Burritos may be one of the ultimate double-edged — ended? — foods. On one hand, you can put just about anything in them. On the other, you can put just about anything in them.
As you might expect me to say: You can do better, especially if you do it at home. Here are some things to consider before you get rolling:
The tortilla. I love a good corn tortilla, but in a burrito? No, thanks. As Christina Chaey points out over on Bon Appétit, corn and other grain tortillas are more likely to tear thanks to their drier texture. Flour tortillas are more pliable, not to mention larger. A 10-inch tortilla is ideal, and assuming you don’t typically bring a tape measure with you to the grocery store, look for labels that say large or burrito-size. My preferred brand, La Banderita, even makes a 12-inch “mega” size, although I stick with its smaller brethren. It helps to have the tortillas warmed slightly (via skillet, microwave or even oven) so that they are flexible enough for rolling.
The filling. “Everything can go in a tortilla,” says Louie Hankins, founder and owner of Rito Loco and El Techo in Washington. “We’ve done a salmon burrito before,” and even one with spaghetti and meatballs. No matter what you choose, try to make the ingredients as fresh as possible, Hankins advises, although I won’t be the one to discourage you from using your well-preserved leftovers, either.
When it comes to how much you put in, “less is better,” according to Hankins. Too much inside and you not only dilute the flavors but also risk a burrito that breaks or sheds filling with every bite. Try to limit your filling to 1½ cups for a 10-inch tortilla, Better Homes & Gardens says.
What your fillings are and the ratio you use is definitely a matter of preference. Hankins doesn’t like to bite into a heap of rice and beans (“We find that when you put all that extra stuff in it, you lose that kick of the freshness of the burrito,” he says), so at Rito Loco, the emphasis is on the meat or protein — 7 ounces of it to be exact, plus 3½ ounces of pico de gallo and 2 ounces of cheese. If you like rice and beans, try this formula offered by Peter Fox, one of the founders of Washington’s Burrito Brothers, in The Washington Post way back in 1998: ¼ cup salsa, ½ cup rice, ½ cup beans and ½ cup meat. Especially if your salsa is thin, you shouldn’t end up with too much filling to break the 1½ cup threshold (by much, anyway).
The flavors. If you’re going with the less-is-more approach, you want to get the most flavor into every bite. For Hankins, that means delicious meat marinades and sauces. Take the time to give your protein a quick dip, or throw together a blender tomatillo sauce, and you’ll be rewarded with something that tastes great. Plus, making your own sauce will give you extras for more burritos or other meals. I also like this tip from Sarah Larson at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, who suggests seasoning everything, including the rice, which you can jazz up with cumin, bay leaves or other spices. Making the rice with broth is another way to amp up the flavor. Fresh herbs — particularly cilantro, unless you are someone who can’t tolerate it — are a high-impact addition that won’t add too much bulk to your burrito. Pickled onions and jalapeños likewise pack a punch in a relatively small package.
The assembly. Now’s the time to slow down and put everything together. Think about your burrito layers. As food writer Joyce Dodson Piotrowski wrote in The Post in 1996, “even if you put a whole bunch of things in, because you add them layer by layer, not mixing them, you can taste the layers of flavor in every bite, and different flavors in each bite.” Because Hankins prefers his burritos longer and leaner as opposed to short and stubby, he likes making layers about the thickness of a pounded chicken breast. Cheese goes on first (and also at the end if you love cheese like I do) so that it can be closest to the hot skillet and pico de gallo last to keep it from getting the tortilla soggy.
Using warm fillings where appropriate (meat, vegetables, beans, etc.) isn’t just an indicator of freshly made ingredients. It will also make assembly easier. Warm ingredients placed on top of the cheese will help melt it in conjunction with the time you toast it in the skillet. They also mean you don’t have to worry about trying to heat the filling all the way through without burning the tortilla.
Of course, then there’s the matter of rolling. Different people have their preferred methods, but the principles are largely the same: Fold in the sides before rolling up for a secure pocket, and keep the roll as tight as you can so everything stays in place. I favor mounding the filling a bit off-center so that you have plenty of margin in the upper half of the tortilla when it comes time to the final roll and tuck of the tortilla underneath. This step-by-step photo gallery from the Kitchn illustrates the strategy well. Be sure to heat the burrito seam-side down first in the skillet (I’ve used both cast iron and nonstick with no problem over medium heat, each with a thin coating of oil,) so that it helps seal the burrito shut. No mess, no stress — and no need for a trip to that fast-casual shop.
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