I have a problem with those leathery flour tortillas sold at most supermarkets, because they give real-deal flour tortillas a bad name. The ones I love are thin and ultra-tender, so laden with lard that they verge on translucency, the way paper looks when you spill some grease on it. Any other flour tortilla with my skirt steak fajitas just won't do.
I've made flour tortillas at home in the past, but never perfected it. So I set out to do just that, and what I ended up with was the tortilla of my dreams.
The ingredients for flour tortillas are very simple: just flour, salt, lard, and water. And yet even with so few building blocks, the range of possible flavors is striking. Through experimentation, I've learned that the lard can have a big impact on how the tortillas taste, so my biggest question was what type of lard to use.
I've made tortillas with the inexpensive hydrogenated lard available at most supermarkets, but it's never tasted quite right to me. There's always been an off flavor—not so bad that I wouldn't use it, but the results just weren't as delicious as I knew they could be. I went in search of some different types of lard, and compared them to see whether it's actually worth the effort to track down less common varieties. I ended up with both leaf lard and back lard to play with.
What's the difference?
- Hydrogenated lard is rendered fat that that has been infused with hydrogen to increase its self stability, which is why it's the most common option on grocery shelves.
- Back lard is fat rendered from the thick layer of pure white fat that rests just below the skin along the pig's back. This is sometimes rendered with the skin attached, and produces a smooth, dense lard with a slight porky flavor.
- Leaf lard is made from the tender fat around the kidneys and abdomen; it renders into a pure white, crumbly lard with a very neutral flavor.
I tried out all three of these fats, plus vegetable shortening, which is a comparable vegetable-based product. The back lard was the clear winner—it had the best flavor, both mild and clean. In comparison, both the leaf lard and vegetable shortening were relatively flavorless, and the hydrogenated lard had, as expected, a pronounced off flavor—it's so much worse than the others that I don't think I'll ever use it again.
Bringing it Together
In addition to the type of lard, the method of mixing the ingredients can also have an impact on the texture of the tortillas.
I started with the most traditional method, which begins with cutting the lard into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs—just a few pulses in the food processor, if you're using one, though you can also do this by hand. Then warm water is added and mixed until a cohesive dough forms, which can then be kneaded, rested, portioned into balls, and rolled out into thin eight-inch tortillas.
For the next batch, I wanted to see if I might be able to take a lesson or two from making pastry—specifically whether using very cold water and fat would help the tortillas by keeping the fat more solid. For things like biscuits and pie crusts, the cold helps create a flakier texture, so I thought it might help with the tortillas too.
The cold fat and cold water ended up producing the most tender tortillas with some thin, flaky layers. The ones made with warm water were still mighty tender, but had a tad more chew. They were the most like the ones I've eaten in Texas, but I ultimately preferred the cold-water ones most.
I couldn't think of a better way to use them than with a big pile of skirt steak and sautéed onions and peppers for fajitas, so I did exactly that.
As I sat and assembled and ate one fajita after another, I took a lot of pride in my accomplishment—I'm pretty discerning with my tortillas, and these were among some of the best I've had.