Fresh Tortillas For All!
Even though I teach only cooking related classes at Le Cordon Bleu Chicago, as a curious chef and life long student of everything delicious, I am fascinated by the science and technique of bread baking. The importance of bread in the world's food cultures cannot be overstated, and it is a topic of such immense scope that I have to narrow my gaze, and focus on one of my all time favorite breads that many people may not even consider a bread at first glance.
Everywhere we look we see different styles of flatbreads from different parts of the world. Many are made with wheat, some with rice, some with millet, others with teff, and even some with potatoes. But consider the humble Mexican flatbread that's made with corn; that's right, the tortilla. What an amazing achievement to have discovered how to take a gluten free carbohydrate and turn it into a dough that can be baked into a flexible, not crumbly, bread. It all has to do with a process called nixtamalization, in which dried kernels of corn are boiled and soaked in an alkaline liquid to loosen the tough husk and transform them into chewy nuggets that can be ground into a cohesive dough.
That dough is called masa, and it can be purchased in its fresh, moist form if you know where to look. What's easier to find at almost any grocery store is the dried form called masa harina, which comes in five pound sacks for just a couple of bucks. When you're ready to make your from scratch tortillas, pre-heat a stovetop griddle or a cast iron pan over medium heat, and then pour a couple of cups of masa harina into a mixing bowl. Add a couple pinches of salt, and then while stirring, drizzle in enough warm water to form a play dough-like consistency (it will probably take one and a half to two cups of water). That's it. It really is that simple to make masa.
Roll the masa into golf ball-sized pieces, sandwich one of them between two pieces of parchment or wax paper, and press it as flat as you can with a heavy, ten-inch sauté pan. Peel off the top layer of paper and invert the tortilla onto the griddle, paper and all. The tortilla will stick to the hot griddle surface, and the paper peels away easily, ready for you to press out your next piece of masa. After a minute or two, flip the tortilla onto its second side. The first side should be toasty looking and lightly charred in a couple of spots, if not, you should turn up the heat a bit. Another minute or two on the second side is all it takes to finish cooking, and then you should slip the hot tortillas under a clean towel to let them steam and soften up a bit. After five minutes or so, you're ready to tuck your favorite fillings into your hot, fresh tortillas and enjoy the best taco you've even eaten. Enjoy!