Making flour tortillas yourself will be a revelation, says Bury St Edmunds-based food writer Nicola Miller
If your only encounter with flour tortillas are those made by Old El Paso or their supermarket own-brand equivalent, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. ‘Fresh’ from the packet, they are as flabby and clammy as a corpse although a good blistering in a hot pan tends to sort this out. In the UK, it is very hard to buy good flour tortillas which is such a shame, but they are not difficult to make hecho a mano (fresh, by hand) and an absolute revelation when you do.
Flour tortillas deserve more respect. They have been described as ‘not properly Mexican’, an unfortunate reminder of the legacy of the Conquistadors who introduced wheat to Mexico and denigrated as ‘Tex-Mex’ because of their popularity in the border states of Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico. Flour tortillas are culturally loaded. Yet anyone who has lived or travelled in parts of northern Mexico will know that they are made and eaten widely there; indeed, it was only when I travelled from my (then) home city of Saltillo in Coahuila to other parts of Mexico that I ate tortillas made from corn.
I love the smaller, chunkier tortillas made in Coahuila, but Sonoran-style tortillas are my favourite kind. They can be huge, stretching from fingertip to armpit when rolled and because of this they are sometimes referred to as ‘tortilla sobaquera’, although this is considered a pejorative term. Mine are smaller. Made (ideally) with back lard, they are light and flaky and so thin that when freshly rolled and held to the light, they gleam softly, like the moon. Once on the griddle, heat spots appear, bulging like the eyes of an octopus before bursting to leave a golden-edged, toast-scented crater. I like my tortillas to catch a little, you may not.
For breakfast, we’d reheat tortillas leftover from the evening before. I’d grab one still hot from the comal and load it with butter before rolling it into a fat cigar, making sure the far end was folded over to prevent the melted butter from splashing onto my feet as I walked to school. Sometimes I’d smear my tortilla with frijoles and, occasionally, on an extremely hungry day, I’d go the full Mexican flag and dollop some crema, avocado and salsa on top. Like toast, they are a handy vehicle for toppings and fillings and, to be fair, there is nothing to stop you from going full Paddington and eating your tortilla spread with butter and marmalade. Fill them with whatever you like.
Don’t be nervous about the fact that these tortillas are made with lard. I’ve heard some food writers say we don’t really use it anymore, but here, you do. You need lard because Sonoran tortillas are unleavened; the lard aids loft and gives you a tortilla that is not greasy or heavy at all. I always use back lard, which most butchers will be able to supply, but if all you have is supermarket lard or vegetable shortening, don’t worry. You’ll still end up with a tortilla far superior to anything brought from a British store.
SONORAN-STYLE FLOUR TORTILLAS
Makes around 10 tortillas
275g/10oz plain flour
1.5 tsp fine salt
50g/1.7oz cold lard or vegetable shortening
180ml/5oz cold water
Place the flour, salt and lard in the bowl of a food processor with a steel blade. Pulse to combine until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Slowly add the cold water until you have a ball of dough that is tacky to the touch. (I have heard it said the dough should feel as sticky as the strip on a post-it note.)
If you are making the dough by hand, add the flour and salt to a bowl and cut the lard or shortening into small dice before adding it. Rub in until you have a coarse meal. Remember it is easier to add more flour to a too-sticky dough than it is to add water to a too-dry dough, so add the water slowly until it is tacky to the touch.
Lightly flour your work surface and turn out the dough. Start to knead it until it is smooth; this will take around a minute. Now, cover the dough with a damp cloth or cling film and leave it to rest for ten minutes.
Once the resting time is up, divide the dough into ten equal pieces and shape each one into a ball before covering them again to rest for another ten minutes.
While your dough is resting, dust your rolling pin with flour and place a large flat-bottomed griddle, frying pan or Mexican comal over a medium-high heat.
Take a ball of dough and, placing it on your lightly-floured surface, flatten it into a disc, before rolling it out into a thin round of around 8 inches/20cm. Don’t be afraid to use a little pressure to get the dough nice and thin because it is stretchy. Add more flour to your pin if it sticks.
Take the tortilla and place it in the frying pan/skillet/comal. You will need to cook it until bubbles appear on the top side and, when you take a peek underneath, brown spots are present. This will happen swiftly, so don’t leave it unattended. Now, flip your tortilla over and continue to cook it until the other side develops light browned spots. Wrap the tortilla in the warm tea towel on the warm plate and set to one side. Now, roll out and fry the others in turn, adding the cooked tortillas to the warmed stack inside the tea towel. Serve and eat immediately, although tortillas will reheat well wrapped in foil in a low-medium oven or even in a pan. They freeze well, too.
As with pastry-making, it is important to use cold water and fridge-cold lard. Obviously, using a food processor will make this whole process easier but I have given instructions for those of you without one.
Have a warmed plate and warm tea towel to hand.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
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