Tortillas from Scratch

This post has been a long time in the making. Before I left California in December, Paul from Warren Creek Farm gave me a whole bunch of decorative (aka "Indian") corn to experiment with. He sells it on the cob for decoration around Halloween/Thanksgiving time. I was curious to know if it was good to eat, and he had a bunch left over after the holidays, so he took some off the husk and gave it to me. I got about 10 or 15 pounds, and I've only used a fraction of it so far. It's got to be ground before it's edible, and I hadn't had the time or inclination to process it. I'm so happy with these tortillas I made yesterday, I'm sure I'll be eating a lot more of it in the next few months!

This "Indian" corn is a mixture of heirloom (old) corn varieties that were originally grown by Native Americans. I'm not sure exactly where these particular varieties come from (there were hundreds of varieties grown by different peoples all over the Americas.) Tortillas come from the Mexican culinary tradition, and since this corn grew well in cool Humboldt County California, I'm guessing it is not of Mexican origin. I was curious to try making corn tortillas from it anyway just to see how they turned out. I knew it was the same type of corn as Mexicans use to make tortillas (dry "dent" or "field corn" as opposed to sweet corn or pop corn), and all corn came from Mexico in the very beginning, before people in other areas picked it up and developed their own varieties, so I figured it couldn't go too badly.

Calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime or cal, is the only necessary ingredient to turn whole corn into tortillas. It's an alkaline mineral solution that's mixed with water and soaked with the corn. It's pretty amazing that ancient Mexicans figured this out - Not only does it soften the corn and make it easier to grind, but the process also enhances the nutrition. It convents the niacin in the corn from a bound form that's not absorbable by human bodies to a free form that we can use; it ensures a better amino acid balance in the protein in the germ of the kernel; it increases the amount of calcium, zinc, iron, and copper in the corn; and it reduces mycotoxins that occur in corn. Pretty cool!

The recipe I found online called for 5 tablespoons of lime, 4 quarts of water, and 2 quarts corn. I couldn't find any lime in town, so I ordered some online. Unfortunately, it wasn't a full 5 tablespoons - it was more like 3 1/2, so I had to do some fancy math (fancy for me, at least.) I started heating the water with the lime in it. When the lime had dissolved, I added the corn and continued heating it.

These misshapen kernels floated to the top, and I took them out.

I boiled the mixture for a few minutes, then turned the heat off. For tortillas, the corn is supposed to soak overnight. It soaks for less time if you're planning to make pozole or tamales.

Here's what it looked like the next morning. Not too appetizing!

I rinsed the corn in cold water and began the long process of taking the husks off. The directions said to rub the kernels between your fingers and the "softened husks" should come right off. Wrong! I worked at it for about an hour an a half, stooped over the sink, and finally decided it was good enough. I'm not sure why it seemed so difficult, perhaps it's the variety of corn.....

Here's the soaked corn, hulls removed (mostly) and ready for grinding. This is called nixtamal.

I got this wet grain mill online from melissaguerra.com. It's great, except they didn't send me the hopper (the part that holds the grain). I sent an email when I got it in the mail about a week ago, but I haven't heard anything. Luckily, we had this old coffee can that could be rigged to work.

The grinding took a long time (about 45 minutes of continuous grinding.) but it was a great workout, and produced some really nice looking masa harina - the corn flour used to make tortillas.

It was really exciting to finally have it ground up! The masa was pretty damp, but still powdery. I've made tortillas often using store bought masa harina, and it was really cool to see that I could make it myself, even if it was a lot of work. We used a little bit of what I ground for tortillas for last night's dinner, and I started drying the rest in a warm oven for later use.

I added a little water (about a cup or a little less) to about 5 cups of the damp masa harina to make a stiff dough. Getting the right consistency is a little difficult - if it's too wet, it sticks; too dry and it cracks. Luckily, unlike flour dough, it's OK to handle masa dough as much as you want - it won't make the tortillas tough.

For each tortilla, I started with a small ball of masa....

The ball gets placed in the middle of the tortilla press. (I sandwich the masa between two pieces of wax paper so it doesn't stick to the press.)

Press down hard.....I really like my heavy steel tortillas press. It makes it much easier to get a nice flat tortilla. I had a wooden one for a while and found it difficult to put enough pressure on it to make a thin tortilla.

It's relatively easy to peel the tortilla off the wax paper....

...and toss it on the pan. I use my cast iron skillet. Unless it's really dried out, I don't add any oil. If the masa is the right consistency, over medium heat, the tortillas don't stick. They cook for about 30 seconds on each side, until the corn is barely toasted. I've found that it's really important to have the pan heated up before you put the first tortilla in. Otherwise it sticks a little, and the little bit of burnt residue messes up the rest of the tortillas.

Here is the finished product! I hold the finished tortillas in a warm oven, wrapped in a clean dish towel. These turned out really good - not to brittle, with a wonderful fresh flavor and a pretty blue color. They filled the house with a delicious toasty corn aroma!

We ate them with shredded Wisconsin cheese, Warren Creek Farm beans, local ground buffalo, black olives, fresh guacamole, and organic salsa. Delicious! I could eat like this every day of the week! It felt especially good to eat tortillas that I had made entirely myself.....I have a whole new appreciation for the process!
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1 comment:

  1. Aha. Great stuff--for those interested in basic things. My research indicates people starting from scratch are using electric Indian wet grinders, with real grinding stones. Please advise if/when you consider this: big time saver.

    Good work. Interesting blog.


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