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Corn tortillas are ubiquitous in the US. Factories daily churn out millions of them and disperse them to all corners of the country. The yellowish corn discs have become a $5 billion market that feeds a growing number of Hispanics and other Mexican-food devotees, many of whom will be feasting on salsa-smothered tacos this Cinco de Mayo.
Read the labels of tortillas sold in US supermarkets, though, and you’ll find a lengthy list of hard-to-pronounce food additives; some even have wheat flour. You’ll also find that, by contrast with the tasty, chewy suppleness of a real Mexican tortilla, store-bought ones are often flavorless imitations that quickly get soggy and fall apart. A growing number of companies are making tortillas the old-fashioned way, but they are hard to find outside foodie enclaves along the coasts. They are also marketed as gourmet fare, and priced like it.
How hard, I wondered, could it be to make a decent tortilla? In its original form, it’s the delicious amalgam of just three ingredients: corn, lime (the alkaline mineral, not the citrus fruit), and water. Ground up. Patted into a circle. Cooked on a hot pan until it puffs up like a delicate balloon. Simplicity itself.
So I decided to try making my own. And I quickly discovered that not only is it a lot harder than it seems; there’s a slew of probable reasons, from the changing role of women to food-industry economics, why the traditional tortilla hasn’t made its way across the Mexico-US border. Ultimately, I gathered that the way most Americans—and increasingly, even Mexicans—live today is incompatible with the traditional, simple, delicious tortillas I grew up with.
Tortillas are a Mesoamerican invention. Long before Europeans arrived, indigenous people in Mexico and Central America were making ground-corn delicacies.
Aside from domesticating wild grasses into corn, they developed a process that supercharges its nutritional value and makes it more edible by cooking it in an alkaline solution. It’s called nixtamalization. It loosens the kernel hulls, making them easier to grind and bind into tortilla dough, or masa, says Sergio Serna, a researcher who has studied corn at Mexican university Tec de Monterrey. It also adds nutrients such as calcium and potassium that were otherwise absent in the Mesoamerican diet, essentially transforming corn into the equivalent of milk. Corn became so central to the region’s culture that it was revered as a deity.
The traditional method of making tortillas has remained pretty much unchanged for centuries. The corn is boiled with lime, which substituted the wood ashes that were likely used originally. That mixture is called nixtamal, which is ground up into masa.
Indigenous people used a flat stone mortar with a cylindrical pestle, known as a metate, to crush the corn. Small mechanical stone mills began to be sold commercially around the early 1900s, according to Serna. They popped up in neighborhoods and remained commonplace well into the century. Households would make their own nixtamal and take it to the mill in buckets to be turned into the masa for that day’s serving of tortillas. Back then, families were bigger and could easily go through a kilo of tortillas in one sitting, so there was no need to load them with preservatives.
The disappearing mill
David Bautista runs a nixtamal mill in Monterrey, an industrial hub in northern Mexico. He remembers the lines of customers stretching out the small storefront where his family has been grinding nixtamal since 1920 with the same machine that he uses today. These days Bautista mostly sells to restaurants and tamal makers because “women don’t have time to make tortillas anymore,” he says. That’s because more Mexican women work outside of the home than in the past. Nearly half of working-age women have jobs, compared to a little more than a third in 1990, according to World Bank data.
I got a sense of why homemade nixtamal tortillas are becoming a rarity in big cities such as Monterrey after recently buying a kilo of the yellowish, soft masa that Bautista churns out of his family heirloom.
The tortillas I made with it were thick, chewy, and scrumptious. But while making a few for some lunch tacos took less than 20 minutes, going through the whole kilo of dough would have involved more than an hour. That’s without counting the time it took to collect the masa from Bautista’s mill downtown. It’s a sizable time investment for families in which corn tortillas are still the center of their meal. An average Mexican eats 80 kilos of tortillas a year, Serna, the researcher says.
Also working against Bautista is an innovation that upended the tortilla market starting around the 1950s: ready-to-mix corn flour. It’s the Betty Crocker version of masa. Using it shaves many hours off the process, because you just need to mix the flour with water. It’s also easier to get consistent results. Making nixtamal requires controlling more variables, including the amount of lime and cooking time. Bautista says it’s easy to mess up if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Today three out of ten tortillas eaten in Mexico are made with corn flour instead of nixtamal masa, according to Serna. (In the US, about half of tortilla production is made with corn flour, per data from the Tortilla Industry Association, a trade group.) As a result, the number of mills in the municipality of Monterrey, which has more than 1.1 million inhabitants, has shrunk down to a handful. Meanwhile, Gruma, the local company that spread corn flour throughout the country, has grown into a tortilla behemoth in Mexico and the US. It posted 58.3 billion pesos ($3.5 billion) in revenue last year.
To some, corn flour yields an inferior tortilla. After several years of working for a manufacturer of massive tortilla-making equipment in the US and Europe, Alfonso Dehesa opened up a much smaller tortilla plant in Monterrey. He only uses nixtamal, which he says forms a more cohesive masa than reconstituted flour. That makes for a more flexible and resistant tortilla, he says. He demonstrates in the video below.
