If you don’t want to read a book and just want the recipe, click here.
Last September I traveled to Arizona to visit my girlfriend’s family, with this being the first time I ever laid eyes on a desert in person. Stepping out of the airport in Tucson, I immediately felt the vast difference in heat: “it’s a dry heat” is branded on plenty of airport souvenirs, and this rings true. The humidity of the southeastern US somewhat prepared me for the interesting difference in Arizona, and I felt it to be a welcome change.
“This is pleasant,” I thought, “what else can I find to my liking here?”
With it being my first time in Arizona, I found that my girlfriend’s parents were great tour guides and everywhere was exciting, from visiting Tombstone, the Mission San Xavier del Bac as well as Kartchner Caverns State Park. But my favorite discovery was, naturally, the food. My experience with Mexican cuisine was limited to tacky North Carolina Mexican restaurants (which are tasty, don’t get me wrong) and the occasional homemade meal, but much like the dry heat of Arizona, the difference was not hard to spot, and this too was also a welcome change. I will discuss in a later post the key differences and injustices that exist in our approach to Mexican cuisine, but for now I want to focus on my favorite facet of my experience: flour tortillas.
The Sonoran Tortilla
The tortillas were amazing here. Most were not made of masa, but instead of flour. They were paper thin and nearly see-through, light yet tough, and could be eaten on their own with no company. No matter what they were filled with (and trust me, I tried plenty of combinations on the trip) the tortillas were the star of the show for me. They were found a few times wrapped like napkins and holding my silverware, and used in burritos. I had never made a tortilla before at home by this point so I had no understanding of what it took to make them, and why these were special. I left the West after a week and kept thinking about these damn tortillas.
It’s a shame I never asked anyone what they technically were called, because it took a few failed recipes to find out on my own. At a local used book store I purchased Diana Kennedy’s “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” and happened to find the answers I’ve been looking for. They go by a few names but can be succinctly classified as a Sonoran tortilla. Geographically, a very significant area of wheat production in Mexico belongs to Sonora, being flat and well irrigated land. While you can of course find wheat tortillas all over the country, this has really tied the tortilla to the region.
What makes them special/different?
I made a few flour tortillas to try and emulate the ones from Arizona, and often times found that they were too fluffy, when I knew the target tortilla was paper thin. Not knowing much about leavening at the time, I didn’t think that all of the recipes calling for baking powder were setting me back. Using information provided by Mrs. Kennedy, I could then immediately see the big difference on paper. No leavening, just fat, salt, flour and hot water.
They are also cooked on a comal. Being the apartment-dwelling kitchen minimalist that I am, I try to avoid owning things that only perform one or few functions, I do not own a comal as of right now, but I use my largest cast iron pan. The drawback? A comal allows you to make huge tortillas – Sonoran tortillas are rolled ultra thin and almost out to 18-20 inches. Thus, I make them smaller at home, and a little bit thicker unless I’m using them specifically for burritos. The real deal however is much larger than your plate.
Why Make Tortillas at Home?
Make them once and you’ll answer the question. They’re that good, and they’re such an improvement over the bagged nonsense from the store. Sure, they’re cheap, but you’re doing a disservice to Mexico, its cuisine and yourself by not taking the time make them. Here are a few bullet points to persuade you to make the change:
- Taste They are absolutely delicious. Most homemade tortillas are, but these are golden to me.
- High ROI They are made with minimal ingredients but offer maximal reward.
- Impressive If you’re serving for guests, this will blow their socks off. And when they put them back on, the socks will fly off again.
- Mindful Cooking By taking time to care about something such as a tortilla, you are taking the time to understand a slice of another culture’s history. Not everyone cares about this sort of thing, but when you take a moment to consider the reason for the existence of something, and how it has made it to your home/plate/life, it can be inspiring. Take the time to think about it, as it’s cultural and historical mindfulness.
- Freezer Friendly If you’re lazy or pressed for time, I have good news – you can make these ahead. They freeze rather well and a short stint in the microwave or a hot skillet brings them back to life. Of course they’re best fresh.
Makes 8, 12″ tortillas
Below is the recipe provided by Diana Kennedy. It may take a bit of practice to get right, but the rewards greatly outweigh the effort.
- 240 grams (~ 2 cups) flour (plus more for shaping)
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ~ 3 tbsp shortening or lard (you can use vegetable oil, but I prefer the shortening)
- 3/4 cup hot water
- Comal or large cast iron skillet
- rolling pin
- dough scraper (optional, but helpful)
Mix together your dry ingredients, then work in fat with your fingertips until well incorporated. Add your hot water and mix until a sticky dough forms. On a floured workspace, knead dough for about 3-4 minutes until a satiny dough forms, and allow to rest, covered, for 30 minutes.
Preheat skillet or comal to medium-high heat. In making 12″ tortillas, divide dough into 8 pieces. Roll dough out using rolling pin to desired thickness. Cook tortillas for about 30 seconds on each side, or until brown spots begin to form.
Serve, or allow to cool before freezing.