I will openly admit that when I lived in Mexico I did not appreciate the corn tortilla like I do now. Don’t get me wrong, I loved eating tortillas and consumed plenty of them, but it wasn’t until I came back to the U.S. and tried to make my own that I realized that tortilla making is definitely an art.
Last fall, my boyfriend, Roberto, was studying English in Pittsburgh. I kept begging him to help me make his mom’s famous and delicious tamales de calabaza (pumpkin tamales) for my family. But, Roberto kept dissuading me saying, “In a tamal, the masa is everything. If you don’t have good masa, you won’t have a good tamal.” “But…” I argued back, “Of course we have good masa. You can get Maseca at almost any store.” Roberto kind of chuckled and said, “That’s not REAL masa.” And in that moment, I realized I had a lot to learn.
I quickly understood that REAL masa, as Roberto liked to call it, is made from real corn through a process called nixtamalization. Dried corn is cooked on the stove with lime (calcium hydroxide) until it is tender. It is left to soak overnight, and then the rough outer shell of the corn is rubbed off. Later, with the help of a molino (grinder) and a little bit of water, the nixtamalized corn is transformed into beautiful, soft, moist masa that has the consistency of Play-Dough.
I read all about nixtamalization and thought I can do this. I found some dried corn and lime and attempted my first batch of masa. I used a meat grinder to pulverize the nixtamalized corn. FAIL #1! No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the masa fine enough to create a dough. Then, I bought a $60 hand grinder. I attempted my second batch of masa. I watched YouTube videos and read more books about making masa. I passed the nixtamalized corn through the hand grinder three times. FAIL #2! The product had a more dough-like consistency this time, but it still was not even close to Play-Dough. Next time, I tried a different process for nixtamalizing the corn and used a heavy-duty food processor. FAIL #3! This was my best attempt at masa, but the dough just wasn’t soft enough.
I have since come to the conclusion that in order to make good, REAL masa I’m going to need to grind it with a stone grinder or an old-fashioned metate. The only problem is I don’t have access to either one here. I have investigated molinos for nixtamal in Mexico and have dreamed of bringing one back, but have yet to do so at this point in time.
So, what’s a girl to do? I decided that I would simply teach myself the technique of making tortillas with masa harina. Does masa harina yield the tastiest of tortillas? No, definitely not. Is it good for making sopes, tlacoyos, and the like? Not, really. But, it still allows you to make a warm tortilla and learn a whole lot about the process of making them.
It was my brother’s friend, Walter, who prompted me to really think about the procedure of cooking tortillas. He told me that his tortillas kept coming out dense. “Do they puff?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “I’ve never seen them puff.” So, it became a sort of goal for me to help Walter make a better masa harina tortilla—a tortilla that was light and airy, a tortilla that puffed.
This recipe is the result of my quest to help Walter. I have found that there are three essential elements that you must pay attention to: 1) If you can, weigh your ingredients. The ratio of masa harina to water is vital in making the tortillas puff. 2) Make sure you preheat your skillet/comal so that it is nice and hot. But, then lower the heat so that it doesn’t scorch the tortilla. 3) Until you get the hang of it, you must count so that you know when to flip the tortilla. If you leave it on one side too long, it will dry out and not have enough moisture to puff. If you’d like to see the process, here is a simple video that I made of the cooking process.
So, now it’s your turn to practice. If your tortillas don’t puff, it’s okay. Keep trying. If you are an expert, leave me a comment with your tips and tricks. If you are lucky enough to have access to authentic masa, brag about it here. If you’ve had success with making your own masa from nixtamal, tell me about it. I would love to hear from you. ¡Buena suerte!
Tortillas de Masa Harina
Click here for printable recipe.
Corn tortillas made with masa harina (Makes about sixteen 4.5” tortillas)
250 grams masa harina (Minsa or Maseca brands)…about 2 ½ cups
2 dashes kosher salt
360-365 grams room temperature water…about 1 ¾ cups
→Prepare your tortilla press. Cut a grocery-store produce bag into two square pieces. (Make sure the pieces are separate because it makes it easier to peel away the tortilla once it has been flattened.) You will be placing the masa between this plastic.
→PLEASE weigh the ingredients if you have access to a scale. It will insure a much more consistent result. Put masa harina and salt into a bowl. Slowly add water, kneading as you go along. You don’t want to add too much water or the tortillas will be wet. Contrarily, if you add too little water the tortillas will be dry.
→Keep kneading and adding water until the masa has reached the consistency of Play-Dough. Then, continue to knead for an additional 1-2 minutes to make sure all of the water has been thoroughly absorbed.
→In the meantime, heat a comal/skillet. I have a cast iron comal that I really like, but you could also use a cast iron skillet or any griddle. I heat the comal for about 4 minutes on medium heat. Then I lower the heat to medium-low (almost low) and let it continue to warm for another 3-4 minutes.
→When the comal is ready, form a ball of masa that weighs about 35-37 grams. The ball should be smaller than a tennis ball but larger than a golf ball. Place the ball of masa between the two pieces of plastic on the tortilla press. Flatten it slightly with your hand and move it a little off center towards the hinge rather than the handle. Using the tortilla press, flatten the masa. Then open the press up and turn the tortilla 180 degrees. Flatten it a second time. Then open up the press again.
→Carefully remove the top layer of plastic. Then, using one hand to hold the tortilla, gently pull the other piece of plastic away using the other hand. If your masa has the right hydration, the tortilla will pull away easily from the plastic. If your masa is too dry, the edges will be jagged. Add a little more water. If your masa is too wet, the tortilla will stick messily to the plastic. You might need to add a little more masa harina.
→Then, delicately place the tortilla on the hot comal. Try to do this in one quick motion so that there are no mountains in the tortilla. Don’t try to move/fix the tortilla once it is on the comal. Doing so will tear it.
→Now comes the important part. Once you place the tortilla on the comal start counting up to 40-45 seconds. When you see the edges of the tortilla start to dry out just enough to grab with your fingers, you need to flip the tortilla. Then, count up for another 40-60 seconds. Flip the tortilla again. Gently poke at the middle of it with one or two fingers until the tortilla begins to puff. Once it has puffed, let it cook for an additional 20-30 seconds.
→Then, remove the tortilla from the comal and place it in a tortilla warmer or a clean towel to keep warm. Serve fresh.
- I have always used a metal press and like it, but a wooden press would work fine as well.
- I have noticed that it is really important not to cook the tortilla for more than 40-50 seconds on the first side. It seems to dry the tortilla out which prevents it from puffing later on.
- It really helps to poke at the tortilla to get it to puff. I am by no means a master at this. Don’t worry. Some of mine don’t puff at all. But, keep practicing until you get it.
- You need a hot comal, but you don’t want it scorching. I think the trick is to preheat the comal and then maintain an even low-medium heat.
Recipe Source: Lots of practice and experimenting 🙂