Mexican comfort food—and it’s gluten free
It’s hard to imagine a Mexican meal without corn tortillas. Having tacos or enchiladas? Corn tortillas are integral to both dishes. Want to start with salsa and chips? Crispy thin tortillas play a starring role. Serving a spicy mole or seafood dish? Warm tortillas slathered with butter make a great accompaniment.
You can buy ready-made tortillas in the grocery store, and they’re serviceable in a pinch. But they can be bit bland. In fact, when it comes to taste and texture, packaged tortillas can’t compete with freshly made.
Fortunately, it takes only minutes to make corn tortillas in your own kitchen. So why not? It’s loads cheaper and tons healthier. Not to mention perfect for your big Cinco de Mayo blowout.
Recipe: Easy Homemade Corn Tortillas
In our part of the world, a tortilla is a form of flat bread (the word means something different in Spain; see Notes). You can make tortillas from maize (corn) or wheat flour. In Mexico, corn is a principal crop, so it’s no surprise that corn tortillas are found throughout the country. Flour tortillas are a bit more popular in northern Mexico (where wheat is commonly grown) and in the US.
The dough for corn tortillas is called masa (which is Spanish for, well, dough). You can use masa made from freshly ground corn or you can use dried masa harina (which means “dough flour”—it’s the dried, powdered form of fresh corn masa). Masa harina is what you’re most likely to find at the supermarket, so that’s what we use in this recipe.
Traditionally, corn tortillas contain only two ingredients: masa harina and water. Some people like to add a bit of salt and/or oil. We use the traditional recipe here, but in the Notes we discuss adding salt and oil.
It’s easiest to make tortillas with a tortilla press (basically a device that flattens a ball of dough into a flat circle). But if you don’t have a press, you can use a heavy pie plate or the bottom of a saucepan (see Notes).
Tortillas are baked on a griddle. We use an electric one that allows us to bake 6 at a time. But you can also do them one at a time in a frying pan.
Prep time for mixing tortilla dough is 2 to 3 minutes. It then takes another 2 to 3 minutes to bake each tortilla on a griddle (so total cooking time depends on the size of the griddle you’re using).
This recipe yields about 12 to 14 tortillas. They’re best when eaten immediately after cooking. But you can prepare them an hour or two in advance, and then reheat them (see Notes).
- 2 cups masa harina
- ~1 + 1/3 cups warm water (exact amount varies, depending on how humid it is)
- If using an electric griddle: Preheat it to 350 degrees F. If using a stovetop griddle or skillet: Place it over medium-high heat.
- Pour the masa harina into a medium-sized mixing bowl, then add slightly over 1 cup of water. Mix the flour and water together with your hands (use disposable gloves if desired) until you form a soft dough, adding more water as necessary. The aim is to form a mixture with the consistency of soft cookie dough; it shouldn’t stick to the bowl or to your hands. If you use too little water, the dough will be dry and crumbly. Too much water will make it sticky.
- When you’ve finished mixing, tear off a piece of dough and roll it into a ball about 1½ inches in diameter (or a bit less). Repeat with the rest of the dough—you’ll generally end up with 12 to 14 balls (a couple more or fewer is OK).
- Pull out a large plastic food bag (we use the 1-gallon size) and cut it along the seams to separate it into 2 sheets of plastic. Place one of the sheets on the bottom of a tortilla press. Position a ball of dough on top of the plastic, in the middle of the press. Then place the other sheet of plastic over the dough. Close the press and use the handle to apply pressure—you’ll be forming a disc that measures around 6 inches or so in diameter. (See Notes for an alternative procedure if you don’t have a press.)
- Peel the tortilla off the plastic sheet (being careful not to tear the dough) and place it on the griddle (no need to grease the griddle). Cook for 30 to 60 seconds, until the dough releases from the griddle (the process is like making pancakes—you may need to do one or two to determine how long it takes). Using a spatula, flip the tortilla over and cook the other side for another minute. Flip again, and cook until done—the tortilla will be just a bit brown.
- Place the tortilla on a napkin or towel, and fold the cloth around the tortilla to keep it warm.
- Repeat the pressing/baking process until you’ve used all the dough. Stack each tortilla on top of the prior one and cover the stack with the napkin/towel to keep them warm.
- Note: We often press 6 tortillas at once, then put them all on our electric griddle at the same time. We press the remaining tortillas while the initial batch is baking. But the first time you make tortillas, it’s probably best to make them one at a time so you can learn the technique.
- You can sometimes buy fresh corn masa at Mexican grocery stores, or at a tortilla factory (if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby). Fresh masa produces a nicer tortilla, but masa harina also works perfectly well.
- At our local supermarkets, masa harina tends to be shelved next to the wheat flour or near Mexican items (or both). You can also sometimes find it shelved in the gluten-free section.
- The Maseca® brand of masa harina is commonly available (and of good quality). But use whatever brand your grocery store has on offer. Our usual disclaimer here: We’re noncommercial and receive no compensation for recommending specific brands. We suggest only what we use and like.
- Don’t have a tortilla press? No problem. Just cut a plastic food bag apart as described in Step 4, and place one half on your kitchen counter. Position a ball of dough in the center of the plastic, then cover it with the other sheet. Place something large and flat (like the bottom of a heavy pie plate, or the bottom of a large saucepan) on top of the dough ball, and press down firmly. This should produce a nice, round disc of dough.
- Some people use a rolling pin to flatten tortilla dough. We haven’t tried it, but you may want to give it a go.
- If you make tortillas more than very occasionally, it’s worth getting a tortilla press. You can usually find a perfectly adequate one for under $20.
- As noted above, some tortilla recipes call for salt. We don’t think this is necessary, but you may prefer it. If so, just add salt to taste in Step 2 of the Procedure (maybe ½ teaspoon or so).
- Some recipes also add oil. We’ve never done this, but we’d vote for using extra-virgin olive oil if we were going that route. Recipes typically specify adding 2 to 4 tablespoons of oil for the amount of masa harina we use. Adding oil would likely reduce the amount of water you’d need, but you may want to experiment with quantities.
- BTW, we’re not exactly sure what the oil would do in this recipe. It might make the tortillas a bit more tender (though they’re fine without it). And it would probably help them stay fresh for a bit longer.
- You can prepare tortillas an hour or two ahead of time and then reheat them: Just wrap the tortillas in a towel and warm them in a 200-degree F oven for 15 minutes or so. Alternatively, you could sprinkle some water on a towel, wrap the tortillas in it, and heat them in the microwave for a few minutes. Or steam them (in a towel) over water in a veggie steamer for several minutes.
- If you typically serve bread and butter with dinner, try substituting tortillas sometime. A warm tortilla slathered with butter is seriously good stuff.
- And because corn tortillas are gluten free, they make a nice mealtime “bread” for people who can’t consume gluten.
- In Spain, the word “tortilla” means what we in the US call a frittata. The classic Spanish tortilla is a potato frittata (a recipe we need to post about one of these days).
“Love these tortillas,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “And they’re great with Mexican Charro Beans. Do I sense that we’re in the midst of a Mexican recipe series?”
“Indeed we are,” I said. “Cinco de Mayo is coming up in a few weeks, and I want to be prepared.”
“Well, I won’t stand in your way,” said Mrs K R.
“We started this month’s posts with the Rosita Cocktail,” I said. “That drink features tequila, which is the quintessential Mexican liquor.”
“Then last week we posted about charro beans,” said Mrs K R. “And now we’re discussing tortillas.”
“Right. And next week we’ll do soft tacos,” I said. “Made with these tortillas, in fact. Plus spicy shredded beef.”
“Yum!” said Mrs K R. “I loved the hard shell tacos we did a few years ago.”
“To round off the month, we’ll do enchiladas,” I said. “And we’ll use that shredded beef again as a filling.”
“Glad to hear about the enchiladas,” said Mrs K R. “After all, Riffs do not live by tacos alone.”
“I strive to provide a balanced diet,” I said.
“And shredded beef in both the soft tacos and the enchiladas?” said Mrs K R. “I guess that answers the age-old question.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Where’s the beef?” said Mrs K R.
I should have seen that coming.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Mexican Charro Beans
Easy Hard Shell Tacos
Shrimp in Chipotle Sauce
Salsa and Picante Sauce
Velveeta Tex-Mex Dip
Or check out the index for more recipes