First we have to talk a little about the tradition of corn tortillas. In most Mexican families, corn tortillas are the centerpiece of a meal. Without good corn, you aren't off to a good start. They have been around for millennia. There are many more well educated and well learned folks such as Diana Kennedy that have researched and written on the tortilla and you should seek them out and read them yourselves for that perspective. We're speaking from a place of general understanding, we'll leave the scholastic to the scholastics.
That said, being in New York City in this millennia, we are lucky enough to have two sources of terrific, traditionally made corn masa. "Masa" literally means dough, but in the context of Mexican food it refers specifically to corn dough. To arrive at masa, you have to put great quality corn through a proces called Nixtamalization.
We asked our friend Shauna Page over at Nixtamal Tortilleria to give us a short explanation of the process and recipe for those of you that would like to try this at home. It's a time consuming process, but not extremely difficult if you have the tools.
Nixtamal makes the most traditionally authentic masa in the city, they've gone to great lengths to find a varietal of corn grown in the United States. She would argue hers are the best and most traditional, but we also think Hot Bread Kitchen's is pretty damn good too.
Masa is made from five things:
Dry Corn, Water, Calcium Hydroxide, Time and Heat.
The product is the definition of simplicity itself, but it is a bit of process to yield the product.
If you are an adventurous cook this is for you, otherwise leave it to the pro's at Nixtamal Tortilleria or Hot Bread Kitchen in the NYC area.
Dry Corn: As Shauna explained to us, the best corn for masa is dent or flint corn. This corn has a larger kernel that what you are used to off a sweet corn cob and it is typically one that has evolved or been bred to readily absorb water.
Most new varieties of corn are not so great at this, which is why if you want the most variety of this quality corn, head to Mexico. But Shauna has found a variety here in the United States that works very well and happens to be an heirloom varietal, one that is more than 50 years old. The corn varieties can vary from the most common, white, to yellow, blue, green or red.
Calcium Hydroxide: This is a food grade lime product, very finely ground limestone that is cleaned and processed for food safety. It can also be found as cal, slake lime or cal lime.
Your best bet to find this is in your nearest Mexican market, it's also available online from various suppliers. A more readily available lime is pickling lime, which is twice as concentrated as Calcium Hydroxide so adjust the recipe accordingly if substituting pickling lime.
Water: Quality begats quality. If you start with poor quality or unfiltered water you'll get an inferior masa in the end. Whenever possible use filtered water. I've used regular NYC tap water (or tap stock as I like to call it) and done just fine.
A Large pot - Preferable non-reactive, yea, those aluminum ones are not so great and in fact dangerous. Calcium Hydroxide + Aluminum = Hydrogen Gas. You don't want hydrogen gas in your kitchen with an open flame. Stainless Steel is best. You need a pot big enough to hold everything combined and with room to boot for simmering and bubbling.
Grinder - You need a grinder that can handle wet ingredients. I've used the kitchen aid meat grinder with moderate success, but it is very time consuming. Small batches and several grinds can make it happen. You could also use the traditional metate, which is even more time consuming. But if you are game for adding another kitchen implement to your array this hand crank grinder, search yourself I won't speak for any brands, will get the job done and works well as a flour and other dry grain grinder at other times.
Tortilla Press - The heavy duty cast iron ones are the best. We use a 8" one that weighs about 5# but I've used a 10" one that makes the small tortillas in one press, much faster than the little one which requires a few turns, flips and presses to get an even circular tortilla.
How to make nixtamal and then masa
(Adapted from Shauna Page's recipe from Nixtamal Tortilleria)
- 4 cups of water- Bring to boil. Drop to 200F and maintain.
- Pour 2 cups Dry Corn into the boiling water.
- Add 1/4 cup of cal (flake lime, calcium hydroxide) or only 2 T of pickling lime.
- Stir very well, Cover with a lid, Turn off Heat
- Remove the top after 45-60 minutes, or when the corn is soft enough to remove the outer skin by pressing it against the palm of your hand. The corn should absorb some of the water and look a little plump and be firm yet soft enough to eat.
- Remove the top and let stand for 8-12 hours. The corn will nearly absorb all of the water in this time.
- Remove the nixtamal (corn at this stage) from the excess water. Lightly rinse large container. The husks/shells will flow over the top of the rim if you set the faucet on a slow and steady stream stir with you hands to get the bottom husks up. Try not to wash too vigorously.
- Begin grinding. If using a kitchen aid meat grinder set the speed to 5 or 6 max and work in small batches, have water handy to adjust consistency and improve the grind. Basically the same process for hand grinders or metates but a lot more effort and time is involved. If you have a stone masa grinder, one grind will suffice, just ensure you have the right setting, fine or coarse. Adjust to your taste.
If you are planning to make tamales a coarser masa is required, so maybe stop after the first or second grind. Tortillas do better with a finer grind but sometimes they are nice with a rough grind as well. Hot Bread Kitchen's masa is a bit of a rougher grind than Nixtamal if you'd like a way of comparing.
How to make a corn tortillas with a press
Tortilla Press, Bowl, Scale (optional), Plastic bag (cut into a square to fit both sides of your press with 3 openings and one edge), cast iron pan (comal, griddle or whatever flat surface you prefer), neutral cooking oil.
- Check the masa and if needed add water and mix until the masa is wet enough to leave a bit of moisture on your hand but come off easily and not so much as to be tacky or sticky.
- Heat your cooking surface and apply a bit of oil to coat the pan. Not too much oil. Medium high heat.
- Take a clump, weigh if you have a kitchen scale handy 30-35 grams makes a nice 5" tortilla, adjust up or down to your preference.
- Gently roll between your hands. Rubbing the back sides of your opposite palms together with the ball resting in the heart of your palm works well. You need not have a perfect sphere the press does a good job with anything close.
- Place the ball between the sheets of plastic on the press base 1/3 away from the hinge).
- Close the handle lightly and press down firmly. You are not trying to complete the tortilla in one stroke, so keep that in mind when applying pressure.
- Open the press, look at the dough and turn 90 degrees or 180 degrees to complete rounding out the tortilla with one or two more less firm presses.
- Remove the tortilla encased in the plastic. Carefully open the plastic, peeling back like removing a sticker off a container, yet apply a light pressure to ensure the dough sticks to the other side.
- Flip the tortilla dough into your other palm and carefully peel off the other side. Again, light pressure.
- Place in hot pan, gently but deliberately.
- Cook under the edges begin to curl up (about a 1/4 " wide) and the dough looks to be drying out.
- Flip and cook for about 20 secs.
- Flip again with 20-30 more seconds.
- Put in a container or wrap in a towel to keep warm. Or pop it into your mouth. watch out, it's hot.
- Re-heating cool tortillas is a snap. Same pan, same heat, sprinkle a bit of water (Or use a mister, which works best) on the non pan facing surface. Flip once it has absorbed. Serve with ingredients or your dreams.