News From The Test Kitchen: Tortillas

My experiments with the artistry of dough has moved in a circular fashion between the Italian food I feel fairly accomplished in creating, to the breads I feel most artistically satisfied in exploring to the other nationalities I enjoy but usually come up very short. I still haven’t returned to my failed tamale experiment. But I have kept at it with making tortillas. Slowly, they are emerging into something I make regularly and actually serve with a measure of white man pride. I don’t compare to anyone’s abuela to be sure, but these work.

The reason for making them is simple. Check out a plastic wrapped tortilla ingredient list and you’ll see a hodge-podge of impossible-to-pronounce ingredients that can’t be good for you. When you make them at home, you use four ingredients.  And even the bad ones taste way, way better.

I’ve stuck to whole, stone-ground wheat through all my experiments. It makes no sense to use white here as the wheat taste great and it’s one less time you have to use a processed, carb-kicking, sugar-blasting product. Wheat has a bad rep lately, but it’s largely undeserved.

So there wouldn’t seem like much to experiment with. The ingredients: Wheat, water, oil and salt. But like any dough, you have to recognize it’s alive, like a bottle of wine, evolving. No two dough’s are the same. Finding that magical balance is elusive. It’s an art.

I got fixated on why nobody uses yeast with tortillas. Why not? I wondered? The simple reason is the yeast puffs up too much and makes them too fat (the yeasty ones are on the left, the baking soda on the right):

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But it’s also just unnecessary. I liked the non-yeasty tortillas better. I even tried baking soda to see if a little lift was necessary. Turns out it just took some of the pliability from the dough. Nothing at all was needed to make the better tortillas.

Authentic tortillas require lard. It’s the way they are made. Some go on about how important this is. Frankly, the olive oil is fine and even if its not perfect, it is so much more healthy I didn’t even really consider butter or lard. To be fair, I tried both versions. I didn’t love them enough to choose them over olive oil. Four ingredients: simple. Less is more.

Of course, that didn’t stop me. I added two ingredients in my final version. I like it, but maybe just so I can think they are my “own” tortillas. Who knows? Try them and see:

Wheat Tortillas

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups wheat flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ancho chili powder
  • 1 tsp garlic
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2/3 c. warm water

Directions:

1) Start with the flour and spices in a bowl and mix.

2) Pour in the oil and cut it through the dough with your fingers. Make a well.

3) Pour the warm water in the well. Using your fingers as a rake work the dough through the well into a dough ball that looks like Shaggy on Scooby Doo emerges.

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4) Now work the dough, kneading it until it comes alive and begins to bond. This is work. Don’t rush it. Just mash it around like you did with Play Doh when you were five.

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5) Finally shape into a ball. Cover with clingwrap and set aside for an hour.

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6) Separate into golf-ball sized balls and re-shape. Place under clingwrap or a towel for another 15 to 30 minutes.

7) Heat a skillet (I love a cast iron here) medium hot and roll out the first dough ball. Use a lot of flour to keep them from sticking and roll very thin (you can see your hand through them). Cook for a couple of minutes on each side while you roll out the next one. Store in a towel so they keep each other warm.

Cooking note: I like a touch of burn to hit the flour, a touch of bubbling. Just a touch. That means the dough is cooked but still soft. It’s a fine line between that and burnt and hard. But under cooked is the worst because they taste doughy.

Enjoy.

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