Making Terrific Flour Tortillas
This article contains a great deal of information that will be helpful to those who wish to develop their own version of the best flour tortilla. If all you are interested in is a recipe please go to my favorite recipe and some variations.
With the recent popularity of Mexican food and wraps in general, flour tortillas are now a very popular subject. With a little practice you will discover they are much easier to prepare than corn tortillas and that it is just as easy to make great ones as ordinary ones!
Where did flour tortillas come from? Anxious to be able to prepare their staple breads, Spaniards brought wheat seeds with them to Mexico. Unfortunately, wheat did not do well in the humidity and heat of southern Mexico. It was not until years later when Spanish settlers arrived in northern Mexico that they found the dry cold winters required for the crop to flourish. Ironically, by that time the Spaniards were accustomed to Indian foods and quickly adapted wheat to the preparation of a new type of tortilla.
The U.S. being close to northern Mexico, flour tortillas are very popular here and are widely available in supermarkets. Another reason why flour tortillas are so popular is that really good corn tortillas are difficult to find in the United States — and difficult to prepare, while top quality flour tortillas are relatively easy to make.
Ingredients and Techniques
Flour tortillas are made with wheat flour, a fat, salt, and water. Some cooks also add a little baking powder.
In Mexico, most of the flour is fairly soft, which means it is lower in protein and gluten (the elements that give bread its elastic quality) than bread flour, but higher in those items than cake or pastry flour. Our all-purpose flours are a good substitute and are excellent for flour tortillas, especially if you incorporate some cake flour, which reduces the protein and gluten and makes the dough easier to shape. Some commercial bakeries in the United States use a harder, bread-type flour with more protein and gluten, and the result is tortillas with a texture so rubbery and elastic that they turn taking a bite into a “tug of war.” These problems are also created by overworking the dough without allowing it to rest before making the tortillas. For a more rustic tortilla, add 1 - 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour per cup of all-purpose flour.
Lard is the traditional fat used to make flour tortillas, and is still my favorite, although those made in Sonora with rendered beef fat have a very special flavor. If you do not wish to use supermarket lard, which contains hydrogenated fat, simply make your own using the recipe just below.
Many cooks use shortening in their tortillas. However, I find that it has no real flavor, and there is the disadvantage that much of it is hydrogenated. As mentioned earlier, some cooks in Sonora use rendered beef fat which can be made the same way as lard. I find that neutral oils, such as canola oil, or one that is more assertive, like olive oil, make decent but less flavorful alternatives. Many cooks also use butter for some or all of the fat, which yields a rich, delicious result. I have recently discovered that pure, natural coconut fat, whihc has lost the stigma it had when it was hydrogenated, makes terrific flour tortillas.
Regarding the amount of fat, the rule of thumb is 1 ½ - 2 ½ tablespoons per cup of flour. However, using less fat does make the tortillas softer and more pliable when they are cold. In fact, reasonably good flour tortillas can be successfully made with as little as ½ tablespoon oil per cup of flour. Remember that tortillas made with more fat will have more flavor but will become stiff and hard when refrigerated. They will, however, soften when heated before serving.
Lard, Homemade and Otherwise
These days it is common for people to recoil in horror — like a vampire confronted by a cross — at the very mention of the word lard, but it is an essential ingredient for both flour tortillas and tamales. It is interesting to note that good quality lard actually has less saturated fat than butter, and many nutrition experts maintain that hydrogenated fats, such as those found in margarine and shortening, are more dangerous to health than the saturated fats found in butter and lard! But good quality lard does not include the products found in most supermarkets. That lard is usually hydrogenated and otherwise preserved to the point that, like shortening, it does not require refrigeration. Is there not some small voice that whispers something is wrong with an animal fat product that does not need refrigeration? You may be able to find good quality, freshly rendered lard (manteca fresca) in stores specializing in Mexican food products.
If you do not have access to good lard, you can make your own. It will be pure and tasty. A quick and easy way to produce small quantities, but one that requires caution because of the extreme heat and steam involved, is as follows: Place 1/3 - 1/2 cup diced pork fat in a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup, cover it with good quality, microwave safe, plastic wrap and microwave it on high, a minute at a time, until most of the fat has melted and the remaining bits of fat just begin to brown. It usually takes a total of 2 - 3 minutes. Allow the fat to cool slightly then strain the liquid into a sterile jar. The only downsides to this approach are that it makes relatively small quantities and you must take great care to avoid touching the glass container and the steam that is released when the plastic wrap is removed. I always use gloves made for handling hot objects, and kitchen tongs to remove the plastic wrap.
For large quantities I suggest you use the method advocated by Diana Kennedy: Place1 pound pork fat, cut into very small pieces, in an oven-proof skillet or baking dish, more or less in one layer, and place it in an oven preheated to 325 degrees. Cook until the fat begins to render and pour it through a strainer into a large jar or other suitable container. Continue cooking and pouring off the melted lard until the fat begins to brown. Allow the strained lard to cool, then refrigerate it.
Some cooks add a little baking powder to their flour tortilla dough. After much trial and error I have concluded that its use is unnecessary for thin tortillas, but does have a slight beneficial effect on the pillow-like Tex-Mex variety, making them slightly more puffy and lighter.
Making the dough
When making the dough, solid fat, whether lard or butter or a combination, can be added in a warm but still fairly solid state. However, I find it much easier to melt the fat with the water, allow it to cool slightly, then add the two ingredients together in a stream. Using the hot liquid seems to make the tortillas softer and result in a more uniform dispersal of the fat, creating a very pliable dough.
The dough can be mixed by hand or made in a food processor fitted with the steel blade by pouring the liquid and melted fat slowly into the dry ingredients after turning on machine, until a ball of dough just begins to form. Remember that over-processing will make the dough rubbery unless it is given a rest of at least 15 to 20 minutes.
Shaping the dough
Flour tortillas can be made with standard, large rolling pins, but a better choice is a smaller, solid wooden one. In Mexico and Texas special pins are sold just for flour tortillas. A 1 1/4 inch diameter wooden dowel cut to 14 inches in length works well.
Before rolling out the tortillas, divide the dough into balls and allow them to rest for at least 15 minutes. This will permit the gluten to relax and make them much easier to form.
To form the tortillas, roll the dough balls, giving them a 1/3 turn after each roll, then turn them over onto the other side and repeat the process.
Electric tortilla makers
Electric devices resembling smooth waffle makers to make tortillas came on the market a few years ago. While they do a poor job on corn tortillas they are excellent for flour tortillas, and they allow you to avoid the time consuming process of rolling out the dough. Unfortuantely they are now difficult to find, although recently I have seen what seem to be some new models on the internet. If you can find one, simply place a dough ball just off-center toward the machine’s hinges, close the top, press out the tortilla very quickly, then immediately open it, and continue as per the usual recipe.
Flour tortillas should be cooked on ungreased griddles at between 425 - 475 degrees. I use a laser thermometer to find the temperature on my cast iron griddle.