Why It Works
- Back lard gives these tortillas their mild yet delicious flavor.
- Using both cold lard and cold water creates a more tender tortilla.
- Cooking the tortillas very quickly in a hot cast iron skillet ensures maximum tenderness.
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 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 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.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup cold lard, preferably back lard (see notes)
3/4 cup cold water
Place flour and salt in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse to combine. Add lard and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add water and process until a cohesive dough forms.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 1 minute. Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rest for 10 minutes. Divide dough into 10 equal pieces; roll each piece of dough into a ball. Cover dough with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rest an additional 15 minutes.
Heat cast iron skillet, griddle, or comal over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, place one ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface and pat down into a flat disc. Using a rolling pin, roll dough out to a very thin 8-inch round. Place dough in skillet and cook until bubbles form on top side and bottom side has light browned spots, 15-30 seconds. Flip tortilla and cook until second side develops light browned spots, 15-30 seconds longer. Transfer tortilla to a plate and cover with dish cloth. Repeat with remaining balls of dough. Serve immediately while still warm.
Back lard is preferable for its very mild pork flavor, although more neutral tasting leaf lard or vegetable shortening can be substituted for great results. The tortillas are best eaten fresh and while still warm. They can be stored in the refrigerator and reheated individually in a hot skillet or wrapped together in foil and placed in a warm oven.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 5g||7%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||10%|
|Total Carbohydrate 19g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|