Kitchen DIY: Homemade Corn Tortillas
Somewhere along one of several cross-country moves, between the excessive heat, bumptious conditions, and random acts of God, the antique cast-iron comal I scored for my husband shattered. Its sister tortilla press fared better and is well-loved to this day.
Almost a year ago now (has it really been?) I rhapsodized about those south TX tortillas and introduced plantain tortillas to the blog. Those are no less stellar now, but these, these, are the real deal corn tortillas, hand-pressed with love, and I’m here to encourage you to try making them in your own home!
Sure you can pick up often very good corn tortillas from local markets, but these are a tried and true upgrade. Absolutely a treat, they’re fun to prepare with honestly little fuss or difficulty. While the tortilla press is helpful, it is by no means necessary; same goes for the comal, as a regular cast-iron skillet (my choice), or even a pancake griddle works wonderfully.
Masa (or corn masa) is the Spanish word for “dough.” Masa is made from mixing water with masa harina (or corn masa flour; not cornmeal dough) — the powdery fine flour found in bags of “instant masa mix” or “instant corn masa.” A staple in Latin cuisines, masa harina is used for Mexican tamales and the country’s thick hot drinks atole and champurrado, in Central and South American arepas and pupusas, and sometimes as the base of empanada dough.
Today we are of course looking at its use for fresh and warm homemade corn tortillas. From start to finish, not including the 30-minute to 2-hour dough rest, you can prepare all of the tortillas in 20 to 25 minutes.
Here are the basic steps (more detail in the recipe at the end of the post):
Step 1: Mix masa harina and warm water by hand, kneading for a minute or two until the dough is soft and springy, not sticky or overly dry. Form one large ball, cover, and rest.
Step 2: After resting, check the consistency of your dough, adding water a little at a time to moisten, or more masa harina if too dry, as needed. Divide evenly, using your palms to roll into balls about the size of ping-pong balls.
Step 3: Press each ball of dough into a thin disc with a tortilla press (or even a flat-bottomed plate, large skillet, round casserole dish, or rolling pin), keeping balls and pressed discs covered with a damp towel as you work.
Step 4: Cook in a hot comal, cast-iron skillet, or griddle — 30 seconds, flip, another 30 seconds, flip again for another 30 seconds on the first side. Transfer to a large piece of foil or towel-lined basket, folding over to enclose while you continue cooking, adding to the pile and re-covering as you go.
Step 5: Enjoy!
Seriously no-nonsense, this recipe is made from 100% masa harina + water; no unnecessary added salt or fat like some store-bought varieties that include either or both. DIY also means full control of thickness, size, and freshness, and a typically lower cost. Additionally, some brands dust their corn tortillas with wheat flour during processing to avoid sticking, making homemade beneficial if you need to follow a gluten-free diet.
What’s in it for me?
To produce masa harina, whole kernels of field corn undergo the process of “nixtamalization” — cooking and soaking in an alkaline limewater solution — and are then drained and finely milled into a dense, yet powdery flour. This process makes the kernels softer and more apt to form a dough, and also imparts a distinctive aroma and taste. Nixtamalization increases bioavailability vitamin B3, while also increasing the amount of calcium (limewater is aqueous Ca(OH)2 — hello, high school biochem), and blunting the potential absorption-limiting effects of phytic acid on iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. The one negative effect is a decrease in the amount of bran, and the fiber and healthy oil that would come with it.
Its nutrient profile boasts minimal total fat, with the majority being heart-healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, nearly negligible sodium and 0 g cholesterol, as well as approximately 3 g protein per 1/4 cup (30 g; about 2 small tortillas per the recipe below). There are about 19 g total carbohydrate and 3 g dietary fiber. While masa is naturally gluten-free, always check the package to ensure the facility doesn’t also process wheat-containing foods.
For less than 100 calories, this serving also provides more than 10% of your daily iron, a good amount of several B vitamins, including roughly 30% of your required thiamin (B1) and 16% that of folate, and is a small source of non-dairy calcium. Whereas the fortification of wheat and rice flours with folic acid began in 1996, the FDA approved this practice for corn masa flour only just in April of this year to “help increase consumption of folic acid by women who consume this flour as a [dietary] staple.” The fortification is voluntary as yet.
Soft and pliable, chewy, mildly corn-y, best served warm. Stick to the usual filling suspects like beans, seafood, beef, poultry, and pork, or soft-scrambled eggs and nopalitos for breakfast; roll and serve with soups, stews or chillies; press gooey cheese and greens between two for a mini quesadilla; or veer off track with a cross-cultural banh mi, shawarma, gyro, curry wrap. My quick-pickled jalapeño slices and black-and-blue berry slaw are delicious complements.
Then again, they’re good enough to eat plain, standing in the kitchen pulled straight off the heat.
To me the motions of hand-making corn tortillas are now second nature, and the flavor and texture are incomparable. Soon enough, they will be for you, too.
Tell me… How do you enjoy corn tortillas? Or are you firmly in the flour tortilla camp?
- 2 cups masa harina (may be labeled corn masa flour OR instant masa mix; see HGN Notes)
- 1 1/4 cups warm water (or amount specified on package, as brands vary)
- TO MAKE THE DOUGH: Place masa harina in a large bowl, and pour over 3/4 cup of the water. Using your hands, work the mixture for several minutes, pressing with your fingers and palms similar to kneading bread dough, until you can form a ball. The dough should be soft and springy, not sticky or overly dry. Form one large ball, cover with plastic wrap or a damp paper towel or damp thin kitchen towel, and set aside to allow the dough to rest and hydrate, at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
- After resting, pinch off a small portion to test the consistency -- if it is crumbly and feels dry, work in more water, 1 Tbsp at a time, until the dough is evenly moist and smooth. If the dough is too wet and sticks to your hands, work in a little more masa harina until the dough no longer sticks. Divide the dough evenly into 18 pieces, using your palms to roll into balls.
- TO PRESS THE DOUGH: Cut 2 pieces of plastic wrap slightly larger than the bases of a tortilla press (or the base of a large skillet, flat-bottomed plate, or round casserole dish; or about 7 to 8 inches wide if using a rolling pin). Open the press and lay 1 piece of the plastic on the base (or lay 1 piece on a flat work surface). Place a ball of dough in the center on top of the plastic, lay the other piece of plastic on top, and gently close the press (or press down with your skillet/plate/dish, or roll out with your pin) until the dough spreads into a flat dough disc about 4 to 4 1/2 inches in diameter (roughly 1/16" thick or so). Remove the dough disc from the press, and follow the directions below to cook. Continue pressing the rest of the dough balls and cooking as you go. If you are using a skillet or comal and press faster than you can cook, transfer the dough discs to a cloth. Remember to keep the dough balls and any uncooked, pressed dough discs covered with a damp towel to avoid drying out.
- TO COOK THE TORTILLAS: Heat a comal, cast-iron skillet, or griddle to medium-high. When hot, carefully lay in 1 tortilla at a time (or more if you can utilize 2 burners with a larger griddle and feel confident multi-tasking). Cook for 30 seconds on the first side, then use your fingers or a metal spatula to flip. Cook another 30 seconds on the opposite side, then flip again to cook an additional 20 to 30 seconds on the first side. Remove the cooked tortillas to a large piece of foil or towel-lined basket, folding over to enclose while you continue cooking, adding to the pile and re-covering as you go -- this will keep them warm and pliable. Serve immediately.
- Allow any leftover tortillas to come to room temperature before storing. Will keep in the refrigerator wrapped in a towel up to 3 days, OR in a zipper-top bag up to 1 week, OR in the freezer wrapped in plastic wrap then foil and placed in a zipper-top bag up to 3 months. Reheat in a dry skillet, OR wrapped in a damp piece of paper towel or damp thin cloth on medium heat in the microwave for 30 to 60 seconds.
A tortilla press is an inexpensive addition to your kitchen for about $30 or less from most kitchen supply stores or purchased from an online retailer. Cast-iron is great, though aluminum or plastic versions will also do the trick.
As a quick alternative to plastic wrap when pressing, cut down the sides of a gallon-sized zipper-top bag. Place the still in tact bottom at the hinge of the press, and open up like a book to lay the dough balls inside.
Recipe adapted from my experience with Masa Brosa and Maseca Instant Masa Mixes.
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