its blessing.


The basics: You need a tortilla press, scissors, two pieces of thin plastic. . . (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

. . . and a bowlful of masa, either fresh or made with masa harina and water. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

Fresh masa is “fluffier. It’s deeper. It just tastes better,” said Joe Raffa, former head chef at Oyamel in Penn Quarter, which buys dough almost daily from Moctec. Raffa has since been promoted to executive chef within ThinkFoodGroup, and he said that José Andrés’s company has been toying with the idea of making its own fresh masa. But the dough’s production requires a large amount of space, which Oyamel doesn’t have. “I don’t think we’ll ever completely replace Moctec,” Raffa said.

Given fresh masa’s resource-heavy production and ancient bloodlines, it’s not surprising that the dough is something of a prima donna, with the life span of a mayfly. I learned that when I took my “fresh” masa to Jinich’s home for a tortilla lesson. By the time we could meet, the dough was already three days old, the outer limits of its shelf life. (Oyamel, for example, won’t use the dough after 24 hours.) Worse, I had stored it in the refrigerator (which some advise, but I don’t), where it hardened into masa cement. Jinich reconstituted the dough with a little water and a lot of kneading.


The masa dough is rolled into balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The balls are flattened between the two pieces of plastic in the tortilla press. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

In the meantime, Jinich prepared a batch of dough with masa harina. Hydration is the key to both masas, she said. If your tortillas crack and fray at the edges while you’re pressing them, the dough is too dry, a common problem with masa rounds (and my problem back on New Year’s Eve). Just add water, a tablespoon at a time, until the tortillas look smoother and less frayed when pressed. (Don’t obsess about this: There will probably be minute fraying along the edges no matter how wet the dough.)

To form the rounds, Jinich used a cast-aluminum tortilla press and two rectangles of plastic cut from leftover supermarket produce bags. The thin sheets, large enough to cover the surface of the tortilla press, were perfect for compressing masa into 5-inch rounds without clinging too tightly to the dough. Jinich jiggled the handle when pressing the masa, wiggling the lever ever so slightly to the left and right. The technique, she said, makes for uniformly round tortillas of even depth. She pressed a 1 1/2 -inch ball of masa once until it was about half the size she desired. She then flipped the partly formed tortilla and pressed again until it was ready for the comal.


The disc of flattened masa is removed from the tortilla press. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The raw tortillas are ready for the preheated comal, or griddle. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The comal, or griddle, was preheated to medium or medium-low. If the griddle is not pre-heated, Jinich said, your tortillas will stick to the dry, oil-less surface. She removed the top sheet from a formed tortilla and used the bottom sheet to transport the round to the griddle. She then lightly placed the raw tortilla against the bottom half of her hand and removed the second plastic sheet. Then, with one swift movement, she laid the tortilla on the hot griddle, sweeping her hand out of the way like a magician at the culmination of a trick.

Jinich waited about 30 seconds before flipping the tortilla, then waited 60 seconds more before flipping it a second time. The only time she touched the tortilla was when she flipped it; otherwise the round remained undisturbed. After the second flip, the tortilla started to sport “freckles,” or small brown spots. It also started to puff up into layers. If it doesn’t puff, Jinich said, you can poke the tortilla with your finger, a technique called “teasing.” It activates the puffing process.

Once pressed, griddled, teased and puffed, the hot tortillas should be immediately placed in a warming container and eaten within 30 minutes, otherwise the endosperm starches start to harden, never to fully soften again, even when reheated.


The tortillas are cooked on both sides until they develop “freckles,” or small brown spots, and puff up. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

A tortilla that refuses to puff is “teased” with a finger, which activates the puffing process. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

At the end of the lesson, Jinich and I started comparing the tor­tillas made with fresh masa vs. those made with masa harina. There was no comparison. The tortillas made from fresh masa were sweeter and fuller, and had a pronounced minerality, a remnant of the nixtamalization process. The others seemed like copies of copies of the real thing. “It’s like they toned down everything,” said Jinich.

In the end, Jinich still sided with her beloved masa harina. “If we’re going to be really picky,” she said, “I don’t like the minerally taste” of fresh-masa tortillas.

Jinich will join the Free Range chat at noon Wednesday. To buy fresh masa from Moctec, call 301-386-9090; the company sells the dough in five-pound bags only: $9.60 for white-corn masa and $9.50 for yellow-corn masa.