The most important thing you can do to change your whole taco-making game, is to start making your own corn tortillas from scratch. If you’ve never done it before, you won’t believe how totally unbalanced the whole “effort-to-payoff” balance is. They’re way, way better than anything you can buy in a supermarket, and you’ll wonder why you ever bought tortillas off-the-shelf in the first place.
In Mexico, tortillas this good are often served as the main course, providing the basic nutrients for the day, with everything else considered more of a side dish. Whether served warm wrapped around your favorite meats and vegetables, or fried and used as chips or tostadas, corn tortillas are such a simple staple, that you may find yourself eating them with every meal. Or at least, standing over the sink, with rivulets of melted butter running down your arm. Here’s how it’s done:
1. Maseca, or corn flour, is available at most mainstream grocery stores these days. Depending on your area, you may have to venture into a Hispanic market in order to find it. Maseca is corn that has been treated with lime, ground, skinned, and dehydrated, resulting in a product called Maiz Nixtamalizado. Working with this instant masa (or dough) couldn’t be simpler: Combine 2/3 of a cup of warm water with 1 1 /4 cups of maseca in a large bowl, adding a dab of vegetable shortening or animal fat, if you’re feeling particularly autentico.
2. Try and press the mixture into a dough ball. If your mixture looks like the picture above, it means you need more water; try adding it a tablespoon or two at a time until the dough starts to come together.
3. When you can form the dough into a ball, as above, it is ready. Cover and let it sit for 10 minutes, to finish absorbing all the water.
4. Line your tortilla press with a plastic bag that has been cut in half, to keep the dough from sticking. You can also use parchment paper, though I’ve found that it doesn’t tend to hold up as well, after repeated pressings. A word about tortilla presses: Get one. While you can make tortillas by pressing your dough between two pans, the process is much more time consuming, difficult, and inconsistent. Try to find a tortilla press of the cast iron variety; plastic is worthless, wood rots, and tin isn’t heavy enough. Place a ball of dough (about 1 1/2 teaspoons) on the press, closer to the hinge, since the press will flatten the dough from the hinge outward.
5. Swing the clamp arm over, and press down. Hard. Don’t worry about the plastic bunching up where the handle meets the plates of the press.
6. Open the tortilla press, and turn the tortilla over into your hand. Try to remove the plastic from the tortilla, rather than the other way around, as they are very thin and fragile. If you are getting lots of tears, wrinkles, or uneven thickness, try substituting squares of parchment paper for the plastic lining on the tortilla press.
7. Place pressed, raw tortillas in a stack on the edge of your work surface. Don’t stack more than about a dozen at a time, or their own weight will start to press them together.
8. Place tortillas on a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. If you have a big enough skillet, you can cook two or three tortillas at a time; we only have this little pancake pan, instead of a proper comal, so we’re cooking them one at a time. Cook tortillas for one minute on each side.
9. As your tortillas finish, stack them loosely in a cotton dishtowel, and keep covered. The collected heat and steam will finish cooking your tortillas, and make them soft, pliable, and delicious.
Serve finished tortillas at once, or reheat by returning to the pan for 20-30 seconds per side just before serving, or alternately, wrap stack in foil and heat in oven. For chips, cut into triangles and fry in hot oil until brown. Enjoy, and say goodbye to store-bought tortillas forever!