Jun 162013

Corn tortilla dough

I’ll go ahead and say it: I haven’t done a great deal of Mexican cooking in my life. But I do know what I like, and though I’m a little ashamed to say it, Tex-Mex is kinda what I know I like. I know there’s a whole other world of fantastic Mexican cuisine out there for me to try, but I spent a bigger chunk of my formative years than I’d like to admit to in Texas and it appears to have shaped my tastes. Though my acquired tastes will hopefully grow as I do something like go buy and cook from a great book or two and learn about real Mexican food, as far as I’m concerned, San Antonio will always boast the be-all end-all of Tex-Mex cuisine. The farther you get away from the city, the more precipitously the quality falls, and the first place you’ll notice it is in the tortillas.

I’m a huge tortilla snob. I went to college in San Antonio and all of my favorite places made their tortillas in-house and you could tell. Chipotle was just getting big during my time at Trinity University and even though they were like a mile away from campus and they were really, really good at finding excuses to give burritos to college students for free, I preferred several other smaller, more expensive, much farther away burrito places because of — you guessed it — the tortillas. I don’t know if they ever got their act together, but come on, you can not come in to San Antonio with tortillas that taste like they were made in a factory a thousand miles away and expect to have good things happen — well, those good things won’t happen with my wallet, at least.

Corn tortilla dough

After college, I lived about three hours from San Antonio, and the tortillas there? Ugh! In retrospect though, we could absolutely blame that one on the water that was used in the tortillas. (There were anecdotes about people’s pets dying after drinking the tap-water and I have a hypothesis that the huge number of dialysis centers in the town were due to the hard water. West Texas water is NASTY. If you boiled it, the steam took the form of skulls and crossbones. But I digress.)

Corn tortilla dough

After several years of wandering the country, I ended up back in the southwest. Luckily, my time in Arizona taught me that you can find great tortillas in other places too. Though the flour tortillas never lived up to my expectations, you could find some killer corn tortillas at places like the Sunday St. Phillip’s Plaza farmers’ market in Tucson. But, being someone who’s been attached to the military in one form or another for my entire life, I knew we wouldn’t live there forever, so it was high time I learned to make these little tasties myself so I wouldn’t have to go without.

I took my inspiration, as per usual, from Rancho Gordo. I had long ago seen a video of Steve Sando making tortillas and it seriously looked really easy. Sure, he was using a tortilla press — something that I didn’t have at the time — but how hard could it be to roll out the dough? Turned out it was pretty freakin’ hard, so I would suggest either getting the press, or using something like a cast-iron skillet to squish the dough to the desired diameter. Me, I threw out my uni-tasker rule and my kitchen now houses a solid cast-iron tortilla press and it makes everything so much easier and faster.

Making corn tortillas: the action shots!

Aaaaaaand: action! Thanks to Mister Om-Nom Sauce for taking these shots. (Yes, I know the background is not immaculate. I actually use my kitchen and there are things in the background on real action-shots such as these.)

Having only two ingredients, tortillas are very simple, but they do take a bit of practice to actually make. The first batch or two can be very frustrating as you figure out optimal thickness, best way to hold the flattened dough, or how to deal with seeming disasters on the hot hot heat. Before too long though, you’ll hit your stride and you’ll be making fresh, delicious-tasting tortillas like a pro!

Corn tortillas

Two-Ingredient Corn Tortillas
Developed by trial and error
Makes six 6-inch tortillas


  • This recipe scales up or down really easily. I’ve given directions for six tortillas, but I always make 12 or 18 at a time so I have them on hand.
  • If you have a food scale, it will make your life much easier. Dividing the dough into equal portions is a snap when you can weigh each ball.
  • Some people swear by lining the press with plastic-wrap; others use circles cut out from plastic grocery bags. I prefer the wrap, but you should experiment to find what works best for you.

You will need:

  • 1 cup (124g) masa harina
  • 2/3 cup (160g or ml) water, room temperature

To prepare:

  1. Mix the water and masa in a bowl and mix. Do not use a whisk. Once the dough has come together, transfer it to the counter-top and knead for a few minutes. There is no gluten here, so you don’t have to worry about toughening the dough or developing the gluten well.
  2. Divide the dough into six equal balls. Cover until ready to cook so that they won’t dry out.
  3. Heat a griddle or 12-inch cast-iron skillet until it is about 450-500F. Grab a plate and a clean kitchen towel to cover the tortillas after cooking.
  4. Relax. If you are still new to tortilla-making, you are going to have a few not-so-tortilla-y tortillas. This is a skill that takes some learning to master, so just have fun with it.
  5. Line your tortilla press with your preferred substance (see note above). Place a ball of dough between the sheets, making sure that there are no wrinkles in the bottom plastic layer (wrinkles on the top are ok). Give the dough a press (not too vigorous), then open the press, rotate the dough 180-degrees, then press again (this ensures that you don’t have a thick side and a thin side and also helps you get your dough to about 6-inches without making it so thin that it can’t be handled). Your dough should now be about 6-inches in diameter.
  6. Place the plastic-encased dough in your non-dominant hand and with the other hand, gently peel back the top plastic layer. Gently transfer the dough to your other hand. Finding the placement on your hand that works best for you is the trickiest part of making tortillas. For me, it works best when I have the edge of the dough alongside my index finger, my fingers together and not fanned out, and a large amount of dough just hanging out in mid-air (see the action montage above for an example of this). Experiment to find what works best for you. Peel back the remaining plastic. If it falls apart, that’s ok, just re-form the dough-ball and press again.
  7. In a smooth, quick, fluid motion, transfer the dough to the griddle or skillet. If all has gone well, it’s landed flat and smooth onto the surface. If you end up with a bumpy fold, it’ll probably fix itself. Do not try to adjust it just yet. Either way, let it cook until it’s getting some good color (30-60 seconds, depending on how hot your cooking surface is), then use a spatula to flip it. If you had a bump when you put the dough on the griddle, it probably flattened out when you flipped it. Cook for another 30-60 seconds. If your tortilla had a bump that flattened out, it will probably need another flip back to the original side so you can cook the underside of that bump.
  8. When the tortilla is done cooking, transfer it to the plate and cover it with the towel. Repeat the pressing and cooking of the dough (doing the pressing while a tortilla is cooking, if you like) until all of your dough-balls are used up. Serve the tortillas any way you like, storing leftovers in the fridge and re-heating in a skillet before use.

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