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13 August 2005

making corn tortillas by hand

homemade corn tortillas, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Okay, I admit it. I'm crazy. You want to know why? This morning, before the first pot of coffee had finished brewing, I made corn tortillas by hand.

Let me back up.

All during the week, I have been eating gorgeous food. Not just at home, where I cook and dance in the kitchen and eat with my eyes open and my mouth singing. Writing this blog has made me notice food more than ever before, and I thought I was pretty aware before. But now, when I buy food at the farmers' market, I take pictures of it. When I rush home and assemble my treasures on the kitchen counters, I take pictures of it. And I'm teaching myself to delay that need for immediate gratification, because I take pictures of the meal before I dive into it. I love doing this. (And thank you to all of you who have been writing and calling, saying how much you enjoy reading this.) I'm thriving.

But I have also been eating well at work. Life at Scribes, at the Hugo House, is a gorgeous mix of connected kids, wacky writing assignments, and the joy that comes from being in a group of people who love to do what I love to do. From 9 to 4, I'm awake, usually laughing. Dana, my fellow teacher, is a joy. The students' faces shine with pleasure. (If someone had given me two weeks with fellow writers when I was 16, I think my face would have fallen off from all the smiling.) And we are eating well.

Kim, the lovely young woman who cooks for us, has been going out of her way to make my experience filled with safe tastes. After the first day there, I wrote a post here about how little she knew about gluten. But I don't blame her. I didn't know much before the celiac diagnosis either. Most of America doesn't understand this. However, I'm happy to help educate. Well, she's a fast learner. She cares about food, has been cooking at co-ops and family functions for years. And she makes everything by hand. When we stop for a snack at 3, she has organic smoothies for all the kids. She has made lasagna, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and vegetarian quiche. And each time, she has something on the side for me. She made a crustless quiche in a tiny pie plate for my lunch. She made scrambled eggs for breakfast, along with the bread pudding. And she checks every label and tells me what I can and cannot eat at the table.

I love her.

On Tuesday, she made tacos for the kids. The tortillas were really flavorful. When I asked her what brand she had used (not only so I could buy it, but also so I could check to make sure I could eat it), she said, "Oh, I made them."

She made corn tortillas from scratch, for twenty adolescents, and two astonished teachers. Wow.

When I asked her what recipe she used, she pointed toward the Rick Bayless book on Mexican cooking. "But, you know, it's just dough. I just mix water with masa harina and put it on the grill. It's the easiest thing in the world."

And she's right. I ran home and looked up corn tortillas on 101 Cookbooks, my bible these days. There, I found that masa harina is corn flour, made from dried corn kernels that have been cooked, then soaked in lime and ground into corn flour. Apparently, you can buy some at any local tortilla factory. And today, at the Magnolia Farmers Market, the goat cheese maker told me about a Mexican grocery store in Pike Place that has fresh masa. More on this later. But this fascinating read made me even more eager to try the process.

So, during one break, I walked up to Madison Market and bought some of Bob's Red Mill masa harina. I knew it probably wasn't the most authentic brand I could buy, but it was there. I threw it on the counter by the coffee maker a couple of days ago, and intended to make some that night. But teaching
all day—being really present; answering questions; generating new assignments—takes it out of me. And when I returned home every afternoon, I'd rush out to go kayaking or bike the Burke-Gilman trail or shop for that night's new food. And of course, write an entry for the blog. I slept well every night, but I never had time to make corn tortillas.

New recipes always seem like they will take forever to master. I used to feel as though I should clear an afternoon to make that cake or casserole. But lately, I've been making something new at least four times a week, and every time, I'm surprised by how little time and energy it takes. And how much more I gain from those few minutes than I would have by driving to the store and buying something in the gourmet deli section. For all those of you who claim you have no time to cook at home: stop talking and start cooking.

Everything tastes so much better when I cook it at home. And that's no mystery. Most American versions of foods from around the world are merely pale imitations. Check out what Rick Bayless said about this:

PG: That's true. What I find interesting is that in much of the country, Americans have expressed a strong preference for the flour tortilla over the corn tortilla. Why do you think that is?

