By the time we left Zacatecas, I had realised that if it weren’t for the tortilla, Mexico would probably starve. These flat, corn- or flour-based breads are at the heart of almost every quick Mexican dish – and some of the more complicated ones, too! And when one food is that important in a cuisine, you simply have to learn to make it yourself. In fact, next time you go to a supermarket, pick up a packet of soft tortillas and read the back – if they have any more than three ingredients, you’re being shafted – it will be full of preservatives.
1 Mar 2014 - 2:03 PM  UPDATED 20 Oct 2016 - 2:42 PM

Tortillas, although incredibly simple to make, do take practice, so watch carefully as I give them a go in this episode. And as I struggle through my first few – persistence is a part of any skill, and absolutely essential to cooking – keep going, even if you fail at your first few. You’ll get there.

You only need three ingredients to make a tortilla: masa harina (corn flour), warm water and a little salt (optional). Masa de harina literally means “dough flour” and is made from roasted corn activated with lime (the same stuff you use to whitewash walls!), soaked in hot water to give it workable elasticity, and ground between two granite rollers. Don’t confuse it with “cornflour” – they are two quite different things. Do a little research to find a Mexican ingredient importer or a specialty supermarket that sells masa flour.

Step 1: Mix about 2 cups of masa harina (dried masa flour) with water and knead until it becomes a smooth dough. Roll it into a large ball and cover for at least 1 hour. After the dough is rested, you need to check its density. Break off a small piece, roll it into a ball, then squash it between your palms. If the edges crack it’s too dry, if it sticks to your hand it’s too wet. Or push your thumb into the dough and it should pass in easily and not crack on the sides or stick to your thumb.

Step 2: Split the dough into 2cm balls. Cover the base of a plate or circular stone with plastic wrap.

Step 3: Take each ball and press it down under the base of the plastic-wrapped plate, to flatten it into a round “tortilla” shape. Heat a heavy cast iron frying pan to medium on the stove. (A tortilla press is also a great novelty kitchen tool and makes the pressing much easier. You need to make sure to press the tortilla between two pieces of plastic wrap or it will stick to your press.)

Step 4: Carefully transfer your tortilla from the plastic to the palm of your hand and then into the frying pan. The tortilla will start to develop brown dots – once you see a few, flip it over. Once the tortilla has puffed up on both sides, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Mexic-OH! fact During the Civil War, wheat tortilla-wrapped meat snacks were regularly delivered to soldiers on the front by the country’s most reliable means of transportation – the donkey, or “burro”. This is where the name for one of the world’s favourite Mexican fast foods, the “burrito”, originated.


Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita