In Search of the Proper Tortilla – Part II

In Search of the Proper Tortilla – Part II

In my last blog post, I discussed the importance of corn quality and what it means to the making of a proper tortilla. I also mentioned how the simple things end up being the most complex. This post delves into the process and its importance.

First, a few terms:

  • Maize is field corn.
  • Nixtamalization is the Nahuatl word for the cooking and steeping of dried field corn in alkaline water.
  • Nixtamal is the end result of nixtamalization.
  • Masa is dough made from ground nixtamal, the dough used to make a tortilla.

The “recipe” goes like this:

  • Cal (calcium hydroxide) – 7-8% by weight to corn
  • Water – 3 liters per 1 kilo of corn
  • Heat

Seems simple, right?

I’ve used grams because it’s a more accurate form of measurement, but just as in baking the measurements are an estimate because your base product is always changing. Was your corn harvested last month or 13 months ago? How was it held and where? What is the moisture content and variety?

The answer to these questions does not change the Cal percentage, but can change the amount of time it takes to cook, which means it changes the amount of water due to evaporation and absorption.

We have cooked all kinds of corn—GMO harvested who knows when, non-GMO held in silos, and non-GMO heirloom corn grown in Mexico but processed and held with care. The cooking time can vary from 1 hour and 20 minutes to 20 minutes. Seriously!

Let me be clear. I do not pretend to be an expert on this.

In fact, I've just started learning about it the last few years. There are women in Mexico that understand this process so deeply it’s in their DNA. They don’t measure anything, they just “know.” It’s humbling.

The biggest variable in the nixtamalization process is the cooking time. Just like a baker knows their dough needs more water by touching it, the cooking of nixtamal is not a science. It comes with experience. It’s in your hands and teeth. Our good friend Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef de cuisine at Cosme in New York City likes to say, “the corn should be medium rare, I think that’s as close to an exact cooking time as you’re going to get.” Keep trying it every five minutes until it seems medium rare, not totally cooked and not dry and starchy. Some people say to cook at a simmer and others say to rapid boil. We are rapid boilers. From there, you want to get it to room temperature and hold it there for about 12 hours.

Rinsing comes next. You want to rinse the corn under cold running water, rubbing it with your hands or shaking it in a colander until most but not the entire outer layer (pericarp) of the corn is removed. It’s easy, just not measurable.

The final step to creating masa is grinding. This is one of the most important parts of the equation and one of the most frustrating.

If you know what a metate is, you know you don’t want to use one for making a fun taco night with your friends. It’s hard work! But, it’s also one of the best ways to grind nixtamal into masa—by hand between a stone plate (metate) and a stone rolling pin (mano). One of the advantages to this method is you can do a relatively small volume (and truthfully that’s all you’ll be able to manage anyway).

The next steps up from a “mano y metate” are all mediocre at best. The hand grinder, similar to a grain mill, is too coarse. What about the grain mill attachment to your KitchenAid mixer, you’re thinking? We tried that, and it’s no bueno. The best you can do is something called a “Nixtamatic.” That’s what we use at George’s for our TBL3 tortillas and it works well for small batches. The down side is the closest Nixtamatic I could find was in Mexico City at a cost of around $350.

From there the price point jumps to $6,000 and goes up fast. These are high-powered, large machines that basically spin two large granite stones at high speed to grind your nixtamal with the addition of water into what we know as masa. Just like most of the corn being used in the production of commercial tortillas, these are based on producing large volumes. These machines grind the corn so finely that the masa comes out almost fluffy. All other types of grinders leave larger particles of the harder corn material intact in the masa and turn the masa a bit pasty.

When a restaurant tells you they make their own tortillas, what they usually mean is they press and cook their own tortillas. They either purchase their masa from a local tortilleria (most often it is GMO, built for volume and low cost), or they make it with Maseca (GMO), which is an instant corn flour you just add water to and form and cook. Imagine a pizzeria telling you they make their own pizza, but they buy the dough from another vendor? There are several “instant” masa flours out there. If you’re making tortillas at home and want something good, I would suggest the Gold Mine brand. It’s non-GMO and their blue corn masa harina makes a very good instant tortilla.

At Galaxy Taco we have invested in a $10,000 custom-made Molino (masa grinder). It comes with two sets of granite stones, so when we need to send a set in for sharpening there is another set to work with. This is the only option we have if we want to serve non-GMO corn tortillas that are nixtamalized, ground and cooked in-house.

Sounds extreme?

Well, we could just buy GMO tortillas and not make a comment about it. Or buy GMO masa and say we “make” our tortillas to order. We could just market how delicious our fillings are, but that would be like having a sandwich shop and not caring about the bread you use, or a sushi bar not caring about the rice. When you have a great sandwich you know how important the bread is, and in great sushi restaurants the fish is a vehicle for the rice as much as the other way around. From our point of view, the tortilla should be no different.

We may be ahead of the curve on this, or we may be wrong in thinking that people will appreciate it, but that is our gamble. We prefer a natural product, made with care and respect.

The challenge with tacos is that everyone’s reference point for the best taco they ever had is usually either in Mexico or at a food truck for a couple bucks or less per taco. Our goal is to create a healthier, non-GMO alternative where we’ve controlled the entire process, but done so without losing the flavor and soul of those places.

You may be wondering at what cost? What am I going to spend for an organic, non-GMO taco? It will cost a bit more, but we’re confident you’ll find it to be a good value in relationship to what you’re getting. We hope you come by when we open and make the decision for yourself.