These are my tortillas. They are made from Mexican heirloom corn I nixtamalized myself, ground twice, then formed and griddled on an iron comal. I am not proud of them. But I am getting better.
I know, they look pretty nice. But these tortillas are too thick, and were slightly brittle. They did not break in half, but they were not nearly so flexible as they should be. I suspected my masa was too dry, not quite cooked enough, and that my comal was too cool, facts confirmed by my friend Patricio Wise, a chef from Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
At least they tasted good.
I’ve been making a lot of tortillas lately. There is a reason for this that goes beyond whipping up a batch of tacos.
A great many good things in this life hinge on the perfect execution of something that is simple, but not easy. Writing a good sentence. Shooting a rifle. Casting a line. Driving to work. Being on time.
In food, show me a cuisine and I will show you that hinge. If you walk into a French restaurant and want a job, many chefs will ask you to make an omelet. Go to the Italian place, and chef will likely ask you to make pasta. Cajun joint? How good do you do roux, breaux?
In Mexico, it is the tortilla. These disks of either corn or flour are literally the foundation of that cuisine. But unlike sex, bad tortillas are just bad. And I have eaten a great many bad tortillas.
Flabby, factory-made tortillas that stink of industrial cleaners. Sour tortillas sweating in plastic bags for who-knows-how-long. Flour tortillas that were really Italian piadine flatbreads and yes there is a difference. Well-meaning home cooks making flour “tortillas” puffier than pita. Sad tortillas kluged together from cheap masa harina, which is to real masa what Golden Corral is to the French Laundry.
And don’t get me started on those pre-bent, hard-shelled Ortega monstrosities. Who thought that having your edible wrapper shatter at the first bite was fun?
Despite all this, I’ve had quite a few good tortillas, too. But I’ve had precious few great tortillas. One that lingers is a flour tortilla made by Tortillas Mi Pueblito in Mammoth, Arizona. Another is a corn tortilla handmade by Patricio.
To me, a great tortilla is not only mechanically perfect — thin and flexible — but it also has levels of flavor so rich that they are delicious unadorned. The experience starts before you even get the tortilla to your lips. They are round but not perfect. They are freckled with char. And the aroma of good wheat or good corn grabs you and holds on.
That aroma leads to flavor. Good corn, especially, satisfies every bit as much as good wheat: Better even, when you consider that a wheat tortilla requires lard, and lots of it. Corn tortillas are just corn, water and maybe salt.
Most people never bother with homemade tortillas. Most people buy them with no more thought than which brand they prefer, if that. Don’t get me wrong, I buy tortillas, too, for the same reason everyone else does: expediency.
But at least for me, to understand Mexican cooking, really understand it, I must be able to make a good tortilla.
It’s part of the whole stand-before-you-walk, walk-before-you-run philosophy I have always tried to follow. Jackson Pollock did not start his art career splashing paint on a giant canvas. Almost every day I wake up hot with ideas about how I can experiment with this ingredient or that cuisine, but always I hear my inner voice scolding me for cherry picking.
Sure, I can make a pretty good pipian or tamal, and even a decent mole.
But if I were to walk up to the great Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera and ask to work at his restaurant Pujol, chances are he’d ask me to make a tortilla. And even if he didn’t, I’d be mortified if I could not do so among such great Mexican chefs.
It took me years to become an accomplished pasta cook. I am good enough at it now that I would not fear to make cavatelli or gnocchi or tajarin for an Italian chef. I don’t know how long it will take me to become a competent tortillero. But I am working on it.
As usual, it’s the little things, things that are not in any recipe I have read in either English or Spanish. Even armed with a good recipe, I have not yet made a flour tortilla half as good as I’d like. Some taste like bread. Some were too thick. Others ballooned rather than bubbled, making a few large char spots, not lots of little ones.
Too much lard? Not enough? Comal too hot? Was the dough rested too much or too little? Hell, even rolling out tortillas is a skill.
Easier with corn tortillas, but when I make them super thin they break as I try to peel them off the pieces of plastic I use to prevent the masa from sticking to my tortilla press. Maybe use thinner plastic, like a grocery bag instead of a heavy freezer bag? So many little details…
If you think about it, the singular act of making a memorable tortilla is a skill valued for millennia in Mexico. A skill, in the past, used to gauge a woman’s value as a wife, and even today a cook’s value in the kitchen regardless of gender.
Given this, it would be downright insulting for me, or anyone jumping into this, to think we could nail it in the first, tenth or even hundreth time. I am so good at cooking duck breasts and filleting fish because I have done these tasks literally thousands of times. So it will be with making tortillas from scratch.
More failures lie ahead. And that’s OK. It’s worth it.