fresh tortilla topped with chipotle chicken and avocado

You’d be surprised how easy it is to make fresh tortillas from scratch

Some things just ain’t worth your time. Remakes of horror movies. Hooking up with your ex. Growing your own celery. They seem like fun at first, but each one is a weapons-grade headache in the making. Take my advice: Leave that stuff to the professionals.

Larry King loves fresh tortillas
If Larry King’s celery is anything like this love life, run away NOW!

It’s a pattern throughout everything in life. There are costs and there are rewards. The trick lies in managing that balance — getting the most value for the least effort. Call it “return on investment” if you’re a business jerk, “bang for your buck” if you’re your dad. I prefer the line from my favourite mid-2000s teen sex comedy, The Girl Next Door:

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

Timothy Olyphant loves fresh tortillas
Timothy Olyphant has the concept of ROI down!

Sometimes, it just isn’t. On top of the stuff I already mentioned, there are lots of things I don’t think are worth the hassle. Cleaning bony little fish. Vacuuming. Reading Victorian literature. Voting.

A lot of people feel the same about cooking. Why bother braising a pot roast for hours when you can snag a burger for less than a tenner? Why fuss with fresh dough when you can have a frozen pizza ready before you hear “sit, Ubu, sit?”

For that matter, why not just keep a bowl of potato mush in the fridge for whenever you’re hungry. If it was good enough for Mohammed Atta, it should be good enough for you!

Mohammed Atta hated fresh tortillas
“Gee, I hope they have cold potato mush in the afterlife.”

Listen, I get it. Fast and frozen food offers incredible juice-squeeziness. With no effort at all, you’ve got a pleasant-enough plate that’ll keep the hunger pangs at bay for a few hours.

Still, convenience food has its trade-offs. I’m not even talking about the whiny (if well-documented) health grumbles. I’m talking about taste. Frozen burritos and instant curries may work in a jam, but they’re hardly the heights of culinary wonder. Who wants to eat that shit all the time?

Not me. Unlike a 9/11 hijacker, I’ve got limited time to enjoy myself. I want to eat great food all the time. Drool-worthy food. Groin-grabbingly transcendent food! (I presume you’re with me here or you wouldn’t have read this far.)

I just don’t want to spend hours getting those results. Neither do you. So, it’s important to choose the few precious things worth making for maximum juice-squeeziness.

Eggs are a given — they’re easy and delicious. (Who doesn’t make eggs?) Fresh fruit, grilled steaks, pesto — they’re all worth the mild effort required to prepare them yourself.

But, there’s one thing that everyone could be making at home…

…that turns virtually anything in the fridge into a tastebud blowout…

…that takes minutes to prepare…

…that’s so vastly better than storebought it’s basically a whole new ingredient…

…and that NO ONE bothers with!

“C’mon, D! What is it? Tempura batter? Flawless croissant dough? How to cure your own bacon?”

I said “easy”, didn’t I? (Well, I implied it at least.) No, perfect tempura and puff pastry all take serious skill and finesse. But, you’d be surprised how quick and simple it is to make incredible corn tortillas from scratch.

“Tortillas! Who do I look like, Frida Kahlo? Besides, those Old El Paso taco shells do the job fine.”

Stop. Throw that shit in the trash right now.

“OK, but, c’mon! Surely the fancy tortillas from the Latin import shop will do?”

Drop those right next to the Old El Paso. I’m serious. There is no commercially available alternative to a freshly made tortilla. None.

I know, I was surprised too. The Mexicans (or Texans or Californians or Arizonans) will laugh, but I thought tortillas were all the same. The taquerias I’d visited just had a bag of pre-made ones that they dressed as needed. It never occurred to me there was any difference between fresh, homemade tortillas and big-batch factory ones made a few days ago.

But, there is a difference. A huge difference. The difference between a fresh tortilla and a storebought one is like the difference between fresh pasta and Chef Boyardee. And that’s being generous to the spokesman in the floppy hat.

Fresh tortillas emit an aroma that’s unique to themselves, but every bit as enticing as fresh popcorn. They taste a little like grits or polenta, but not at all blah. Their texture is inimitable — toothsome, moist, pliable, satisfying. They are a truly amazing foodstuff.

Before I made my own, I thought corn tortillas were supposed to fall apart. Apparently, I presumed hundreds of millions of Mexicans over centuries hadn’t figured out a better delivery system for their food than some dry, crumbly pancakes. I was an idiot.

