Is there any Tex-Mex entrée that can’t be improved with the addition of a warm tortilla?
The answer, in our expert opinion, is no. Whether they’re used to mop up the extra sauce and melted cheese on your plate or as a convenient vessel for rice, beans, or other messy foods, tortillas are an essential part of Tex-Mex cooking—so much so that a connoisseur of this type of cuisine should probably know how to prepare them from scratch, or at least have an idea of what goes into their creation.
Tortilla recipes can be found online pretty easily, so we’re not going to get into specifics in this post. We are, however, going to offer some broad advice to help get you started. Read on to take your first steps into the wonderful world of homemade, hand-crafted tortillas!
Decide on Dough
First things first: you’ll need to decide whether you want to make corn tortillas or flour tortillas. Both are delicious, of course, but some are better suited for certain dishes than others (e.g., burritos favor flour tortillas, while tacos and enchiladas traditionally utilize corn). You can stick to one or the other, or make both at the same time. It’s important to differentiate between the two, though, since their ingredients are noticeably different:
- For flour tortillas, you’ll need all-purpose flour, water, salt, baking powder, and lard. Some folks prefer to use butter, vegetable shortening, or even olive oil instead of lard (especially if they have some sort of dietary restriction), but lard is the traditional fat source, and it typically yields a richer-tasting final product.
- For corn tortillas, you’ll need masa harina, salt, and water. Masa harina is a kind of flour made by soaking corn kernels in limewater, drying them, and grinding them up. This soaking process changes the corn on a structural level, so do not try to use regular cornmeal instead! Masa harina can be purchased at most large grocery stores; it’s generally located in either the “baking needs” or “ethnic foods” sections. Fun fact: corn tortillas are naturally gluten-free!
Corn tortillas utilize fewer ingredients and don’t require as much vigorous kneading as their flour-based cousins, so they’re (arguably) a little easier to make. Still, if you strongly prefer flour tortillas over corn, don’t feel like you have to start with corn and work your way up to flour. Just dive right in, and you’ll almost certainly be fine!
Consider a Tortilla Press
It is possible to roll out tortillas using your hands or a rolling pin. However, if you really want super-thin, wonderfully round tortillas, you’ll probably need to invest in a tortilla press. These handy devices are usually made of metal and include a handle or lever to help you squish the dough balls quickly, evenly, and easily. They’re very convenient if you’re making dozens of torts at once.
Tortilla presses aren’t particularly difficult to find online, and many kitchen supply stores carry them, too. They also don’t have to be incredibly expensive, especially if you seek out one that’s (1) strictly functional instead of artisanal, and (2) only large enough to make one tortilla at a time. A simple aluminum tortilla press, for example, can often be obtained for around $20. A cast iron one will probably cost closer to $30.
Regardless of the press’s composition, plan to utilize sheets of waxed paper or a cut up, food-safe plastic storage bag while making your tortillas. Sandwiching the dough balls between two pieces of your chosen material (instead of just using a naked press) will help prevent the dough from sticking to the press plates and make the cleanup process significantly easier.
Don’t Give Up
It can be really, really frustrating to roll (or press) out a beautiful, picture-perfect tortilla, only to watch it crumple or tear when you try to peel it off of the waxed paper. The same thing goes for when you stack the torts in preparation of pan-searing them and the darn things stick to each other. These problems happen to tortilla-makers of all skill levels, and they can be aggravating enough to turn folks off of the process completely.
Before you throw your press out the window (and subsequently crack the skull of anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time), though, take a deep breath. Remember that your tortillas don’t have to be absolutely perfect, especially if this is your first time making them at home.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with common issues:
- Cooking is an art, not a science, which means that you may have to make adjustments to the recipe that you’re following. If your dough is too crumbly, it probably needs a little more water. If it’s too sticky, it probably needs more flour or masa harina. Add more ingredients accordingly, and be sure to knead the dough for a few minutes between additions to better facilitate absorption.
- If your tortillas keep sticking (and subsequently ripping) when you try to remove them from the waxed paper, try using a thin rubber or silicone spatula to lift up the edges of the tort. Once the sides are unstuck, the rest of the tortilla will usually peel away easily. While it may be worth re-rolling and re-pressing a tortilla that’s torn practically down the middle, one that leaves a small sliver behind on the paper will be good enough to suit most purposes. Roll the leftover sliver back into the remaining dough and keep going!
- If you find yourself needing to stack the raw tortillas in order to save counter space, be sure to place a piece of waxed paper or plastic between each tort and pile them up gently. Stacking with care will help prevent sticking and splitting.
- Homemade tortillas, when stored properly in the refrigerator, will still feel and taste “fresh” for at least three days after being cooked. If you’re planning on wowing guests with homemade tortillas at an upcoming party, consider making your torts the day before the event so that you won’t feel a need to rush your preparations.
Now, we’re not trying to say that you can’t call yourself a lover of Tex-Mex food if you can’t mix dough and press tortillas in your sleep. Not everyone enjoys cooking, and the folks who do enjoy cooking are allowed to have entrées that they don’t enjoy preparing. Thus, there’s no shame in deciding that you’d rather just buy ready-made tortillas rather than make them at home. At Mattito’s, we’ve always got plenty for our guests to eat their fill!
However, if this post—or your love of eating tortillas in restaurants—has piqued your interest, we strongly encourage you to give homemade tortillas a try. After all, the best kinds of experiments are the ones that yield edible results!