Not All Corn Tortillas Are Equal. Here’s How to Find Truly Great Ones.
We eat a lot of corn tortillas in our house. They’re on the table whether we’re eating Mexican food or not — we eat them with fish sticks, baked chicken thighs, even vegetables. Sometimes I’ll eat them like bread, spreading peanut butter on them, or placing slices of lunch meat and deli cheese on top and rolling them up into a tube.
What to Look for in a Great Corn Tortilla
I grew up with the soft white corn tortillas you buy at the supermarket — they’re sold in thick, compressed stacks, and they smell a little sour when you open the package. I stopped buying those about 10 years ago.
I learned several years ago when I lived in Mexico that the bland supermarket corn tortillas I’d been eating most of my life are packed with preservatives to make them shelf-stable. That sour smell — and the bland, white-bread taste — is not actually what a real corn tortilla looks or tastes like.
Instead, the ones I eat now are made with freshly ground nixtamal, or dried corn that’s been cooked in slaked lime (also known as calcium hydroxide, and also known in Spanish as cal). Once the kernels cook, they’re ground in a stone-ground mill into a dough, and then made into tortillas almost immediately. The process of cooking corn in slaked lime or a similar alkaline solution is called nixtamalization, and it’s actually thousands of years old.
Why Fresh Nixtamalized Corn Instead of Masa Harina?
A tortilla made from freshly ground dough smells lightly of corn and minerals. It smells good. It’s more pliable and sturdier than a masa harina tortilla, so you won’t need two to hold your filling without breaking. But the biggest bonus is that corn tortillas made with fresh nixtamal taste way better. They have better texture and aroma. Masa harina tortillas don’t taste or smell like much like anything, even when they’re pressed out by hand.
Where to Buy the Best Corn Tortillas
So where do you find fresh tortillas? The best place is a tortillería, a place devoted to making corn tortillas. (To find one in your neighborhood, search online.) Not all tortillerías are created equal — they don’t all use recently ground, treated corn. Before buying the tortillas, ask or check the website to see if they’re made from freshly ground nixtamal. Or ask if there is a corn mill (molino in Spanish) on site. No mill probably means they’re opening a bag of corn flour, such as Maseca, and adding water.
Some big Mexican supermarkets make corn tortillas on-site. But it’s important to ask if they are cooking the corn on-site too, or just using corn flour. All of this is to say: It takes work to find a good corn tortilla, but I promise you it’s worth it.
If you can only find packaged corn tortillas at the supermarket, look at the ingredient list and pick the brand that only has three things: corn, slaked lime (or calcium hydroxide), and water. There are surprisingly few brands that fit this description. Of those that do, I like El Milagro and Masienda. (El Milagro is available via Amazon.)
How to Warm Up Corn Tortillas
For the tastiest corn tortilla, you can heat up to three at a time on a heavy comal, or round, flat griddle. You can buy a comal at Mexican markets or at Amazon. Why is a comal the best option? Because the intense, direct heat gives the tortilla a firm, toasted exterior, which is the ideal texture for a corn tortilla. Heating up tortillas in the microwave turns them very soft and a little floppy. That will do in a pinch, but the ones coming off the comal will overwhelmingly taste better. (If you don’t have one, you can use a cast iron griddle or skillet, without any oil. But if you plan to be warming up tortillas regularly, it’s worth just buying a comal.)
To heat a tortilla, warm up the comal, and when it’s hot, add the tortilla. Flip each tortilla two to three times, or until both sides are lightly freckled brown. If the tortilla is older and dryer, you can even mist it lightly with a little water to soften it up. If you’re just making one or two tortillas, you can skip the comal and warm them directly on a gas flame — this is what my mom did, what I do for myself, and what Mexican-Americans do everywhere.
Once you heat the tortilla, take it off the heat and store it tightly wrapped in a dish towel, or in a tortilla basket or warmer. Stack all the tortillas together vertically, and keep them wrapped, to keep the steam in. Corn tortillas will turn harder and tougher once they cool down, so you want to keep them hot and steamy.
How to Store and Freeze Corn Tortillas
Corn tortillas should be stored in the refrigerator. They’ll usually last anywhere from one to three weeks, but it depends on how much calcium hydroxide, or slaked lime, was used in making them. (Calcium hydroxide is a natural preservative.) I store mine loose in a plastic zip-top bag.
Corn tortillas also freeze really well. I buy mine from a local tortillería in three- to four-pound stacks. The tortillería usually wraps them in paper. I remove that once I’m home, open them up, and let them cool. (If you don’t open them up, the steam gets trapped inside and they’ll stick together later.) Then I freeze them in stacks of a dozen in plastic bags. Once I’m ready to use them, I thaw them on the countertop or in the refrigerator. At room temperature, they’ll thaw in a few hours.
I don’t advise putting frozen tortillas directly on the hot comal, because they’ll stick. You’ll know corn tortillas are past their prime when they turn moldy.
Lesley Téllez is a journalist, entrepreneur, and Mexican cookbook author living in New York City. She’s the author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas and the co-founder of Eat Mexico. This story is part of a multi-story, multi-recipe package by Lesley sharing her personal, family-friendly approach to Weeknight Mexican.