What is a Mexican tortilla?
A tortilla is a traditional Mexican thin flat bread that can be made with all-purpose wheat flour or with maize flour.
Mexican tortillas have nothing to do with tortilla española, the famous Spanish omelette. Tortilla, which means small torte or cake, is the basis for a number of Mexican recipes including burritos and tacos.
What is the origin of tortilla?
Tortillas were originally made with maize (corn) flour by the native American populations before the arrival of Europeans. Flour tortillas are a more recent creation with an interesting history. Jews, who fled the Spanish inquisition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mostly migrated to Northern Mexico, where they could practice their religion freely.
Although there is no evidence of a connection between Passover matzah bread and flour tortilla, it is indeed the Spanish Jews who introduced the wheat flour adaptation of the flat bread to Mexican cuisine, along with a few other mainstays of Northern Mexican cuisine such as cabrito or roast goat kid, a specialty of Monterrey and the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon, as well as albondigas or meatballs, a Sephardic version of matzah balls.
According to a Mayan legend, a peasant initially invented tortillas for his hungry king. The first tortillas that were discovered date back to approximately 10,000 BC. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they gave the name of tortilla to these thin maize-based flat breads. In the south of Spain, tortilla was a thin, crispy circular bread made out of chickpea flour. Before that, the native Nahuatl name for tortillas was tlaxcalli.
We love to bake bread on 196 flavors, but flat breads seem to have our preference. If you prefer classic recipes, you might want to try recipes with wheat flour such as Greek lagana bread or lepinja from the Balkans. If you are as adventurous as we are, you might want to go for Ethiopian injera with teff flour, Algerian durum wheat flour-based kesra or even Somalia’s lahoh, a very unique flat bread with a yeast starter and a mixture of wheat flour and cornmeal.
There seems to be a disagreement about the use of a leavening agent in the flour tortilla. Most homemade flour tortilla recipes do not call for baking soda or baking powder but you can add a little pinch if you want to.
Our Mexican culinary expert Mely suggests using a pinch of baking powder if you want to, but it is not mandatory. I tried both recipes and didn’t really see any difference in the end result.
Tortillas taste better when they are fresh and warm. In order to keep them warm, you can use a tortilla warmer. If you don’t have a tortilla warmer, you can wrap your homemade Mexican flour tortillas in aluminum foil or a damp towel and keep them in a slow cooker or oven set on low.
I used my flour tortillas to make burritos, with meat, beans and cheese. A delicious recipe with another fascinating story behind it.
- 2½ cups all purpose flour (plus extra to form tortillas)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ⅓ cup shortening (or lard)
- 1 cup hot water
- In a large bowl, place the flour, salt and mix.
- With the help of a fork, pastry blender or your hands, incorporate the shortening (or lard) until it resembles coarse meal.
- Slowly add the hot water a little at a time until the dough holds together. Do not add all the water at once. You might need a little more or less water depending on the flour and the climate.
- Turn dough onto a work surface, and knead for a couple of minutes until it is smooth.
- Divide the dough in 8 pieces.
Roll every piece on your work surface with the palm of your hand to form a little disc. Those discs are called testales.
Cover the testales with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let the dough rest for 30 to 45 minutes.
- After the resting period, place an ungreased griddle (or comal) over medium heat. You can also use a non-stick pan.
- With a rolling pin, form the tortillas on a lightly floured surface.
To form the tortillas, place the testal onto the working surface and press slightly with your hand.
Then, set the rolling pin at the center of the testal.
- and press forward without making it to the edge and then press backwards towards yourself stopping before the edge.
- Turn the tortilla 90 degrees (like a quarter turn) and repeat pressing forward and then towards you.
- Flip the tortilla and repeat the same process until you have a thin disk of about 10 to 12 inches.
- Now, place the tortilla on the hot griddle.
- Bake 20 to 30 seconds on one side.
- Turn the tortilla, and bake for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Turn again and heat for about 10 seconds. Remove the tortilla and wrap with a kitchen towel or place in a tortilla warmer.
Repeat the steps with the remaining testales.