Making Corn Tortillas

For years I avoided making corn tortillas, for the simple reason that I’d never been able to shape them without getting huge cracks. Much later I learned an easy trick that helps the tortilla maker figure out whether the dough has enough water in it. It worked like a charm. Oh, the wasted years. Begin your tortilla-making process by whisking together your masa harina and salt.

Add the water….

..and begin kneading the dough by hand.

Nope, still not enough water. Look at all that dry mix that’s left. So I add a few tablespoons more…

…and work it in. But is the dough wet enough to shape the tortillas?

Here’s how you find out. Take a piece of dough off the main mass…

…roll it into a ball…

…and press it hard against your work surface with the heel of your hand.

Do you see cracks around the edges of the disk? Then it’s not wet enough.

Add a tablespoon of water or so…

…and work it in.

Keep going like that, testing and adding water, until you don’t see any more cracks.

Then you’re ready to roll (or press). Separate the dough into pieces about 1.5 ounces each, then cover them with a towel to keep them from drying out.

At this point you have one of two options. You can press them — either in a tortilla press or with a flat pan or other flat, firm object — or you can roll them, which is what I do for no special reason. Either way, you’ll need some squares of parchment or thick plastic (say, cut from a freezer bag or heavy trash bag). Why? Because these things are a little sticky. Place the ball on one pieces of your paper or plastic…

…cover it with the other one…

…and press it down with your palm.

The just roll it, turning the paper a quarter turn every so often until it’s about 6″ across.

Then just peel back the top layer. Done! Yes, there are little cracks around the edges, but I don’t worry about those. They tell my dinner guests that they’ve got hold of a real homemade tortilla! Which reminds me: there’s a third option for shaping tortillas: just patting them and tossing them between your hands like the little old ladies do in Mexico. It’s an amazing thing to watch, but something I’d never have the skill to do.

You can griddle them as you work or stack them between sheets of plastic if you wish.

When you’re ready to finish them, heat a cast iron skillet or omelette pan to medium heat. Put the tortilla in the pan without any cooking fat or oil, and cook for about 30 seconds.

Flip the tortilla. No, it doesn’t have any pronounced toasted spots on it. Corn tortillas shouldn’t be as crispy as flour tortillas, however we’re going to toast this side a little more in a moment.

After about 45 seconds, flip the tortilla again. When it puffs up — about 15-20 seconds more — you know it’s done.

Cool each one for about a minute on a towel, then transfer them to a stack that you either keep wrapped in a towel or in a tortilla warmer (or both). Bring them warm to the table.

4 thoughts on “Making Corn Tortillas”

    1. Hey Linda!

      That’s normal. The dough is drying out on the upward-facing side. Maybe add a touch more water, as long as it doesn’t make the dough too soft.

      – Joe

  1. Hey Joe!

    I’m surprised never to have seen this post, as I was a regular reader and aspiring tortilla-maker at the time you first posted it. I am now a reasonably experienced tortilla-maker, and what I do is pretty much what you do, but I nevertheless have a question.

    When I first started making tortillas, I rolled them for the simple reason that I didn’t have a tortilla press and could not easily source one locally. I finally acquired a tortilla press a few years later and have been making them that way since.

    Which almost brings me to my question. I noticed right away that the pressed tortillas are much more tender than the rolled ones. It is noticeable just after cooking the tortilla, and becomes even moreso if the tortilla is cooked further (e.g., fried to make flautas or chips). If they were flour tortillas, my first thought would be gluten, but they’re not, they’re made with Maseca masa harina. Any idea what might be happening?

    1. Hey Alan!

      Very interesting observation. My guess is that it has something to do with the nature of the pressure. It may well be that mashing the dough ball all in one go, as with a press, creates a more irregular sheet of masa. I could easily imagine where the repeated rolling of a pin would create a more uniform sheet that as a result has fewer tiny pock marks, pits, or holes, and as a result more tensile strength.

      I could be completely wrong of course, but it seems like a reasonable theory to me!

      Cheers and thanks for a great question!

      – Joe

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