In Search of the Proper Tortilla - Part I

In Search of the Proper Tortilla - Part I

The simple things are often the most complex.

Long before we started down the road to open Galaxy Taco, we began playing with the tortilla when we decided to include a “fish taco” on our extended TBL3 tasting menu in California Modern. Since a big part of a taco is the tortilla it is wrapped in, I felt we needed to understand what this “tortilla” was/should be. As we do with everything relating to a TBL3 menu, we delved into the details. That was more than two years ago.

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on, from Diana Kennedy to Dave Arnold. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion on the process and “recipe.” This puzzled me. How could something that consists of three ingredients and has been made for thousands of years have so many variables and so little documentation? If you research meringue, a food item that consists of basically two ingredients but has many variations, it is all very well documented and relatively easy to find a recipe for what you seek. For tortillas, a food item that is everywhere—from your local farmers market to a 7-11—there was surprisingly little information.

To start our learning process, I divided the tortilla into two sections: the product and its importance, and the process and its importance. This discussion will be about the product, and I will share more about the process in a future blog post.

Dried Field Corn + Water + Cal + Heat = Nixtamal

Nixtamalization is the Nahuatl word for the cooking and steeping of corn in alkaline water. Nixtamalization was invented in ancient Mesoamerica, now Mexico and Central America, over 3,500 years ago. The alkalai of choice in this region is calcium hydroxide (slaked lime or Cal). Nixtamalization spread with corn culture to the American southwest, where nixtamal, known by the Native American word hominy, and potassium carbonate (potash) and lye are the common bases.

This is the point where it gets complicated. What I eventually realized was that the major difference between everyone’s “recipes” was the corn they were using. Corn is very similar to wheat and bread as the variety and freshness of the grain/seed affects the outcome as much or more than the technique. In fact, the technique needs to adjust to the quality of product.

All corn used for tortillas is field or dent corn; there is twice as much field corn grown in the United States as any other single grain.

The following explanation is from Wikipedia:

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS), there are two categories of dent corn hybrids. These hybrids are categorized by the color of the kernels—either yellow or white. Yellow dent corn is produced primarily for animal feed and industrial uses such as ethanol and cooking oils. FGIS identifies that “white food corn hybrids are dent corn…typically contracted and sold to dry-mill processors and used in alkaline cooking processes for making masa, tortilla chips, snack foods, and grits” as well as producing food-grade starch and paper. Dependent on their starch content, some yellow dent corn hybrids are grown and used in the production of food for human consumption.

No wonder so many industrial tortillas look the same—the corn used to make them is GMO (genetically modified organism) corn that all looks and behaves exactly the same. Some interesting facts:

  • 93% of the corn produced in the U.S. is GMO
  • 90.6 million acres of corn are grown per year
  • 200 million bushels go to food products
  • 490 million bushels go to corn sweeteners
  • 142 million bushels go to beverages and alcohol
  • 1.25 BILLION bushels go to cattle feed
  • 1.2 BILLION to chicken feed
  • 1 BILLION to pork feed

Sources: NCGA, World of Corn 2014

We started our tortilla journey buying corn from a local tortilleria. I noticed the kernels were all exactly the same—no variations in size or color whatsoever. We bought it for less than $1 per pound. This was all starting to make sense. The tortilla industry was using the same corn from the same producers that produce corn for all the items mentioned above. How could flavor compete with sweeteners, fuel and animal feed? Most corn growers do it on a mega scale; how else can you make a living off something after it passes through at least four hands and still sells to me at less than a $1 per pound? I have visited Iowa and seen the fields of corn, many of which have industrial pork farms in the middle of them since they can feed the pigs the corn they grow. This is why industrial pork prices are so much lower than naturally raised pork (another long story).

So the process of finding a good quality corn began. I called non-GMO corn farmers in Arizona. I searched the web for non-GMO suppliers. And then I had an “aha moment.” I called my friend Dan Barber who had recently been working with wheat farmers; I figured he might have some answers. He immediately introduced me to some former employees of his that had started a corn importing business from Mexico. While I have to say it feels a bit silly to be buying corn from a company based in New York that is importing corn from the country my city shares a border with, they are the only one doing it.

The best way I can explain my interest in corn is coffee. Twenty years ago every household had a can of pre-ground coffee in the house. Now we all have our favorite local roaster, grind our own beans at home, consider the variety, the provenance and elevation it is grown. Corn is no different; it has the same subtle variations. The corn we get from Masienda is a totally different product than what we were getting from our local tortilleria. It cooks differently, looks different and tastes way better.

My next post will be about the process of turning good quality corn into great tasting non-GMO tortillas—what you will find on our menus at both George’s California Modern and Galaxy Taco.

If you are interested in reading more about corn growing in the U.S., these are some great resources: