Today’s words of encouragement are, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I did not adhere to that wise old adage many years ago when I first attempted to make homemade flour tortillas. After two or three failed attempts, I gave up. Twenty years later, I tried again and produced some of the best tortillas I have ever had. Now, I consistently prepare quality tortillas.
What was the difference between then and now? Well, there were some key differences: Ingredients, Process and State of Mind.
On my first attempt at making tortillas I used solid vegetable shortening. I am sure that vegetable shortening can produce good tortillas but if you want REALLY good tortillas, nothing compares to good ol’ lard. Another key to making good tortillas is keeping the dough warm throughout the entire process of mixing, kneading and resting. Warm water and warm air facilitates gluten production. Yes, I want that gluten! A good flour tortilla should be pliable and soft. You should be able to grip the tortilla with both hands and pull it gently without tearing it apart. The only way to get there is by kneading the dough. When making the dough, add the flour, a little bit at a time, to warm water. By adding flour to the water you have better control over achieving the proper consistency of the dough. The finished dough ball should be soft and malleable, not dense and difficult to work with.
Another key to successful tortillas is using an appropriate pan. When I first attempted to make tortillas I used a non-stick pan that did not retain heat well. The sad thing was, I had a cast iron skillet and I did not even think about using it. What a shame! A cast iron skillet, or a cast iron comal, which is what I use now, or even a good, dense stainless steel pan will give you the necessary, sustainable heat to produce tortillas quickly, and that is essential. Tortillas need to cook quickly. Once you lay the uncooked tortilla on the pan, give it about thirty seconds and then flip to the other side for another fifteen seconds, or so. If you maintain heat high, the tortilla will puff up and you will get wonderful, slightly browned spots on the tortilla.
Finally, you need to cook with confidence. Your state of mind will affect the outcome just as much as proper ingredients and technique. Listen to your inner self throughout the entire process. If you feel that the dough is not coming together the way you want, you’re right. Fix the problem by relying on your intuition and be confident with your decision. If you think that the tortillas are cooking too quickly and they smell burnt, you’re right…fix that problem. Turn down the heat on the stove to achieve a better result on the next tortillas.
And remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If it worked for me, it will surely work for you!
Tortillas Casersas (Homemade Tortillas)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 Tbs lard
1 ½ cup warm water
Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Add the lard and pinch apart the flour covered lard with your fingers. Continue pinching apart the clumps of lard, bit by bit, and avoid the temptation to smear the lard together with the flour. Once you have broken down the clumps of lard, scoop up some of the mixture in both hands and gently rub your hands together. Continue gently rubbing the mixture together until it is crumbly.
In a separate mixing bowl, add the warm water. Introduce some of the flour mixture. Mix with a sturdy spatula. Add more flour and continue mixing. Repeat until the mixture becomes thick, like cake batter. At this point you will mix by hand. Keep adding flour and mix by hand until the dough begins to form a ball. It’s ok to leave the dough a little sticky. You can always add more flour later, if you wish. Knead the dough in the bowl and then turn it out to a lightly floured surface and knead for a few minutes. As you knead, you will feel the dough becoming more stretchy. Put the ball of dough back into the mixing bowl and cover tightly with aluminum foil or a warm, wet towel.
Let the dough rest for at least a half hour. In warm weather, I will take the bowl out to my truck and let it rest on the seat. The heat of the sun keeps the interior of the truck nice and warm…perfect for the dough. In colder weather, I will let the dough rest on top of the oven, with the oven set to 250°F.
While the dough rests, preheat your skillet or comal on the stove. Clean your work surface and make sure that it is completely dry. Sprinkle some all-purpose flour on the work surface and rub some flour on your rolling pin. Turn the dough onto the work surface and knead a few times. If the dough is too sticky to work with, add a little more flour and knead, to incorporate the flour. Once you are happy with the dough, pinch off a piece and roll it in your hands. You’ll want a golf ball sized dough ball. Place the ball of dough on the floured surface and press it with your hand. Shape it into circle and then use the rolling pin to flatten it out. I have found that rolling it out very thinly makes the best tortillas. Roll it out to about eight inches in diameter.
Place the tortilla on the skillet for about thirty seconds. You might see air pockets pop up…this is a good thing! Turn the tortilla over for another fifteen seconds and then move the finished tortilla to a plate, in a warm area. Continue in this fashion until you have made all of the tortillas. If you have a tortilla warmer, place the tortillas in it. If you don’t have a tortilla warmer, place another plate on top of the tortillas to keep them warm.