It’s no surprise if you’ve only eaten storebought tortillas, though. As soon as corn tortillas lose their heat, they lose their elasticity. They’ll never get back to good, no matter how much heat or Matchbox 20 you hit ‘em with. The only way to get soft, supple tortillas the way they should be is to make them yourself.

For that, you need masa — a dough made from nixtamalized corn. If you want, you can get crazy here and call your local tortilla factories to buy some. Or, buy organic field corn online, treat it with lye, pray you don’t burn the fuck out of yourself, grind it into a paste with a mortar-and-pestle, and hope you don’t accidentally die from ingesting a strong alkali.

But, I said “easy”. There’s no need for all of that (unless you’re Alex Stupak, where I first found out about tortillas). There’s a better solution. It’s called Maseca.

This instant masa (aka masa harina) changes everything. With a little water, you’ve got a very respectable dough in seconds, ready for the frying pan. Is it as good as fresh stone-ground hominy? Probably not. But, it’s 100 times better than the flabby tortillas you find at the store. (Bonus points for the frugal: A bag of Maseca costs about five bucks and makes around 120 tortillas. Think about it. Yeah.)

Read that again: “…a very respectable dough in seconds…” I know, I thought it would be difficult too. I thought I needed a dedicated tortilla press and I wasn’t ready to cough up the dough (so to speak). Again, I was wrong.

You have all the equipment you need to make exceptional corn tortillas in your kitchen right now. You also have all the skill you need.

Cinco de Mayo hits in two days. After five margaritas, you’re going to want tacos. To make them better than you’ve ever had, don’t waste the bucks on prime New York strip or line-caught ahi tuna. Grab any old toppings and spend a few minutes making fresh tortillas instead. It makes the real difference.

Fresh Tortillas

First, buy this stuff:

Maseca for fresh tortillas

  • Instant masa (check the Latin market where you got your tortillas)
  • Salt

Scoop some instant masa into a big mixing bowl.

Add two-thirds the same amount of water. (You’re looking for a ratio of 1.5 parts masa to 1 part water.)

Instant masa and water for fresh tortillas

Throw in a couple of big pinches of salt.

Use a spoon (or your hand) to stir it all around until it takes on the consistency of Play-Doh.

Masa dough for fresh tortillas

Lay a cast-iron pan on your stove over high heat.

Lay a kitchen towel on a baking sheet, then lay the whole thing in your oven. (Don’t turn it on.)

Cut the top and sides off a plastic sandwich bag, so you have two plastic squares the same size.

Scissors and sandwich bag

Lay one plastic square on a cutting board.

Roll a lump of prepared masa into a ball, about as big around as a golf ball.

Lay it on the plastic square.

Cover it with the second square of plastic.

Ball of masa for fresh tortillas

Lay a heavy pot onto the plastic-covered masa ball, smooshing the whole thing down with even pressure (more or less).

Pressing fresh tortillas

Remove the pot.

Pick up the raw tortilla.

Remove the plastic.

raw fresh tortilla
Hold the raw tortilla like so.

Lay the tortilla gently in the hot pan (no oil needed).

Watch as the tortilla toasts in the hot pan for about a minute.

Flip the tortilla with a spatula.

Wait for another minute.

Does the tortilla look slightly golden with a few brown char marks? Good. Otherwise, toast both sides until it does.

fresh tortilla cooking

Throw the tortilla in the trash. (Cooking tortillas is like making pancakes — the first one always sucks.)

Repeat the process, but put the subsequent, good tortillas on the towel in the oven.

Cover the tortillas with the other half of the towel to keep them warm.

Provecho! You’re done. That’s it. Top these bad boys with anything you want. (As you can see, I had some leftover chicken, chipotles, and avocado, but you can throw anything on these tortillas and they’ll taste incredible.)

fresh tortilla topped with chipotle chicken and avocado

Commemorating the Battle of Puebla is a perfect excuse to test out this recipe this week. When you do, let me know how it goes. I’m really thankful that you all take the time to read what I’ve got to say when it comes to cooking, and I hope you get some small use out of it. (Believe me, I don’t take your readership lightly.)

If you want to help out, please do me a favour and send this post along to someone you think would appreciate it. I know I wish someone had let me know how easy it was to make tortillas this good in my own kitchen. ‘Til next time!

PS. Well, look at that! Cook Somethin’ is getting ready to celebrate its first birthday. Who knew it would last this long? Big ups to all of you for reading this whole time. It means the world. Why not check out a few of the top posts from last year?

The easiest step for better home cooking

Adorable raccoons and the joys of pickling

I am the egg man (Goo-goo-ga-joob!)

Kou shui ji (or, ‘are you a breast man or a leg man?’)

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