Tortillas are flat, round bread that we think of as Mexican, but which are actually used throughout Latin America. The bread is unleavened (that would explain the flat part.) They were made out of Masa Harina (a finely ground corn flour) for centuries until the Spanish introduced wheat. Wheat flour Tortillas are still, however, mostly found in Northern Mexico (see entry on Burritos.)
Corn Tortillas are usually smaller than flour Tortillas, because the corn flour doesn’t have as much strength as the wheat flour. Corn ones won’t usually be any bigger than 6 inches (15 cm) across, while the flour ones may be 7 inches (18 cm) or wider.
As in Aztec days, people still use Tortillas to scoop up food or as a container for food.
Traditionally, Tortillas were cooked on a clay griddle called a “comal.” Instructions are everywhere on how to make Tortillas, but “there be dragons.” Yes, a Mexican grandmother may be able to knock them off at a rate that would astound General Motors, but it’s something you have to be determined to learn through repeated practice. Many efforts end in tears all round: yours, plus those of hungry guests. If you’re going to learn, learn. Get the proper equipment, be prepared to not get discouraged, and whatever you do, don’t invite anyone over intending to feed them off your first few attempts.
Thankfully, today you can buy Tortillas everywhere ready-made and bagged at grocery stores, either “fresh” or frozen. Either way, these are ready to reheat and use. When buying these packaged ones at the supermarket, just check to see that the edges don’t look dry.
Industrially, the dough is made from masa harina (rather than directly from soaked corn), flattend by rollers, then cut out by machines, plopped onto conveyor belts which pass it first through an oven and then through an area where they are allowed to cool, then mechanically packaged in bags.
A challenge not yet cracked is that as Tortillas age, the oil in the corn goes rancid and causes them to taste sour. And when frozen, water condensates which can make them pasty when thawed.
To cook an uncooked tortilla on a comal: have the comal heated to very hot. Place an uncooked tortilla on it. It’s ready to flip over when the edges start to look dry. Once flipped, when it starts to puff, tap the first few puffs down with a flipper, then cook for an additional 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Then remove from heat, place in a tortilla warmer or a basket wrapped in a teatowel, and repeat for all tortillas remaining to be cooked.
Even though Tortillas bought at the store are already cooked, they still need to be reheated to restore “life” to them.
If your Tortillas feel a bit dry — perhaps from having been frozen — brush them very lightly with water before starting.
Reheat for a few seconds on a non-stick surface such as a griddle or frying pan with a little oil in it, or for about 30 seconds in the microwave. Store the heated ones wrapped in a tea towel in a pot or dish with a lid until you need them.
To reheat in a microwave, slightly dampen a tea towel. Wrap up to 12 Tortillas in the towel, then place in a heat-proof dish with a cover and zap at medium power for about 2 – 3 minutes, depending on the oomph of your microwave (check on the Tortillas during this time). Afterward, they will stay warm for about 20 minutes. This is far easier than trying to heat them one by one in a frying pan while you have a zillion other things to do. Plus, when reheating in a frying pan, by the third Tortilla parts of the Tortillas end up staying being in the frying pan, stuck to it.
Some people say that you can keep them warm for up to 2 hours if you wrap the heated Tortillas in tin foil, then in a towel or about a dozen sheets of newspaper.
To deep fry a whole Tortilla, heat some oil, at least half an inch (1 cm), in a pan wide enough to accommodate the Tortilla. Fry just one at a time until it puffs a little and is lightly brown. No need to turn them while they are cooking. If the oil is hot, this shouldn’t take much more than a minute. Whatever you do, don’t let your attention stray, as they will go from crisp and lightly-brown to brittle and burnt-brown faster than you can say Montezuma. When you remove them, put them on paper towel to drain.
Refrigerate in a sealed bag for up to 3 weeks, or freeze in a well-sealed bag indefinitely. When you thaw them, separate them and lay them out flat. Shake off any ice crystals. You shouldn’t need to thaw them for anymore than 5 minutes before getting on with reheating them. If you are going to have to let them sit for any longer than 15 minutes before using them, then cover them up with plastic foil as they will proceed to dry out on you.
Literature & Lore
Tortilla means “a little cake”. Torta is a round cake, and -illa means little. Note that the word Tortilla in Spain, though the same Spanish word, means something very different. In Spain, it is what the Italians call a “frittata”, i.e. an omelette.