Still, if freshly made, tortillas made with corn flour can taste pretty good. Many Mexicans eat this kind of tortilla, which they often get from tiny neighborhood tortilla factories, known as tortillerías. Customers can see behind the counter how the masa is loaded into a machine that churns out dozens of perfect rounds. They get cooked on a conveyer belt, stacked, and wrapped in paper. The tortillas are made fresh throughout the day, not unlike hot baguettes at a French boulangerie.
There are more than 100,000 establishments in Mexico that make tortillas or mill corn into nixtamal, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency. Few Mexicans get their tortillas pre-packaged from a supermarket, according to Serna.
In the US, it’s harder to find tortillerías like that. Small mom-and-pop operations account for about 30% of the companies in the trade, and a much smaller share of sales, according to the Tortilla Industry Association. Most tortillas are produced in highly industrialized factories that churn out thousands of units a minute.
Also, consumers in the US are more used to buying all their groceries in one place. To go from factory to distribution center to supermarket shelf, tortillas need to last a long time. Dehesa, the small tortilla manufacturer, says that if he wanted to sell to a supermarket chain, he would have to increase the shelf life of his white-corn tortillas from about five days to three months. (His yellow-corn tortillas, which contain more lime, can last up to 10 days outside the refrigerator.)
Doing that means adding preservatives such as propionic, benzoic and fumaric acids. They keep bacteria, yeasts and fungi at bay, says Dehesa. But they also alter the tortillas’ texture and flavor, and not for the better.
The tortilla tasting challenge
I bought several brands of packaged tortillas at regular supermarkets and Mexican grocery stores in Dallas, Texas. I tried them side by side with corn-flour tortillas that I had brought from a tortillería in Mexico. I found the packaged tortillas with preservatives had a cardboard-like texture and an unpleasant, sour taste and smell. The one brand I found with only corn, lime and water in the ingredient list was much better. Still, the Mexican tortillas, even though they had been frozen, were the most pliable and tasted best.
My decidedly unscientific findings are backed by more formal research by scientists at Mexico’s National Institute of Forest, Agriculture and Livestock Research. In a 2011 study (pdf, Spanish), they evaluated the qualities of freshly made tortillas, from both nixtamal masa and a mix of nixtamal masa and corn flour, and of packaged tortillas made in the US and Mexico. They found that the freshly made tortillas were easy to roll, and were smooth, with an astringent smell. The packaged tortillas, in contrast, felt dry and lumpy in the mouth. They also had a strong acetic-acid smell (think vinegar or old wine.)
An acceptable American tortilla
So what does one have to do to get a good tortilla in the US?
I decided to make no compromises and make my own nixtamal masa. I bought dried corn at a Mexican supermarket and ordered a hand-cranked grain mill from Amazon. Dehesa had given me some lime in a plastic bag, which he carefully labeled with a black sharpie lest customs officials confuse the thin white powder with something else. I enlisted Velia León, who grew up making nixtamal masa at her family ranch in San Luis Potosí in central Mexico, to guide me.
We boiled the corn with the lime, and the kitchen filled with the distinct wet-earth smell of nixtamal. We were off to a promising start. Then things got sticky. Even though the corn’s skin easily slid off, the telltale sign of doneness, the kernels were still bone dry inside and hard. We cooked the corn some more, but then it just got gummy. We decided to grind it anyway. Out of he mill oozed gelatinous globs littered with shards of white uncooked corn. It couldn’t have been more different from Bautista’s uniform, soft masa.
We’re not sure what went wrong. León and her family grew and dried their own corn, so it was presumably a lot fresher than what I bought off-the-shelf. My mill, meant for dry grains, was probably wrong for the task too. Even though we ran a batch of rice to clean it, the masa it spat out had a grayish hue from the mill’s metal coating.
We didn’t even bother rolling the masa into balls. Instead, we whipped out a bag of corn flour and had fresh tortillas in a few minutes. They were entirely acceptable. Here’s how to make them.
Recipe: hand-made corn flour tortillas
What you’ll need
- Nixtamalized corn flour. (Find one with only corn and lime on the ingredient list.)
- A tortilla press, unless you want to pat the tortillas by hand, which is hard and time-consuming.
- A thin plastic bag
- A well-seasoned pan
How to do it
Mix the flour with water in a bowl. Maseca, the brand of flour we used, calls for a ratio of two cups of flour to 1 1/4 cups of water. (I calculate the quantities by eye.)
Use your hands to make a smooth dough that doesn’t stick to your fingers, then form it into balls. The size depends on how big you want your tortillas. I do golf-ball size, which result in smallish tortillas.
Cut out two circles out of the plastic bag to match your tortilla press. You will use them to line the press so the masa doesn’t stick.
Put one plastic circle in the press, place the ball in the center of it, and cover it with the other circle. Close the press and push the lever—not too hard, or you’ll end up with a really thin tortilla. Peel it off the plastic circles and place it in the pan.
Medium-high heat works best. Wait until the edges of the tortilla lift off the pan slightly before turning it. Cook it on the other side for a minute or so. Turn it one last time. You’ll know you’ve mastered tortilla making if it puffs up.
Press it down a couple of times with your fingers or a spatula to let the air out. Then it’s done. Eat it fresh off the pan with a piece of mashed avocado, butter or just salt.