RB: Because they can't get good corn tortillas. Americans eat flour tortillas, not Mexicans. You need to go to a specialty food restaurant in Mexico to be served four tortillas. Spaniards brought wheat flour to Mexico and turned it into an unleavened flatbread.

Corn tortillas must be baked and eaten right away. Nobody in America wants to hear about this. They want something they can put in their refrigerator for a couple of days so.......Americans usually haven't had the chance to try them prepared in the proper way. It would be just like you were going to get a couple of day old french bread in France. There is nothing you can do with it. It's a shame because corn tortillas are so infinitely superior to flour. There is no added fat or salt. Almost 100% grain. Flour tortillas are high in fat, salty usually refined flour.

Hm, sounds pretty typically American to me. No thanks.

So this morning, even though my kitchen counters were cluttered with dishes and food left over from last night's cooking, and I was still tired from the week, I reached for the package of masa harina, spontaneously. I threw some of it in my copper bowl, added water, and waited for this to be difficult. It wasn't. I'll post the recipe below, although I feel a little sheepish about calling it a recipe. It's more like commen sense and working with your hands.

I tasted the first one and fell in love. Thicker, more densely packed with taste, and infinitely better than commercial corn tortillas. And this is a boon to us celiacs in particular, because so many commercial corn tortillas are dusted with wheat flour before being put in the package, to make sure they don't stick together. And that makes them not gluten-free. Aarrgh.

So I had a little stack of misshapen corn tortillas. What to do? Thank goodness I still had food out on the counter. I grabbed some of the organic heirloom cherry tomatoes left over from last week's farmers' market and sauteed them in the pan still hot from the tortillas. A little olive oil, sea salt, and then some goat cheese at the last moment. As it was cooking, I cut up some avocado in thick chunks. And then I had the whole mess for breakfast. And sighed with pleasure.

And then the coffee was ready.


° First, find the best masa harina you can find. Bob's is pretty good, although I'm looking forward to exploring.
° Combine 2 cups of the masa harina with 1 cup of water. Mix until the dough starts to form a ball. It will be thick, like Playdough. Enjoy that.
° Shape into small balls. Place each one between two sheets of wax paper or a plastic bag and flatten it into a disc. (If the dough is too wet, it won't come off the plastic. Adjust accordingly.)
° Throw the tortilla-in-the-making onto a hot griddle. Cook for 30 seconds, then flip it. Flip it again. Take it off the griddle.
° Eat it hot!

hint: if you just can't wait, and you want to eat the first one, then cover the dough with a moist towel to keep it wet.



At 6:24 PM, Blogger Sculpin said...

Howdy. I'm a new reader, also here in Seattle. Just half an hour or so after vowing to make my own corn tortillas soon, here they are on your blog! I'm delighted to learn that somebody in Pike Place has fresh masa for sale.

My Mexican friends tell me that it's a good idea to re-use my burliest plastic food bags and slip them over the plates of my tortilla press. (Do I have a tortilla press? Yes. Have I ever used it? Well, I will this week.)

At 6:38 PM, Blogger tiffkindred said...

Those look absolutely amazing! I came across your blog through Steph's.. I am anxious to try this recipe! Have a wonderful weekend. You have a lovely and delicous looking blog! :) Kindly, Tiffany

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Freckle Face Girl said...

Thanks for sharing that. I love Mexican food! I'll definitely have to try it.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger chubbiegirl said...

i'm curious. do fresh corn tortillas have that slightly funky taste that store-bought ones have? at this point, i will only eat them fried (as in a quesadilla), where they are crispy, or as an enchilada with lots o' sauce.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Shauna said...


I love your website. You have a tortilla press and haven't used it? And you live in Seattle too? Bring it by my house. Let's make some tortillas.


Thank so you much for what you said. And I was deeply moved by reading your blog. I'll be sure to go back again.


Let me know how it works out for you when you make the tortillas.


No, that's the great thing. Homemade tortillas don't have the funky taste of store-bought ones. I've learned my lesson--homemade corn tortillas just off the grill taste like nothing else. You have to try it.

