If you have only ever eaten packaged tortillas, you have yet to meet the real tortilla – the tortilla that has been the bread of the Americas for thousands of years. Something that has lasted this long has to be uniquely good, but you won’t find it in a sealed plastic package at the supermarket. Those bland, rubbery disks bear almost no relationship to the soft, sweetly fragrant, satisfying corn tortillas you can make so simply at home. This article will teach you how to make corn tortillas that will amaze and delight your five senses and provide your family with an inexpensive, nutritious, naturally gluten free, naturally vegan daily bread for which you will give thanks the rest of your life. Does that claim sound high-flown? Wait until you taste these tortillas and I think you’ll agree!
What You Need For Making Your Own Corn Tortillas
- A cast iron frying pan or iron griddle
- A tortilla press
- A bowl to mix the dough in
- A plastic bag, cut in half
- 1 cup of Organic Masa
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- A pinch of salt
And that’s it! If you are new to corn tortilla making, two of the things on my list may be unfamiliar to you. Let me explain them.
The Tortilla Press
We purchased our beautiful little wood tortilla press for less than $20 at a local Mexican market. Metal models are also available, but we like our trusty wooden one. This device is basically a hinged wooden block with a handle. You put your dough ball in the press, close the lid and depress the handle to flatten the masa dough into a perfectly flat, round circle.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have Mexican mercados in your area, you might try an import store. If that doesn’t get you anywhere, you can purchase a tortilla press online. Or, if you have a woodworker in your family, you might like to check out this super little video that will show you how to handcraft your own wooden tortilla press. The tortilla press is an extremely simple and valuable piece of kitchen equipment. Unlike the pricey and faddish kitchen gadgets so many Americans end up wasting their money on, a tortilla press requires no electricity, is portable and will last a very, very long time.
Masa is the flour of soaked, ground dent or flour corn with the addition of a mineral called ‘cal’ or ‘lime’. When you mix dry masa with boiling water and a little salt, you get tortilla dough. In some parts of the the U.S., small communities are beginning to work their way back towards having a local supply of safe flour corn from which to make masa, corn meal, polenta and all of the other good things that come from corn. Until then, it will be necessary for most of us to purchase our masa from a trustworthy source.
Safe and trustworthy. You might have remarked on those words in the last paragraph and they are worth repeating here. For the sake of your health, the health of your loved ones and the security of corn’s future, please purchase only organic masa. Genetic modification (GMOs) of corn is destroying our heritage landraces of corn all over North, Central and South America via contamination through cross pollination. I’ve written about this many times here at VeganReader.com, and when giving a corn tortilla recipe, I want to be sure to reiterate this point: the only safe corn for human consumption is organic corn. It scalds my heart to see the conventional masa sold in the local Mexican market and in most American grocery stores because I know it is very likely contaminated and may bring terrible acute or chronic illness to the countless families who are purchasing it. Please, help protect the sacred and irreplaceable corn crop and the human family by purchasing only organic corn products.
We are lucky enough to have a nearby natural food store which vends only organic bulk foods and produce. If you cannot find organic masa locally, search for it at GoldmineNaturalFoods.com. We make our daily tortillas from their organic white masa flour which is available at very fair prices in 1, 5 and 50 lb. bags. 5 pounds of masa makes a ton of tortillas, and at the time of my writing this, the cost of a 5 lb bag is $12.95. When you consider you’d spend about that much on 3 loaves of organic bread, you suddenly realize what a sweet deal you are getting! Keep the opened package of masa in your fridge and it will last for months.
The Corn Tortilla Recipe
Here’s what you’ve been waiting for! This recipe makes about 8 tortillas. Double or triple it for the amount you need. We make ours fresh daily – cooking either a single or double recipe, depending on how many tortillas we want.
Put 1 cup of organic masa in a large bowl. Mix in a pinch of salt.
Boil 3/4 of a cup of water and mix it thoroughly into the masa. This smells heavenly! I use a wooden spoon for this step. Let the dough sit for 5 minutes. This amount of masa/water is based upon what works with the masa we purchase. The amounts may differ with masa from other sources. The finished dough should be firm and with a clay-like texture. If it’s too sticky, it will stick to the plastic bag when you put it in the press. You may need to experiment with the water to masa ratio a few times before you get the ideal balance.
Shape the dough into a ball. Knead the dough with your hands for 10 minutes, as you would with bread dough. Knead it with your knuckles, pick it up in your hands and work it round and round with your palms. Get it good and kneaded. Your hands will have a sweet corn fragrance all morning after doing this – such a calm and good scent.
