I'm not going to lie. Making fresh corn tortillas is more time-consuming and difficult than using storebought. And if you live in the right area, the storebought kind can actually be pretty good. That said, they don't come close to the intense corn flavor and pillowy, steamy softness of a fresh, handmade tortilla fresh off the comal (or the nonstick griddle, as the case may be), and they really aren't that hard to make.
Traditionally, corn had to be treated with lime, cooked, carefully dried, milled, formed into a dough, pressed by hand, and quickly cooked on a hot stone or iron surface. These days, thankfully, the process is much simpler. Ready-to-mix par-cooked cornmeal sold under the brand name Maseca makes short work of the dough-making process: just add water.
As for forming the tortillas, you can do what I used to do for years and press them out using brute force under a skillet (a pain in the butt), or upgrade to the faster, easier option: a tortilla press.
I did a side-by-side comparison of the tortilla press against my old skillet just to prove how much of an advantage it offers.
A tortilla press is nothing more than two flat plates that are hinged at one side, along with a lever on the opposite side to clamp the plates shut. Using the magic of physics, it allows you to effortlessly flatten a tablespoon-sized ball of dough into a round pancake six inches wide and about one-sixteenth of an inch wide. To give you an idea of how thin that is, I took the same ball of dough and flattened it under a skillet putting my full 170 pounds of weight on it and managed to get it down to about one-eighth of an inch—twice as thick as what I managed with a single hand on the press.
It will also significantly speed up the process—something that you'll be glad for if you have to make 48 tortillas for a taco party like I did last Sunday (the tacos were fantastic, by the way—thanks, Chichi!). To flatten a dozen balls of dough into tortillas took me three minutes with the press and nearly eight minutes with the pan.
Shopping for a Tortilla Press
Tortillas basically come in four materials. Plastic is completely worthless. It's flimsy, warps, and breaks. Wood presses look pretty, but have a tendency to crack and split after a few uses. Don't bother.
Cast aluminum presses, like this one ($16.95) are a better option. They are extremely cheap and won't break on you, but their lightness makes pressing tortillas a tiring affair.
Your best option by far is cast iron, which almost always comes with a thin coating of tin in order to prevent rust or tarnishing. Its heft makes forming tortillas a snap, and cast iron is virtually indestructible under normal use. Finally, it's also cheaper than any of the other options. I got a 6 1/2-inch Victoria Cast Iron Tortilla Press from Imusa ($14.99), and couldn't be happier with it.
I have heard concern expressed over the tinning job on cast iron tortilla presses, which often chips off. While I haven't personally had that problem, there is no reason to be concerned with it. Tin is one of the metals that's considered completely food safe—even if you are consuming tiny amounts of it, it won't harm you. Moreover, if you follow the method for making tortillas in the slideshow, your dough will never actually come in contact with the metal, so there is almost no chance of contamination from any errant tin particles.
Please also bear in mind that the presses I'm talking about are for making small corn tortillas, the traditional wrapper for tacos, enchiladas, and the like. For thinner, wider, Northern Mexican/Tex-Mex flour tortillas, you'll need an entirely different product, which hopefully I'll get my hands on for testing some day soon.
Until then, I leave you with a delicious and oddly vegetarian taco recipe:
Tacos de Papa »
About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments