Although pretty much everything tastes better when it’s homemade, we can all agree it’s just not practical to make everything from scratch. But corn tortillas are one of those few foods that really are worth the extra time. For a minimal investment of effort, you get a big payoff in flavor.
For years, I made tortillas with my trusty tortilla press and relished how much better they were than store-bought. Then one day I used fresh masa dough from a Portland company called Three Sisters Nixtamal. Three Sisters makes their masa from scratch, boiling the corn with limewater (calcium hydroxide) in an age-old process called nixtamalization. Their dough was so fragrant and so flavorful, the tortillas were transcendent. It made my previous efforts, made with dried masa (called masa harina), seem weak in comparison.
I soon learned why. During an IACP conference a couple years ago, I took a tour of Chicago’s Mexican food scene with chef Rick Bayless. He taught us that fresh masa from nixtamalized corn is the gold standard, and can even vary in flavor depending on factors like how much lime is rinsed off, and how much of the corn hull is left on. But once it’s dried into masa harina, it loses much of its flavor. That’s why my tortillas made with Three Sisters’ fresh masa were so far superior.
But I can’t always get my hands on their dough, so I tried to find a way to make tortillas made with masa harina taste better. I couldn’t help but think they just needed a little fat, something to enrich them so they didn’t taste so dry. But no recipes ever mention adding oil to masa dough. It is simply not done.
But I did it anyway — and now I’ll never go back.
Just a little oil, whether it’s olive oil or pork fat left over from making carnitas, makes the very best corn tortillas. It brings out the corn flavor and makes them more tender, too.
It may not be traditional, but sometimes rules are made to be broken.
Best Ever Corn Tortillas
Makes about 1 dozen
Although it’s not traditional to add oil to tortillas, I think it makes them extra tender and flavorful. If you don’t have a tortilla press, get one. Once you start making your own tortillas you won’t be able to go back to store-bought.
2 cups masa harina corn flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ to 2 cups hot water
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a medium bowl, mix together the masa harina and salt. Stir in 1 cup of the water and the olive oil. Gradually add ½ to 1 cup more water until the dough holds together and feels wet, like Play-doh, but not sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow dough to rest for about 30 minutes.
Preheat a griddle, comal or large frying pan over medium heat. Roll the dough into balls about the size of a walnut (you can roll them all ahead and keep them covered, or roll as you press).
Cut a ziptop bag along the seams so that it opens flat, then cut it into two pieces. Line the bottom of the tortilla press with a piece of plastic. Set a dough ball on top, and set the other piece of plastic on top. Press the dough with the heel of your hand (this will help it flatten out more evenly), then use the tortilla press to flatten. Peel off the top piece of plastic. (Alternatively you can use parchment paper.) Turn the flattened dough over onto your hand and peel off the other piece of plastic.
Gently lay the tortilla on the hot griddle and cook for about 30 seconds, until it’s dry enough to no longer stick to the pan. Use a spatula to flip over onto the other side. Use your fingertips to lightly press around the top of the tortilla, which will encourage it to puff when you turn it over again. After 30 seconds flip the tortilla again and finish cooking for about 30 more seconds. Remove and place in a tortilla warmer or between two towels to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining balls of dough.