Heat your cast iron frying pan or griddle over high heat until it is really, really hot.
Cut a plastic bag in half (a freezer-type bag works well) so that you have two sheets of plastic. Place one sheet on the base of the tortilla press. Form a ball of dough about the size of a large golf ball in your hands. Set it on the press. Lay the second sheet over it. Close the press and bring down the handle. Lift the handle, open the press and there is your flat, round, beautiful tortilla!
Peel the plastic off the tortilla, toss it in the frying pan and cook it on one side for 1 minute. Flip it over and cook it on the other side for 1 minute. Some cooks poke the tortilla with their finger (be careful, it’s hot!) or a paper towel while it is cooking to help puffy bubbles to form, creating the little dark spots you have seen on tortillas. Remove the tortilla from the pan and put the next one on to cook. You will develop a rhythm of shaping a ball while one tortilla is cooking so that you can cook the second one as soon as the first is done. In just minutes, you will have a stack of unbelievably good corn tortillas!
More About Corn Tortillas
To me, there is no better snack than a hot corn tortilla spread with a little mashed organic avocado and sprinkled with salt. It satisfies a need in me for something tasty and nutritious at any time of the day. Some people may be more familiar with tortillas with butter and call the avocado ‘the poor man’s butter’. I think they’ve got it the wrong way round! Avocados beat butter all hollow as a creamy, rich spread and, unlike butter, they are totally healthy, cholesterol-free and rich in good, safe fats. And, don’t forget, avocados and corn are real Native American foods – dairy products are a latecomer to the American diet. Avocados are classic! Make yourself a little cup of organic hot chocolate, a couple of avocado tortillas and you’ve got a breakfast that is unsurpassed anywhere on the world food scene.
As mentioned above, corn tortillas are naturally gluten free. I want to make a special note of this because I’ve been running a gluten free kitchen for several years now. I remember being sad that I couldn’t eat flour tortillas, because I always thought of them as the soft, especially tasty ones. This is because I’d only ever eaten those bland, rough, packaged corn tortillas.
Now, flour tortillas are good, but like butter, they are a recent development here. What I want to share is that once I tasted a homemade white corn tortilla, all desire for the wheat-based newcomers instantly left me. Homemade corn tortillas are soft and flexible and if made from good, well-ground masa, their texture is as fine as that of a white flour tortilla. They are not gritty. They are not bland. They are divine! Trust me, when you get one whiff of that toasted corn fragrance coming off the griddle, you will be hooked. No one on a gluten free diet will feel deprived once they have real corn tortillas in their arsenal of foods. In fact, you may decide that you can forget all of those complicated substitute wheat bread recipes that are full of tapioca and a host of other somewhat rare ingredients and just make tortillas the bread in your household. Their uses are myriad.
Corn tortillas are also naturally vegan. In fact, the modern practice of frying foods in lard is an introduction of the Spanish who brought pigs to the Americas. You not only don’t need any animal products to make authentic corn tortillas, you don’t even need any oil. This is the ideal, simple bread.
Another tortilla anecdote I want to share relates to tacos. Now, as a child, I never understood why people would want to eat soft tacos when they could have those crispy, golden fried ones. Again, this childish prejudice stemmed from the fact that I’d never had a freshly made tortilla. If my family went to a Mexican restaurant as a treat, I always ordered crisp tacos. Making my own tortillas has resulted in another epiphany about this: fresh corn tortillas are just so flavorful, it almost seems like a mistake to me now to deep fry them. Yes, they are good deep fried, but I’ve come to feel that they are better just as they are, stuffed with scrumptious fillings of my choice, for the tastiest taco I’ve ever eaten. I like refried beans, brown rice, stir-fried summer squash, salsa and garden-fresh lettuce in my soft tacos and if I eat a couple of these for lunch, I’m good and full for hours afterward.
Of course, you can deep fry your homemade corn tortillas. You can make crisp taco shells. You can make corn chips. You can dip them in tomato sauce, fill them and turn them into amazing enchilladas. You can make tortilla stack (a retro American fav), tostadas (loaded with whatever is freshest on your family farm) or you can just act like a tortilla-loving fool and sit down with a stack of them and some bowls of your favorite dips (guacamole, salsa, hummus, you name it!). Check some Mexican or South American cookbooks out of your local library and you’ll start to see how tortillas have supported some of our most honored Native cultures in thousands of ways for thousands of years.
