Corn has been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years and remains a major dietary component for much of the population. One thing about corn, though: If you eat it fresh, your body can't process one of its vitamins: niacin (vitamin B3). A niacin deficiency can lead to a nasty little ailment called pellagra, whose symptoms include skin lesions, stomach problems and dementia.
Seriously, in a food column? Yikes.
Anyway, pre-Columbian people began soaking corn (or maize) in an alkaline solution (water mixed with ash). This soaking, called “nixtamalization,” frees up the corn's niacin, making it available to us human consumers, lessening our risk of pellagra.
Nixtamalization also dissolves the glue holding the husk of the kernel to the meat, called the endosperm. With the husks easily rubbed off and separated, the endosperm can be ground into a dough called “masa.” Balls of masa were, and still are, flattened and cooked on a griddle, becoming the ancient flatbread known as tortillas.
(If the soaked kernels are cooked instead of ground into masa, they're called hominy, large, white starchy kernels used in soups and stews, the best known of which is the Mexican pozole, a rich, red spicy broth garnished with hominy and bits of pork.)
Now, as you've probably gathered, fresh masa is time-consuming and difficult to make, so we'll take a shortcut via the packaged, dried variety called masa harina. Masa harina resembles finely ground corn meal, but it isn't corn meal and don't try substituting it. Corn meal doesn't form dough like masa, so you won't be able to shape tortillas. Happily, you can find masa harina in Mexican groceries or supermarkets where there's a sizable Mexican-American population.
With masa harina, cranking out fresh tortillas is pretty much easy peasy lemon squeezy. You don't even need a tortilla press, though they're relatively inexpensive and easy to find (again, anywhere with a sizable Mexican population).
If you own a tortilla press, you probably don't need this tutorial. For the pressless masses, though, soldiering through this screed: Anything flat and heavy will suffice, like a plate or a pie pan or a manhole cover or a small, alien spacecraft. I like glass pie or cake pans because you can watch your masa transmogrify from dough ball to tortilla. Let's begin:
Masa harina tortillas
Put a heavy pan or griddle over a medium to medium-high flame. While it's heating, make the dough. Figure one tortilla for each ounce of masa harina. For eight tortillas, we'll combine:
1 cup of masa harina
2/3 cup warm water
1/4 teaspoon of salt
Stir it with a spoon until the water is fully incorporated, a minute or two. Use your hands to form a dough ball. The ball should not be sticky nor should it be crumbly. Think Goldilocks. (You may need 2 to 4 tablespoons more water.) Divide the ball into eight equal pieces and cover them loosely with plastic wrap.
Coat two sheets of plastic wrap with nonstick spray. Place a masa ball in the center of one sheet and cover it with the other sheet, sprayed side down.
Center your flattening implement on top of the dough and press down to flatten it like a vanquished foe into a 6- or 7-inch circle, about 1/8-inch thick. Pressing the implement in a circular motion around the tortilla's circumference will give a bit more spread.
Peel off the top sheet and flip the tortilla over onto your dominant hand. Peel off the bottom sheet and lay the tortilla on the hot pan and cook for 30 to 60 seconds, until the edges look dry. While it's cooking, press another tortilla. Flip the first with a spatula and cook until done: 15 seconds? A minute? You've eaten tortillas. You know what they look like. Remove and cover with a clean towel to keep warm.
Make all eight tortillas, cooking and stacking as you go. You can wrap them and refrigerate for several days or use immediately. To use, rewarm on the griddle or place directly onto the burner over the flame for several seconds per side, just enough to warm them, not enough to set them on fire. Use for tacos or quesadillas, or cut into strips and deep-fry for chips, or just roll them up and eat them in their naked, delicious state.
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