The Simple Art of Homemade Tortillas
By Sumi Hahn
Photos by Lara Ferroni
Cooks who believe in the phrase “easy as pie” will have no problem when Cristina Zurita Ceniceros says that making flour tortillas is as simple as throwing together a pie crust.
The retired Bellevue home-maker and native of Mexico starts by mixing flour with salt and baking powder, then rubs shortening into the mixture with her fingers, until it resembles wet clumpy sand. “You just have to do everything with your hands, so you can feel what the dough is doing. Just like a pie.”
Once the shortening is incorporated into the flour mixture, it’s time to add water. “This is the fun part,” Cristina jokes, as she lifts a small saucepan of scalding water. “Add water a little at a time—start with about a 1/3 cup. It has to be as hot as you can stand it.”
She deftly mixes the steaming water into the flour with her fingers, until little blobs of dough start to cohere. “Just mix with your fingers, a bit of flour and water at a time, to form these clumps.” She pulls out the thumb-sized blobs and places them on the counter. She adds more hot water to the bowl, using her fingertips ever so lightly to encourage the water and flour into forming soft nubbins of dough. When all the flour has been mixed with water in this delicate manner, she scoops the clumps back into bowl and mixes everything with her hands for 30 seconds until the blobs form a smooth mass.
Feeling the dough—that is the trick to making tender flour tortillas. Cristina holds some out: “Feel this. It’s ready now.” Warm, plushy soft, and shockingly silky and smooth. Like a baby’s plump cheek. “You can’t tell people what it’s supposed to feel like,” Cristina observes, “They have to touch it themselves to really understand.”
She pinches off a small fistful of dough and caresses it into a small round patty that fits snugly in the palm of her hand. “If you have big hands, you’re going to have big tortillas,” she laughs. Working quickly, she turns the entire mass of dough into a dozen little patties, ready for rolling.
Home-made tortillas are a dying art in Mexico. “Now everyone just buys them at the store,” she laments. But the taste of a freshly made flour tortillas can’t be duplicated by opening a plastic bag. And the pleasure of eating them warm from the griddle explains why Cristina prefers to eat them “just like that, with coffee and maybe a bit of butter.”
A youthful 60-something, Cristina spent her childhood in Torreon, Mexico, and she has vivid memories of the role she played in her mother’s home tortilla business.
“My mother Rosa used to make corn tortillas and sell them to the neighbors for about 25 cents a dozen. When I was six, I would deliver them around the neighborhood. She would wrap them up in dish towels, and I would take them to the different houses and put the coins into a little purse.”
Which does she prefer, the corn tortillas her mother sold, or the flour tortillas she’s making right now?
She answers without hesitation. “Oh, flour tortillas, for sure! My mother never sold her flour tortillas—they were a treat. She made them only twice a month, just for us.” She explains why Mexicans eat more corn tortillas. “They’re cheaper and easier to make—just masa, water, and the presser. They’re also healthier—no shortening or salt. But in Northern Mexico, they prefer flour tortillas, which stay soft when they get cold.”
Asked if her five children, who grew up in the States, have learned how to make her tortillas, Cristina rolls her eyes. “Since I’m already making them, they’re not motivated to learn.” She pauses. “My son Edgar, he knows how to make a good dough, but when he rolls, he makes all sorts of different shapes.”
Working quickly, she turns the entire mass of dough into a dozen little patties, ready for rolling.
She takes her wooden rolling pin and rubs it down with a ball of dough, “to clean it and to make sure the dough doesn’t stick.” She also conditions the rolling surface in the same way.
Next, Cristina places one of the round pats of dough on the counter and rolls it into perfectly flat, even, round circles in about five quick passes. Her raw tortillas are a thing of beauty: uniformly thin, pleasingly circular. She tells me to try, and the result is an oblong of varying thickness. “Not too bad,” she says kindly.
Cristina cooks her flour tortillas on a heavy griddle she keeps just for that purpose. A cast iron pan, however, will do in a pinch. She turns the flame up to medium and touches the pan until she determines it’s hot enough.
The tortillas are cooked until they become freckled with spots of brown. She places them on a plate covered with a kitchen towel.
“Try one.” Hot, tender, soft, delicious.
When I ask her how to best store them, she blinks a bit, confused. “Well, fresh tortillas never last for any to be left over in my house. But I guess you could freeze them in a plastic bag once they’re cooled.”
We leave them on the plate, covered by a towel. And, by the end of the day, they’ve disappeared.
Try Cristina’s recipe for flour tortillas.
Sumi Hahn is a retired restaurant critic (Times-Picayune, Seattle Weekly) who moonlights on www.sumisays.com when she’s not her children’s chauffeur.