Sunday, January 27, 2013

Homemade Masa and Corn Tortillas--An Adventure

*See link at end of post for the update on my tortilla making adventures. (I'll give you a hint: Success at last!)

For years I've made my own homemade corn tortillas. I buy masa harina--which is corn flour and slaked lime (called "cal")--and then add hot water and let the dough sit for about 20 minutes before forming into tortillas and cooking them on a hot cast iron griddle. These corn tortillas are definitely better than store bought. They are sturdier, tastier, and fill a person up better than the boughten ones.

Still, I've always felt that I was semi-cheating even then because I had never actually made the masa that is the beginning of corn tortilla making. Lately it's been on my mind, I think because it's winter and I generally cook more beans in the winter. And what could be tastier than slow cooked rancho beans made from pintos on a freshly made-from-scratch corn tortilla--with maybe some chopped onions, tomatoes, and chipotle spiced pork roast to go along with it? I'm thinking not much.

Yesterday I was racing around town doing chores and shopping and discovered a Mexican market. I made the split-second decision to turn into the parking lot and go inside the market. The folks there were so helpful, and they smiled alot (there was a bit of a language barrier with the people who helped me!) when they understood that I was looking for cal in order to teach myself how to make from-scratch tortillas. I got the slaked lime, and they hollered for a young man from the back of the store to come talk to me. He gave me some much appreciated tips and off I went, cal in hand and my confidence in place.

Last evening I took about 2 quarts of water and measured in a good tablespoon of cal. I placed it all in a stainless steel pot (you want to use a nonreactive container) and turned the heat to high. I stirred with a wooden spoon to make sure the lime dissolved and then dumped in about 2 cups of organic popcorn. Any popcorn that floated to the top got yarded out of the pot. I didn't use dent corn because I didn't have any and I was a bit nervous about the outcome. But keep reading!

I brought the corn and water mixture to a boil and then turned down the heat a bit and boiled the corn for about 5 minutes, stirring pretty much continually although I don't think that's really necessary. (Next time, by the way, I'm going to try boiling the corn for longer, say about 15 minutes, because I understand it will make the corn fix more niacin and also make it easier to digest--not that I have a problem.)Then I took the pot off the heat, covered it with a lid, and let it set on my stove until it was cool. Next, I placed the pot of corn and water into the fridge overnight to continue soaking. You could also pour the corn and water into a large glass mixing bowl and cover that and put in the fridge. I might try that next time too, because I'm not sure what the long-term effects are of slaked lime on the surface of my good stainless steel pot.

This morning I took the pot out of the fridge and peeked inside. Not very promising: I had read that the corn skins were supposed to peel off, but there were no skins floating. But then I remembered reading that popcorn already has the papery skin off and I think the answer may have to do with my use of the popcorn instead of field corn. I mean, if popcorn supposedly already has the skins off, it would stand to reason that I wouldn't see any floating in the water.

Next, I drained the corn into a colander and began rinsing the corn and moving it around through my fingers. I rinsed it very, very well. Next, I spread the drained corn on some paper towels and let it sit for about an hour while I decided how to tackle the next step: grinding.

I don't have a corn grinder but the beautiful Country Living Mill I own came with a corn and bean auger, so in theory I could use that.
Country Living Grain Mill

But I worried that I would gum up the blades because the corn was damp. So I hauled out my Vitamix and used that instead. I used the variable speed and only did about a half to one cup of corn at a time. I ended up turning the variable speed to about 8 and it worked well. I had to grind for a bit longer than I thought I would in order to get the corn flour to a coarse but cornmealy consistency. And even though the cooked corn looked really, really yellow, my cornmeal/masa looked like it ought to, and I was cheered.

Next I made my masa dough. I simply put in hot water and mixed it up with my hands.  I don't measure, but in my mind's eye, it seems as though I used about 2 cups masa flour/meal and somethinhg like 1/4 cup hot water. Bear in mind that a little hot water goes a long way so go sparingly. I like my masa dough to be wet but not too wet, and the mass needs to be able to hold together in a ball once it's kneaded. You also don't want your dough to be sticky--a sure indication that it's too wet. This is one area where you'll need to practice and to have patience because it's kind of like baking bread: you need to get a feel for it, and the only way to do that is to keep trying until you get the consistency you like. I laid a towel over the bowl of masa and let it rest for about 30 minutes.

Then I formed bits of the masa dough (about the size of biggish apricots) into tortillas and cooked them on my cast iron tortilla griddle. I found the dough had really sucked up the water as it rested, so as I made each tortilla I first ran my hands under hot water from the faucet and that seemed to work pretty well.

I don't have a tortilla press so I had to make my tortillas by hand, which is what I've always done. I simply put a ball of dough between two pieces of wax paper and then roll it out by either using a rolling pin or, when I'm feeling extra slothful, my hands. I push and pat and make it as thin as I can without breaking the tortilla. I cook the tortilla on my heavy cast iron griddle using a medium-high heat.

They say that a perfect tortilla will puff up when you turn it over, but I can't tell you how often that hasn't happened for me. My tortillas usually cook without puffing but no one ever complains because they taste divine. I cook up my entire batch of masa because it doesn't keep well. The upside, of course, is that I have plenty of leftovers for another meal. The tortillas will keep in my fridge for several days--and possibly longer, but they've never stuck around long enough to test that theory. They get eaten in a hurry!

I think about the women in Central and South America who every evening soak their corn and every morning make their tortillas and I think two things: 1) they must be an awful lot better at this than I am, and 2) they are to be much admired for caring so diligently for their families because this is not a quick answer to feeding hungry people. It takes time and patience and planning. And they do this day in and day out!

My chipotle-pepper seasoned pork roast is in the oven slow baking since early morning and I have a couple of jars of pinto beans that I previously canned waiting to be opened up and heated. I've got a fresh tomato, onion, and the luxury of an avacado that I will add to my meal. It smells heavenly and I'm looking forward to this good food--which will taste all the better because I've successfully taught myself another handy skill and have produced and prepared everything except for the pork myself.

It just doesn't get better than that!

God's riches blessings to you and yours,
* Click here (Corn tortillas update--It's all in the tools you use.) to read how I solved all my problems and now effortlessly make my corn tortillas!


  1. I'm trying this very thing right now, but just wondering about the cooked/soaked kernels. Are they still pretty firm or are they supposed to soften up at all. Mine are still pretty firm. Chewable, but hard.

    1. Christian they ARE still hard even after nixtamalizing. You're on the right track. Good luck!