At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Corn Tortillas really are some of the easiest things in the world to make - and the best tasting ones.:) You can make them even easier to make by buying an eletric tortilla maker, it flattens and cooks them at the same time. I've made them since I was 12 and use them for everything, lunch, dinner, midnight snack with butter and salt.... mmmmmmmm

At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is nice to see other people that appreciate tortillas.
I successfully made tortillas exactly like Mexico but It was not easy.
I bought a stone mill minus the electric motor in San Juan Del Rio Mexico. Disassembled the mill and had it shipped to the U.S.
Reassembled the mill and installed a farm grade two horse motor.
Found a source for Maíz in New Mexico and all natural slaked lime.
I found blue corn here:
Since then I have made tortillas, atole and tamales just as good as any found in mexico. The trick with authentic tortillas is they have to be made from fresh nixtamal and ground with lava stone to get the texture right.
The masa for tamales is just like the masa for tortillas but the nixtamal must be washed, dried, milled and then sifted to give the highest quality tamales.
If you make tortillas this way (authentic Mexican) the tortillas will last two weeks in the refrigerator! All you do is stack them, wrap them in a clean cloth towel and place in a plastic bag.
After a couple of weeks are up you can still cut them up fry them and make Chilaquiles!
It also helps to have mexican women to teach you the process...

At 4:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is nice to see other people that appreciate tortillas.
I successfully made tortillas exactly like Mexico but It was not easy.
I bought a stone mill minus the electric motor in San Juan Del Rio Mexico. Disassembled the mill and had it shipped to the U.S.
Reassembled the mill and installed a farm grade two horse motor.
Found a source for Maíz in New Mexico and all natural slaked lime.
Since then I have made tortillas, atole and tamales just as good as any found in mexico. The trick with authentic tortillas is they have to be made from fresh nixtamal and ground with lava stone to get the texture right.
The masa for tamales is just like the masa for tortillas but the nixtamal must be washed, dried, milled and then sifted to give the highest quality tamales.
If you make tortillas this way (authentic Mexican) the tortillas will last two weeks in the refrigerator! All you do is stack them, wrap them in a clean cloth towel and place in a plastic bag.
After a couple of weeks are up you can still cut them up fry them and make Chilaquiles!
It also helps to have a group of Mexican women teach you the process...

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

We bought YUMMY fresh corn tortillas from the Mexican market yesterday. YUM!
However, I am glad to know that they can be dusted with flour. (Boy you can cope with the disease for years and miss certain details.)
I fed them to Kimi last night and she was sick quickly afterward.
I was puzzled.
One of the ladies at the GIG (she has some Spanish skills) meeting told us the man behind the counter patted her hand and gave her corn tortillas from another stack one day. (He recognized her and knows she has celiacs.) He likely knew that those had been dusted.
I admit, my spanish skills are terrible. I can say wash plates, the cat, etc....
I did not try to talk to him. I should have been more brave. I will need to come up with a phrase asking if they have been dusted. (blush)
Chubbie girl mentioned the funky taste that trtillas can have. We did not experience this with the fresh ones. YUM! Light and so good!
Not the dense easily cracked frisbees we hve been trying to eat!
I think I'll go back and purchase that press I looked at yesterday. Or maybe the marble rolling pin and I will give it a try. Thanks!

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Just a note....if you are needing to be entirely 'gluten free' , (i.e. even a digested speck of wheat product would be harmful to your health; Celiac disease), then Bob's Red Mill masa harina is not gluen free (as stated on their website). I am guessing that the corn is ground in the same facilities as wheat and gluten containg products...

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Shauna said...

To Gluten-Free Mom to Many and Chris and everyone else reading:

yes. I have since found out that Bob's Red Mill masa is made in the non-gluten-free factory. I wrote this so long ago that I haven't updated it yet! (Life has been a little busy.)

But to everyone reading, there are plenty of gluten-free masa sources. Seek them out.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Laura said...

Hallo! What a beautiful blog! I am so excited to have found it...Living overseas and just recently diagnosed with major food allergies,NO dairy(nothing from an udder as my German Dr said), no more beautiful glorious golden eggs, no gluten (so no more cake and coffee in the afternoon OR Brotchen for breakfast) and the worst of all...when living in Germany....NO PORK!
Alas I am trying to focus on all the wonderful things I am still able to luxuriate over like wine and olives and I believe your site will help in this positive focus.
Thank you,

At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fun blog to read thanks!

