THE WASHINGTON POST – Proficiency in Italian and counted cross-stitch are two things I thought I might learn during quarantine. I do not know what happened to those months, but I cannot speak Italian and I have not sewn one stitch. Instead, I spent my time learning to make some of our favourite foods. First on the list: flour tortillas.
For the past several years, I travelled a Tour de Texas, teaching for the Central Market Cooking School. Central Market is owned by HEB, a grocery chain that serves much of the state, and its tortilla is the standard by which I measure others. Leaving Texas, I would pack my suitcase with tortillas for my home freezer. Five months ago, around the middle of April, I defrosted the last package.
The time had come to teach myself to make a flour tortilla just like that one – light and airy, chewy, sturdy enough to hold fillings and packed with flavour.
A good tortilla is the very reason I make sure there are leftovers. I look forward to lunchtime, when I warm a fresh tortilla over the flame of my gas stove, charring it a little, and then wrap it around last night’s dinner. Some mornings, I cannot think of anything until there are soft scrambled eggs, crumbled cotija, salsa and hot sauce wrapped up in a warm tortilla. Got sausage? That is a weekend breakfast burrito classic.
Over the course of several weeks, I tested different flours, including one from a small mill in southern Texas that was recommended on a subreddit. The best results, consistently, were tortillas made with bread flour, as recommended in Kennedy’s book. All-purpose flour lacks the proteins to form a sturdy tortilla. High-gluten flour made a tough tortilla. Bread flour made a chewy, light tortilla and a stretchy dough that rolled out gloriously into thin-as-air rounds.
I made tortillas with warm water, which helped the fat and flour mix smoothly. I tried a recipe that called for milk instead of water, and it added flavour to dough made with shortening.
Once I had the flour and liquids sorted, I started swapping out fats. An all-butter tortilla is delicious and flavourful, and when warmed, its aroma is reminiscent of buttered toast. The dough is a little tricky, though. When I mixed shortening and butter, the tortilla retained the buttery flavour and the dough was more workable.
After weeks of experimentation, I called Mexican chef Pati Jinich, cookbook author and the award-winning host of Pati’s Mexican Kitchen, whose eighth season just premiered on PBS, focussing on Sonora. I did my research and needed confirmation, some tips, and more than anything, intel about that baking powder (which I thought made tortillas too cakey).
To cook tortillas – and so much more – Mexican kitchens are equipped with a comal, or griddle. If you do not have one, heat a dry cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Every stove is different, and depending on how thin your dough has been rolled, the heat and timing will need to be adjusted.
Making tortillas is straightforward. I mix the dough and let it rest so it will not fight back when rolled. I use a dowel to roll out each tortilla much thinner than I could ever achieve with a pin, so thin I can see my hand through it, then transfer it quickly to the hot, dry griddle.
After I griddle each tortilla, I wrap it in a tea towel. It will steam, stay warm and flexible, and be there to welcome the other tortillas as you roll, griddle, flip, and stack them, too. Please do not miss the chance to take the last one off the stack, butter it and eat it while it is so hot it is steaming.
Keep the tortillas wrapped in a towel right on the kitchen counter, incorporating them into your meals during the day. Jinich and I discussed longer storage (although she says in her household full of growing kids, it is not an issue.) At the end of the day, she said, any remaining tortillas should stay wrapped in the towel, slipped into a zip-top bag and refrigerated. They won’t last more than a couple of days. She is no fan of freezing tortillas, and I’ll admit the homemade ones do not freeze as well as the Central Market tortillas, but it can be done.
12 (makes 12 eight-inch tortillas)
Active time: one hour | Total time: two hours
Freshly made flour tortillas are flavourful and tender, spectacularly different from most grocery-store options. As with so many ancient recipes, the simplest ingredients are at play here – flour, water, fat and salt. Bread flour carries more proteins and helps to build gluten and hold the tortillas together, while keeping them airy enough so they blister. Warm water encourages the fats to melt and combine with the flour. Just a little salt elevates the flavour of the tortilla while too much makes the tortilla difficult to form.
Storage Notes: The tortillas made with butter, vegan butter and/or shortening can be stored at room temperature, tightly wrapped, for up to four days; the tortillas made with animal fats will keep for up to two days. Warm the tortillas directly over a gas stove’s open flame for 10 seconds per side or on a hot ungreased griddle or skillet for 20 seconds per side. Frozen, the tortillas will keep for two months. Defrost and reheat as usual.
Four cups bread flour
Eight tablespoons rendered fat
One teaspoon kosher salt
One cup warm water
Place a large plate and a clean tea towel near the work surface.
In the bowl of the stand mixer, combine the bread flour and the fat, the butter or the combination of shortening and butter. Add the salt and water. Set the bowl on the mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, and turn to medium speed, mixing for two minutes, until the dough is soft and smooth.
Lightly dust the work surface with flour. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and divide into 12 equal pieces, each weighing about 65 grammes. (If your skillet is less than nine inches in diameter, divide the dough into 14 balls, about 55 grammes each.)
Working with one piece of dough at a time, flatten it into a disk and pull in the edges to form a ball. Lightly roll the ball under your palm until smooth and round and place on the reserved plate, seam side down, draping with the tea towel. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces. Let the dough rest for at least one hour and up to two hours.
Heat an ungreased nine-inch or wider griddle or skillet over medium heat. Have a large plate covered with a clean tea towel next to the stove. The griddle or pan is ready when a few drops of water tossed on the surface sizzle and evaporate immediately.
Lightly dust the work surface with flour. Working with one dough ball at a time, flatten it into a disk and flour it on both sides. Flour a dowel or a rolling pin and roll the dough, turning and flipping it over so it does not stick, until you get an eight-inch wide disk thin enough to see your hand through it.
When the tortilla is rolled out, drape it over your hand and transfer carefully to the griddle or skillet. Do not allow it to pleat or fold. Carefully, lower it onto the hot surface. The edges will immediately start to cook, changing from translucent to opaque, rising off the surface. You might hear sizzles or pops as the tortilla blisters across the surface; after about one minute, use a spatula to lift and flip it over. There should be a scattering of browned freckles on what is now the top of the tortilla.
Carefully and lightly, use your fingertips to tap the tortilla here and there to encourage air bubbles in any areas that have not blistered. Cook until the underside is freckled with brown dots, one to two more minutes, and transfer to the towel-draped plate. Wrap the tortilla in the towel to keep it warm and to slightly steam it. If tortillas darken too quickly, raise and lower the heat to maintain a proper temperature in the pan.
Repeat with the remaining dough balls, rolling out each tortilla, carefully placing it on the hot surface and flipping as it lightly freckles, blisters and puffs up. As each tortilla is cooked, stack it on top of the cooked tortillas in the tea towel, and rewrap so they stay soft and pliable. If any residual flour from the tortillas starts to burn in the pan, roll up a kitchen towel and carefully wipe the pan clean between tortillas.
Serve right away or place the towel-wrapped tortillas into a plastic bag (do not seal) and let cool completely before refrigerating. If freezing the tortillas, remove the towel beforehand.
Nutrition | Calories: 235; Total Fat: 10g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 9mg; Sodium: 94mg; Carbohydrates: 30g; Dietary Fibre: 1g; Sugar: 0g; Protein: 5g.