Freshly made tortillas have the potential to completely change your cooking game, taking you from the playground of bland, store-bought, flour flats to the big leagues of big corn flavors and wonderfully soft dough textures. What follows is a basic corn-tortilla recipe with a shocking twist: the use of corn stock instead of water. If you don’t already have corn stock in the freezer (we wrote up a mock recipe a while ago) just use water and you’ll be making regular corn tortillas. Those are still great, though I really dig the roasty, sweet, hyper-corny flavor of the stock-based ones. Whenever I have extra corn stock, I’ll be saving a few cups for them.
Makes ~16 tortillas
Place the masa harina and the salt in a large mixing bowl and stir with a fork to combine. Add about 1 cup of the stock while folding/mixing with a spatula. Once the dough is sort of coming together (it’ll still be very dry and rough) switch to kneading with your hands. Mash, fold, and punch the dough.
Add more stock slowly, 1/4 cup at a time. Depending on your masa harina, you may need anywhere from 1 1/2 cups of stock to the full 2 cups. Masa dough doesn’t really mind if you overwork it, so feel free to add more masa harina or liquid to balance it out. Make sure the dough is even, with no dry pockets.
The final product should take no more than 5 minutes of kneading, and it’ll feel like putty: flexible, moist, but not wet or sticky. Nothing should be sticking to the sides of the bowl or pooled at the bottom of it. Shape the dough into a rough ball, cover the bowl with a towel, and let rest for 15 minutes up to an hour. You may need to moisten it slightly with water if it feels dry after resting.
In the meantime, prepare the following hardware:
- Two nonstick pans, teflon or cast iron or similar. You can also use one long griddle over two burners.
- Tortilla press. If you don’t have one—and they’re pretty cheap and small, really—you can press your tortillas with a round, see-through pie pan. Press straight down and look through to make sure it stays even. But do consider getting a press, ok?
- One gallon-size ziplock bag, cut open into two plastic covers large enough to cover the two sides of your tortilla press.
- Tortilla warmer, or, a large, clean towel, slightly moistened and folded in half.
Set one pan (or one end of the griddle) over medium-low heat. Set the other pan over medium-high. Make sure they preheat for at least 3 minutes.
The flow of your hardware should be: masa bowl > tortilla press > medium-low pan > medium-high pan > tortilla warmer. Arrange these in a way that makes sense to you and fits your kitchen space.
Break off a golf-ball-size piece of the dough and shape it into a rough ball. Don’t worry too much about making it perfect; the dough should cooperate willingly. Cover the bowl with the towel again.
Press it gently onto the first piece of plastic on the bottom side of the tortilla press, just enough to flatten it a bit. Again, don’t worry about the shape too much, as long as it stays together.
Cover it with the second piece of plastic and work the press: press down. Open the press and rotate the tortilla 180º. I don’t mean flip it; rotate it while flat against the bottom and press down again to make sure it’s even.
Open the press again and lift the plastic-sandwiched tortilla. Remove the top piece of plastic carefully and place back on the press. Now transfer the tortilla, dough side down, onto your other hand, then peel off the second piece of plastic from the top. Always peel the plastic from the tortilla, not the other way around.
Gently place the tortilla onto the first, medium-low-heat pan. You can flip it over carefully, or touch the end of the tortilla by the bottom of your palm to the pan, then move your hand out of the way and let it drape over the pan.
Give it 30 seconds on this side, then flip it over. You can use a spatula, but as the tortilla won’t really stick to the pan, it’s easier to just do this using your fingers. Give it another 30 seconds.
Now flip the tortilla back onto the first side onto the second, medium-high-heat pan. Press it down gently with the back of your hand or a flat spatula; this will help it really absorb the heat quickly, resulting in the crucial final step of puffing up. The tortilla should basically inflate over the next few seconds.
Once the tortilla puffs up—and if it doesn’t, press it down again, and consider perhaps boosting the heat a bit?—it’s ready to come out and go into your tortilla warmer.
So, 30 seconds on each side in the medium-low pan, then flip over again onto the medium-high pan and wait for it to pillow up. You’ll get into the rhythm of it eventually, rolling and pressing tortillas while waiting for the previous batch to heat and puff up.
Your tortillas should stay warm for up to an hour in a proper warming dish, 15-20 minutes in a towel. Stored in a bag in the fridge, they will keep for up to a week. To reheat them, microwave for 1-2 minutes in a moistened towel.
Serving suggestion: tacos filled with our mole.
You’ll find masa harina in the Hispanic section of your supermarket. (Please note that this is not the same as cornmeal, corn starch, or other ground corn products.) The Maseca brand is ubiquitous and cheap. For extra credit, consider asking your local Mexican taqueria if they’ll sell you some fresh masa, in which case you can skip the mixing steps and go straight to the press. Masa is the stuff that gets dried and packaged for commercial sale as masa harina; it tastes better fresh, but it’s extremely inconvenient to grind and nixtamalize your own masa at home.
Depending on your corn, how much of it you use, and how much you let it reduce, your corn stock may be anywhere from a refreshingly fragrant water to a thick, sticky syrup. I reduce mine quite a bit, until it resembles unfiltered apple cider or rich chicken soup.
The two-pan method of grilling tortillas, described by your most trustworthy source on Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, is essential; I made about 150 tortillas using the single-pan method and never got them to puff up as nicely as when I added the second, high-heat pan. What happens is that the first pan seals the sides of the tortilla, and the high heat of the second pan makes it expand quickly the only way it can: by separating the two outside layers and inflating from the inside. It is this double-layer nature of properly puffed tortillas that gives them their soft, never-cracking texture and fresh taste.
Instead of counting to 30 every time you add a tortilla to the pan, consider placing a big analog clock near your stove. I pulled up the big clock display on my iPad and set it on the counter.
Whether you use corn stock or water, these will be so much better than anything you can buy in the store. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself eating them plain—but what am I saying, there’s nothing plain about these tortillas!