Did you know that a tortilla has two sides? Mexicans know which side is the correct one to add the fillings to and which side is the other side of the tortilla. We are never taught about it, nobody teaches us as kids the “how-to” of the tortilla. We just know.
The tortilla is part of the culinary identity of Mexicans and one of the first things we struggle with when we live outside México. Sometimes the simplest things are the ones that are harder to recreate. Such is the case of the tortilla. Even when there are two main types of tortillas, flour and corn, we will focus on the corn tortilla today. However, it is important to note that they both have a right side and the other side.
In order to have a good corn tortilla one only needs three ingredients: corn flour, water and salt. This simple mix of Mexican ingredients needs little work but a lot of skill and practice to obtain a vessel in which we can taco anything. Whether straight out of the griddle, fried or reheated, the tortilla should be a soft but pliable and strong element to hold all kinds of fillings without breaking.
Once the dough or masa has been worked through and reached a good consistency, comes the time to make the tortillas. A ball of masa is rolled between the hands and then pressed to the desired thickness and size. The raw tortilla is then placed on a very hot comal which is a flat griddle pan. At this moment the back or the other side of the tortilla is created. The temperature shock between the fresh masa and the hot surface creates the strongest layer of the tortilla. While cooking this side, the steam rises to the top creating a “weaker” more porous layer. When the tortilla is flipped, it’s this “weaker” side that becomes the front side of the tortilla. It’s upon this “weaker” side that the fillings should be placed because the back of the tortilla, the other side, is the strong layer that will hold everything together without breaking. It doesn’t matter how many times we flip the tortilla, there will always be the front and the back of the tortilla.
There is nothing like a freshly made tortilla. It is a beautiful thing, flavour and texture-wise, that sadly, will hardly be the same again upon reheating. However, fear not, in the same way, that there is a right side to add the fillings, there is also a correct way to reheat a tortilla and bring back to life such a precious vessel. Here’s what to do in three different ways. You will need a heat source, a flat griddle pan is best but a normal grill or pan works well too. You will also need a tortillero or device where to keep your tortillas warm until they are ready to use. A tea towel works great.
How to warm up tortillas three different ways:
- Bring the pan or grill you’ll use to medium-high heat. Set as many single tortillas as you can fit in a single layer and flip every few seconds until warm and pliable. This should not take a lot of time. The goal is to warm the tortilla without toasting it, so full attention must be paid. Pile up the tortillas in a tea towel and wrap them well to keep them warm.
- Bring the pan (or grill you’ll use) to medium-high heat. Add two to four tortillas on top of each other and flip constantly switching sides as you move along. By having the tortillas piled up the steam created within them makes them lovely and soft. Ideally, all the tortillas will have both sides in touch with the pan at some point. This method (the writer’s favourite) is great but does require a good level of skill to know when and how to flip without burning your fingers. A spatula can help! Pile up the warm tortillas in a tea towel and wrap them well. This method is great when you need a lot of warm tortillas ready in less time.
- We have reached the expert level of our tortilla journey. This is how we do it back at home, where the only thing we need is fire and our tortilla. Now, there are a few challenges to overcome with this method. You’ll need a gas cooker. A lot of homes don’t have those these days which is sad but understandable. The other challenge is to not burn the tortilla, your fingers or your kitchen. So act cautiously. If you have it, open the flame, medium works well but you can start low to see how that goes. Just add the tortilla on top of the flame and flip often until the tortilla is warm, slightly burnt on the edges and your whole house smells of charred corn tortilla. A beautiful thing, really. Be aware of smoke detectors! Pro level is reached once one is comfortable enough with this method and more than one tortillas are flipped on the open flame at the same time (the writer’s score is three at a time and she is quite smug about it).
Frying and baking
Light frying - Perfect for tortillas that will be used as soft tacos, as a base for huevos rancheros or to be layered with high moisture ingredients such as in Pastel Azteca or Mexican Lasagna (link to recipe). When the tortilla is lightly fried, it becomes more resistant to sauces and holds for longer when baking it. The tortilla should still be flexible. The method is simple and it only requires a little bit of oil in a very hot frying pan. The tortilla is then turned a few times until it starts to get golden but not hard. A few seconds should do. The tortillas are then transferred to another surface with paper towels to drain any oil excess.
Deep frying - The tortillas become hard and crunchy, perfect for tostadas or tortilla chips. Set a deep frying pan with oil and bring it up to high heat. Add the tortillas in small batches, whole or cut into triangles and fry until golden crisp. They should no longer be flexible. This should take approximately 2 minutes. Transfer the fried tortillas or chips to a paper towel-lined plate to drain any oil excess. If making tortilla chips, sprinkle some sea salt on them while they are warm.
Baking- A lighter alternative to deep frying. The tortillas are laid on a baking sheet and set in a high-temperature oven for a few minutes until crispy. Set the oven to 200°C, lay the corn tortillas on a baking tray (use baking paper to avoid using any oil) in a single layer and bake in the oven for approximately 15 minutes or until crispy. The tortillas should no longer be flexible. Turn the tortillas halfway.
We are not purists. We understand that having a good tortilla is challenging enough, let alone warming it up the correct way. Whether one uses the microwave oven or chooses to have it *gasp* cold is up to personal choice. But, trust us when we say that having a little patience and trying to warm tortillas the right way will make the whole difference between a sad taco and a happy taco. And we all love happy tacos, don’t we?
Pro tip: Store fresh tortillas by separating each one into a new pile. If they are warm, wait until they are cold before the next step. Once cooled down and separated, place them inside a plastic bag, well-closed, inside the fridge. By separating before storing them they won’t get stuck together and it will be easier to take them for later use. This way they will keep for several days. This method is also perfect for freezing!
No tortillas at home? How about some delicious, authentic and freshly made tortillas?
Would you like to try your luck and make your own? Try our corn flour!
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