Homemade Flour Tortillas
When my husband and I set up housekeeping in Pennsylvania as newlyweds and I started cooking, I had a wide variety of ingredients available to use for meals. I could make traditional Amish bread or mashed potatoes, the Mennonite cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole, a Tex-Mex enchilada, or some Chinese sweet and sour chicken. If I wanted to make some thing tastier, I dumped on more cheese. If my chicken got too dry, I ran for the bottle of BBQ sauce.
When we moved to Belize, I realized that most dishes were made with only a handful of ingredients, and technique was much more important. Most cooks don’t use measuring cups. When cooking rice, they add water to the kettle til it reaches the top of their thumb nail. Flour for tortillas is just a couple of heaping scoops. The difference between the good cooks and the great ones are those that had learned to pay attention to the smallest details of their food and coax out the best flavor and texture.
The first time I made tortillas, they were misshapen and a bit tough. They cracked when we rolled them up. I had some of the best tortilla makers for friends and neighbors, and I wasn’t satisfied with my tortillas til I’d been making them for three years. But do not fear, most my first attempts were edible and a few were delicious, far more than the $.99 pack of chemical-filled cardboard I’d always bought at Aldi. I’ll share some of the tips I learned for making tortillas and hopefully save you some of the trial and error I went through.
When making tortillas, start by dipping your one-cup measure into the flour canister. Don’t bother leveling it off. You want to have heaping cups of flour. You can experiment to find what kind of flour works best. My personal favorites in Belize are Bebe Agua or Bola Roja flour. I would try all purpose or occident flour in the States.
Add three more cups of flour, three teaspoons of baking powder and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and mix together. Add the shortening or lard and rub it into the flour mixture until it is evenly distributed.
Add about 1 3/4 cups of water. Depending how heaping your cups of flour were, you may need only 1 1/2 cups of water. Stir the water into the flour mixture until the dough is moist, but not sticky.
Dump the dough onto the counter and knead it by pushing the dough away from you with the heel of your palm. Gather the dough back into a lump and knead again, about ten times. If your dough feels too sticky, sprinkle it with flour. When you’re finished, the dough should feel smooth and elastic.
Pinch off some dough about the size of a ping pong ball. One batch of tortilla dough should make 12-14. Cup each dough ball between your palms and roll it to make it smooth.
Cover the dough balls with a cloth and let them rest for 10-30 minutes. If you have trouble with them getting dry and crusty before you pat them out, pour a little oil in a shallow plate and roll the balls of dough in that as soon as you’ve rolled them smooth.
After the resting period, the balls of dough are ready to be patted and fried.
Variation: The flavor and texture of tortillas is better if they are mixed up several hours or even a day or two ahead and placed in the refrigerator. I like to this if I’m making tortillas for company, or I often make twice as many tortilla balls as we’ll need for a meal and refrigerate half of them for the next day. Get the refrigerated balls of dough out about 30 minutes before patting them out. Balls of tortilla dough will last in the fridge about 1 week. After about 2 days, they may look a little gray, but are still fine when patted out and fried.
The first time I made tortillas, I patted them out neatly in a circle only to have them get misshapen when I picked them up to fry them. My friend Rhoda showed me how she uses tinfoil when patting out tortillas, and I was sold. Using tinfoil allows you to move the tortillas from your counter to the stove without them tearing or losing their shape.
Use a plate to trace a circle onto a piece of tinfoil. Cut it out, grease it with shortening.
To pat out the tortillas, place a ball of dough in the center of the tinfoil circle. Place fingers on the ball of dough and gently stretch the dough a few inches toward the outer edge. Rotate the tinfoil and repeat, continuing to stretch the dough toward the outer edge til it is thin, but not stretching it so far that the dough tears.
To fry the tortilla, heat a comal (a heavy, flat griddle) or cast iron pan. To check if the comal is hot enough to fry tortillas, sprinkle water on it. If the water droplets dance and immediately evaporate, it’s ready. Place the patted-out tortilla face down on the pan. Let the tinfoil on for a few seconds. The heat will loosen it and it should peel off easily.
Fry for about one minute, or until brow spots begin to appear. Flip and fry for about 30 seconds more. Do not fry the tortilla too long or it will turn into a cracker.
We love fresh warm tortillas with fajitas, burritos, BBQ chicken, stew beans, and eggs to name a few. Place leftover tortillas in a bag in the fridge. To use, wrap the stack in a damp paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds, or until soft and pliable. Or, if you have a gas stove, quickly dip the tortillas, one at a time, in water so that the outside is wet, but do not allow the tortilla to become soggy. Turn the gas burner on low and lay the tortilla directly on the grate. Let it there for a few seconds and flip it. This method makes them taste the most like they’ve been freshly fried.
4 heaping cups of flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c shortening or lard
About 1 3/4 C water
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Rub in shortening with your fingers until well distributed. Gradually add water, mixing until the dough is moist, but not sticky. Dump dough onto counter top and knead by pushing the dough away from you with the heel of your palm. Gather into a lump and knead again until smooth, about 10 times. Pinch dough into 12-15 portions and roll between cupped palms to make a smooth ball. Let set for 10-30 minutes. Trace a plate or bowl onto a piece of tinfoil and cut it out. Grease the tinfoil. Place fingers in the center of the tortilla ball and stretch dough toward outer edge of tinfoil. Rotate and repeat. Continue stretching the dough to the edges til it is thin, but not so thin that it has holes. Place tortilla on hot comal (a flat, heavy griddle) or cast iron pan, waiting for a few seconds to remove the tinfoil. Allow to bake for about a minute, til brown spots begin to show. Flip to the other side and bake another 30 seconds or so.
For improved flavor and texture, make several hours or a day ahead, and place balls in fridge. Allow to come to room temperature before patting out.