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I've spent a lot of time in Texas, and it has left me with a deep love for flour tortillas. I'm very particular about them: I don't just want the very best flour tortillas, I want the right ones for the job. In my eyes, there are two overarching categories, and which one you use depends on what they're being served with. For example, when eating the tortillas with grilled meats and seafood, I want the thin and ultra-tender ones that are so fat-laden that you can practically see through them, like oil-stained paper (for that style of tortilla, check out my recipe here). On the other hand, when eating the tortillas with melted cheese or fluffy eggs, I prefer thicker, softer, chewier ones. That's the recipe I decided to perfect on this go-round.
In my experience, this style of tortilla—thick, soft, and with a bready chew—is the most common across Texas, served at almost all the fast-food taco joints. It's almost always the tortilla of choice for breakfast tacos, quesadillas, and more. Compared to the thin, lard-enriched ones I've written about before, this style of chewy tortillas is more similar to the flour tortillas sold at most supermarkets, except that's selling them way too short, since most supermarket ones are terrible versions of the real deal.
To start my testing, I began by looking at a a recipe from Lisa Fain's Homesick Texan, which has always been a great source of Tex-Mex recipes. Hers is interesting in that she trades the traditional lard for vegetable oil, water for milk, and uses baking powder for leavening. To test her innovations, I whipped up a batch of her tortillas alongside a batch that used the more common lard and water, and no baking powder.
The method is the same in both cases, despite the different ingredients: combine dry ingredients, rub in fat to for a coarse texture, add warm liquid.
Then I kneaded both doughs until they became smooth and semi-elastic. After a ten-minute rest, I divided them up into small balls, rested those 15 minutes longer, and finally rolled them out to eight-inch discs.
I cooked all of the tortillas in a hot 10-inch cast iron skillet, where they quickly puffed and developed brown spots. As each tortilla was done, I transferred it to a plate covered with a clean dish towel. This covered rest time is important—the steam helps soften the tortillas and keep them warm.
The Homesick Texan recipe (with milk, vegetable oil, and baking powder) had the most bready, chewy texture, but it was a little bland and also not as soft as I was hoping. The tortillas made in the more traditional manner (with lard, water, and no baking powder) had the best flavor and tenderness, but lacked the thickness and chewiness I was looking for.
Putting it all Together
Seeing the advantages and disadvantages of both recipes side-by-side, I was able to begin to devise a new recipe that captured the best of each. I chose lard as my fat, since I knew it would bring the flavor I wanted, and I kept the baking powder for its leavening ability.
I still wasn't totally sure whether to use water or milk, so I whipped up two new batches where everything else was equal, and found that the ones made with water were just a hair more tender and not noticeably different in flavor from the milk ones, so I settled on water. After all, it's free and always available.
As I was cooking my final batch, I stumbled across one other very important factor: I just happened to notice that the first tortilla I cooked wasn't nearly as good as the second one, even though they were the same exact dough. The only difference I could think of was the heat of my cast iron skillet, since it may have gotten hotter by the time the second tortilla hit it.
To find out, I grabbed my infrared thermometer and measured the temperature of the skillet while cooking the remaining tortillas. And indeed, what I found was the the best tortillas came out of a 500°F skillet; anything less, and the tortillas were significantly less soft and chewy. I was pretty shocked by what a big difference the skillet temperature made—mind you, I wasn't trying to cook any tortillas on a warm skillet, it was hot the whole time, and yet differences in its temperature still had a big impact. If you don't have an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of your skillet, you can try to judge the heat by the cooking time: At 500°F, the tortillas should bubble, puff, and brown in just 45 seconds per side.
After a short rest under a kitchen towel, they were all set to go, and man, were they delicious—full of flavor, tender, and just begging for a skillet of queso fundido to dip into.
So I did what any sane person would do, and whipped up a batch of queso fundido, then tore into my pile of tortillas. Would you believe me if told you I was more excited about them than the gobs of melted cheese I was using them to scoop up? Well, if you don't, then you don't understand just how much I love my flour tortillas.
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