Nutritional Notes On Tortillas
My research on this subject indicates that corn tortillas provide protein, fiber and iron. I have also come across numerous statistics regarding fortified masa, but our family doesn’t buy a fortified variety because we prefer to depend mainly on foods, rather than supplements, for our total nutrition. If, in your efforts to improve your family’s sustainable and local eating, you are depending mostly on Native American foods and you are eating heartily of corn, beans, squash, potatoes and other Native food crops, your nutritional needs are likely to be abundantly met.
However, in your study of corn, you may have come across mentions of a dreadful disease called pellagra. This condition cropped up when the conquistadors took corn back to the so-called ‘Old World’ and it became a staple where knowledge was lacking as to how to properly prepare it. A corn-dependent diet, when improperly prepared can lead to the niacin deficiency known as pellagra – a deficiency basically unknown in the Americas. This is because the Native peoples who first cultivated and cherished corn knew that it had to be prepared with lime (cal) in order to make the niacin in it nutritionally available. This is why you will see all good corn products labeled as containing a ‘trace of lime’. Bottom line – please don’t worry about pellagra if you are eating properly prepared corn products as part of your balanced diet. It isn’t something to be concerned about, and I wanted to clear this up in case you had heard mention of this and weren’t sure what to think of it. Properly prepared corn has been the staff of life for thousands of years in small villages and some of the world’s largest empires, right here on the American continents. If you live in America, corn is your natural, native choice.
On another health-related topic, I want to talk about the digestibility of corn. As regular readers here already know, I have Crohn’s Disease. Despite decades of organic, healthy living and consuming a diet which my doctors call ‘ideal’, I have this unfortunate condition. For many years, the medical community believed that Crohn’s disease might stem from a poor diet, and you will certainly find people who live on fast food suffering with Crohn’s. However, you will also find people like me with this ailment, too. Crohn’s seems to know no boundaries and afflicts people of all ages from all walks of life. I went gluten free on my doctor’s recommendation because of the Crohn’s disease and a test which showed I have some gluten sensitivity. It really depressed me to give up our homemade wheat bread until we started making homemade corn tortillas, but I’m mentioning this here because of an odd coincidence I noticed with both wheat bread and corn tortillas, and I wanted to make a note of this in case others with this gastrointestinal condition are searching for information about this phenomenon.
Despite the fact that I’m gluten sensitive, wheat has never given me the trouble it would give to a person with Celiac Disease. Rather, I noticed that I could not eat freshly baked bread without it causing severe bloating in my stomach. Day old bread didn’t do this to me. Interestingly, I have found a number of references in books to people serving day old bread to guests being termed as ‘dyspeptic’ (an old term for having indigestion). So, it seems that some people have always had a problem with fresh bread, long before this idea of gluten intolerance came to the fore.
Oddly, if I eat a corn tortilla right off the griddle, I experience the same discomforts of bloating and gas. If I eat a day old tortilla, reheated, I have no problem at all. Why would this be? I have no idea, nor have I been able to turn up a single mention of this peculiar circumstance anywhere. I wanted to include my story about this in this corn tortilla recipe in case you happen to be on a gluten-free diet for one reason or another and your switch to corn as your main grain has given you the same problems you experienced with fresh baked wheat products. If fresh tortillas bother your stomach, let them cool, store them in the fridge and re-heat them the next day. My hope is that, like me, you will find them totally digestible and can fully embrace this wonderful corn-based bread and not miss the old wheat-based one.
On a final note: if you try my recipe and decide that homemade corn tortillas are the big secret you’ve been missing out on all these years, I hope you will be instilled with a sense of solidarity for all Native peoples who have depended on corn for generations. I hope you will consider taking a step beyond delicious enjoyment and appreciation towards resolute advocacy for the banning of genetic modification. Google this issue of GMO corn. Go to YouTube and watch videos. Go to organic farming sites, organic seed sellers’ sites, food security sites and you will quickly see how many voices are being raised against the contamination of our corn with biotech corn.
Though corn has been the friend and supporter of mankind for millennia, our time to protect and save corn is now so limited. Please, if corn is important to you, become educated about this vital issue and spread the word. It’s up to us to make sure that coming generations know the goodness of corn, and perhaps in the simple act of eating your first homemade corn tortilla, you will find the strength to speak out for this sacred grain which shares its story and life with the story and life of mankind. I know of no more important battle, no homier down home cause, no better use of your time.
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