masa harina

How I learned to stop worrying about nixtamal and make fresh tortillas from masa harina

You can wrap just about anything in a freshly made corn tortilla, hot off the comal or griddle, and it'll be wonderful.

Well, that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. 

In another lifetime, a hundred years ago when I was in my twenties and living in L.A., I made fresh tortillas all the time. I had a cheap aluminum tortilla press and a cheap aluminum comal (tortilla griddle); I'd picked up both in a Mexican grocery. You could buy a bag of masa harina (dried powdered masa) just about anywhere. I was in a serious carnitas phase: I'd fallen in love with Diana Kennedy's version in The Cuisines of Mexico, and I'd make that with salsa verde cruda and guacamole and a big pot of pinto beans to serve on the side. 

When I moved to New York to go to graduate school a few years later, I brought my comal and tortilla press and even my molcajete – though masa harina was not so easy to find.

The tortilla press I've had forever

A few years after that, some time in the early 90's, I lucked into an opportunity to meet Kennedy, and even spent a long weekend cooking with her and the late, wonderful Peter Kump, founder of Peter Kump's Cooking School in New York. My friend Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch (I wrote about her in my post about pissaladière) had invited Kennedy and Kump to her 500 year-old stone farmhouse in Dordogne to spend some days cooking and soaking up the delicious and gorgeous region. Danièle knew I was a huge Kennedy fan, and was wonderfully generous to invite me along.

At some point during a weekend spent making pommes sarladaise in a big pot suspended from the hearth in the center of Danièle's living room, and confit de carnard and chou farci and I can't remember what all else, Diana and I got into a discussion about corn tortillas. I'll never forget her expression when I told her I was in the habit of using masa harina to make mine: I might as well have told her I was a regular at Taco Bell. She was positively scandalized.  She insisted that masa made from nixtamal – corn kernels cooked in a solution of lime (calcium oxide) and water – was the only legitimate masa. I knew all about it from her book, but when I'd gotten to the part of the two-page process that said, "Meantime, crush the lime if it is in a lump, taking care that the dust does not get into your eyes," I stopped reading. 

With Diana, I tried to defend my position, arguing that tortillas freshly made from masa harina are way better than anything you can buy at the store. "Better to buy masa at a tortilleria in your neighborhood," she countered. But there were no tortillerias anywhere near my hood – the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It wasn't even easy to find masa harina there.  The conversation seriously deflated me (this was my Mexican cooking hero!) and I think I lost some of my joy for tortilla-making.

That's why last summer when a review copy of Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman's cookbook Tacos: Recipes and Provocations landed on my desk at work, I was delighted when the book fell open to the following: "In Defense of Masa Harina." "A warm tortilla prepared with harina may not hit the same celestial notes as one made with fresh masa," it said, "but it is still an absolute revelation if all you've ever tasted is reheated, store-bought tortillas. There's irrefutable value in that, so I stand by it." 

Well, of course I've tasted many a fabulous tortilla made from fresh masa, but I still think the ones you make from masa harina (all you need to add is water!) are pretty darn good. And once you get the hang of it, making them is easy – easier than making pancakes, in fact, because the dough is just harina and water.


Though I'd already made tortillas a hundred times, I followed Stupak's instructions and found they worked perfectly, though I prefer the proportions of water to masa found on harina packages (1 1/8 cup warm water to 1 cup harina). You knead the water into the flour, roll it into a ball, and keep it moist under a damp towel while you work. "You want the texture to be as soft and moist as possible without sticking to your hands," is the way Stupak describes the right texture. 

 Set up a double griddle or two cast-iron pans and heat them so you have one side or pan hotter than the other. Line your tortilla press with plastic (so the dough doesn't stick). Roll some dough into a golf-ball-size ball. Open the press, plop in the ball, push down on the lever. Open the press, flip the tortilla onto your palm, peel off the plastic. (The thinner the plastic, the easier it is to peel off. I cut up thin, crinkly plastic bags like the ones you get at CVS if you forget to bring your own.) Drop the tortilla onto the cooler side of the griddle, cook for 15 seconds, then flip it over onto the hotter side and cook for 30 seconds. Flip it again (still on the hotter side) and leave it for 10 seconds, then flip a final time and cook 10 more seconds. At that point it may puff up a bit. Transfer it to an tortilla basket – or an insulated tortilla container (Stupak has a good section about which type is best – a "thick fabric tortilla warmer covered with culturally insensitive dancing chili peppers" was his favorite. He also explains why it doesn't work to reheat corn tortillas that have cooled completely.)

So, what shall we wrap these tender warm beauties around? That's a subject for my next post. Meanwhile, I can tell you what I put on the ones I whipped up tonight: Shredded store-bought roast chicken, diced avocado, white onion, cilantro, some leftover pinto beans, a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of leftover salsa borracha, also from Stupak's book. The salsa borracha – spiked with mezcal – was a revelation. That recipe's coming soon, too.

Meanwhile, in case you want to get some practice – or just have a fabulous vehicle in which to wrap leftovers (barbecue brisket is dreamy!) or do some creative taco improvisation – here's the corn tortilla recipe. Same thing I just gave you, but in a little more detail.