I'm having a hard time finding a gluten free masa flower. Could someone let me know which brands are gluten free or maybe a URL of where I could order some masa? TY

- Rachel

At 2:04 AM, Blogger Amanda on Maui said...

If you can't store the tortillas for more than 24 hours, can you store the dough? I'm just afraid of making too much and not eating it all and wasting food (and money).
I usually only eat 2 corn tortillas in a day, and if the bf eats some then he eats 2. So, that's 4 at most.
I want to make my own, but don't want to make too much unless there is a way for me to store them, like in the freezer perhaps?

At 6:45 AM, Blogger Blewyn said...

I don't think I can get masa harina here (Muscat, Oman). Can I just use cornflour or polenta ?

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Shauna said...

Blewn (and anyone else wondering),

I'm afraid you do need masa. It's made to make tortillas. Polenta would, sadly, not work at all.

At 10:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just trying to find somewhere on here to ask if anyone has had a problem with the store bought alleged gluten-free tortillas. I have wheat sensitivity (i'm assuming that and gluten allergy is one in the same), and after eating a meal with these tortillas, i'm bloating up like a balloon with no end in site and feeling pretty darn uncomfortable. It says masa flour on the package, and on wikipedia it says that a certain masa flour can be cut with wheat. I'm wondering if this could be the culprit - hidden wheat in my corn tortilla. Nothing else in my meal makes sense to have been the problem - chicken, guacamole from avocados, tomatoes, a salsa that checks out and that i've eaten before, wild black rice, and some white wine. Perhaps it's the brand of wine? I'm at a loss.

At 10:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! Can you recommend another means to cooking the tortillas besides going out to buy an electric tortilla maker? Can you cook it on a regular pan on the stove? Thank you.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Julie said...

Thank you..thank you. My daughter can't have yeast, gluten or milk. These corn tortillas are wonderful for her.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Tatian said...

This made me smile!

This morning, I woke up at 6:15am to make fresh corn tortillas with my son (2 1/2 years old) from masa harina that my wife had bought yesterday.

It was almost as fun as making popcorn, and probably the easiest cooking I've ever done. They turned out great, and the three of us had quesadillas for breakfast.

At 5:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm new to your blog and have book marked it for my own use later. I'm not any where near where you live but all the way out in Belgium. I have been living wheat free (well learning to live it as I'm still very new and finding all sorts or hidden dangers!). Lately I thought that it's getting to be spring and soon summer... my favorite time of year to have tacos! I love making home made tacos out of freshly mixed herbs instead of the pre-bought salt loaded taco seasonings while adding it to almost fat free ground turkey and all those fresh veggies with some nice fresh shredded cheese. I haven't yet experimented with tortilla at all but I bought a bag of what is named on the package 'Farina Di Mais' or as I know it, fine powder like Polenta. I'm going to experiment with your recipe and this form of corn for my first experience. I will visit often to your blog and I hope you'll stop by mine as well! is mine but it's new in the budding so to speak since I don't get a whole lot of time to write! Thank you!

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been making corn tortillas for some time and I use a tortilla press. (Amazon super saver about $19.) Maseca Instant Corn Flour is the best(can get from Amazon, too). That's what they sell in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. I also use plastic baggies with the press but I cut them into two pieces because the dough is easier to get off the plastic when you hold it in your hand. I also roll the dough balls in a bit of the corn flour and they rarely stick to the plastic.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Markie said...

Hi there - I found gluten free corn tortillas from Trader Joe's. Thanks for the recipe - I am looking forward to trying it out :)

At 7:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blundered to this site. I have a wheat, barley, rye allergy. All have gluten. I have a rash which I now believe is Dermatitis, herpetiformis. It is cause by gluten. I have used many creams, pills etc to no avail. The idea of making your own tortillas hit the spot. AS I live in the hinterland finding the gluten free corn will be a problem. Thanks for all the information.
Don E


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