Start the Presses: DIY Tortillas
I love having food friends. Friends that get just as excited about food as I do, chat about restaurant openings like they are movie premiers, and happily eat their way through the city with me. Now, it might be luck, but I have quite a few of these friends, and my friend Carlos happens to be one of them. In the year that we’ve known and worked together, we’ve undertaken missions to find the best chicken wings, best late night eats, and best tacos in our town.
When it comes to tacos, Carlos is like a detective. Originally from right outside Mexico City, he’s got the inside information on the best spots in town. He’s the one who introduced me to a spot we now call “Secret Tacos,” where a woman opens up her home on Saturdays and serves up fresh tortillas, carnitas, menudo, and gorditas. He, along with Sandra (another woman we work with) has also introduced me to many delicious Mexican treats. After work we stuff our faces with spicy chili-lemon peanuts, chicken tinga, spicy salsa, mole, tamales, chicharones, and pozole. My stomach is grumbling just thinking about it.
A few weeks ago, I had enough watching. I wanted in on the doing. I told Carlos and Sandra I was going to make tortillas. Sandra raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Oh?” she said.
Carlos looked at Sandra. “Hmmm” he said.
“What? It’s not that hard, right?” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.
Sandra shot me another look and laughed. The next day, Sandra brought me her tortilla press and walked me step by step through the process she uses to make tortillas. Carlos looked on and offered tips. Both originally from Mexico, the two come from very different places and have different ways of making tortillas. Carlos’ family makes their tortillas from scratch — as in, from dried corn and lime. It’s a long process, and one that is still undertaken daily by his grandmother.
Sandra is from a small, coastal fishing village. Her family makes tortillas from masa flour, a few steps further down in the process from corn to finished tortilla. She now has a family of her own, but they eat so many tortillas she rarely makes them from scratch.
When it came to deciding how to make my own tortillas, I went the masa route. The flour, called masa harina, is readily available not only at Latino markets, but anywhere Bob’s Red Mill flours are sold. The recipe is quite simple, really.
2 cups masa harina
1 1/2 cups hot water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix together the masa harina and salt, then slowly add the water, stirring the mixture together. You might not need to use all the water. The dough shouldn’t be too dry, but also shouldn’t be sticky. You’ll know the dough is ready when all the flour has been incorporated and it doesn’t stick to your hands. Cover and set aside for an hour.
Once the hour has passed, it’s time to start pressing the dough. I used a tortilla press to make mine, which you can find for a nominal price at Latin markets, or even Target; but you can also use a rolling pin. You are looking for a ball of dough about two inches, about the same size as you would want if you were making cookies.
Grab either two small sheets of waxed paper or cut two circles out of an ordinary plastic grocery bag and place the dough in between the two sheets; either on the tortilla press or on your counter if using a rolling pin. If you are using a press, place the dough directly in the center and lightly press down, but not all the way. Check the dough to make sure the dough is being evenly flattened; you might need to rotate it once or twice to ensure an even press. I checked my dough twice before fully compressing.
Once the tortilla has been pressed, remove the top sheet of wax paper, and slowly peel the tortilla off the bottom sheet. I had a large sheet of wax paper on the side where I placed finished tortillas before I cooked them, but you can press and cook one at a time.
Carlos and Sandra use a Comal, or griddle to make their tortillas but I just used a regular cast iron skillet, on medium heat. Make sure your pan is lightly oiled, and then place the tortilla in the pan. Once the edges have slightly curled, just take your fingers and flip over the tortilla. It should cook for about a minute on each side, and can lightly brown. Once finished, remove from the pan and place in a bowl lined with a kitchen towel to keep warm. Easy, right?
Now that you’ve made all these amazing tortillas, you’ll need filler. The options are almost endless, from tacos to taquitos. One of my favorite tacos is carnitas; or pork that has been slow roasted so long it’s basically confit. The best thing about making it is that you can put it on the stove and forget about it for about three hours.
1 3 pound pork butt or shoulder
1 can Coke
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cumin
4-6 garlic cloves, depending on size
Cut the pork into 2-inch cubes and place in a heavy-bottomed dutch oven or stock pot. Smash the garlic, and add in the pot along with the Coke, salt, and cumin. Slice the orange in half, squeeze the juice and add along with the whole orange. Barely cover with water, and place on the stove on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and leave the meat to simmer.
It will be difficult, but leave it alone for at least two hours. Once the liquid has been reduced by 2/3 turn the heat back up. Discard the orange. The rest of the water will dissipate, leaving the pork to be sizzling in the rendered fat. Grab a pair of tongs and start turning the meat. It will definitely start to shred, and the ends will start to caramelize. Once it has sufficiently browned to your liking, the carnitas is done.
Serve with your favorite fixings; cilantro, salsa, avocado, lime, cojita, onion, even a little coleslaw.
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