Welcome to ¡Ask a Tortilla Tournament Judge!, the world’s premier column on all things tortilla. Each week throughout the 2021 Tortilla Tournament of Champions, judge Gustavo Arellano will take your most burning (but never burnt) tortilla questions. Grab your butter and salsa macha, because things are about to get caliente.
I've been making homemade tortillas on my cast iron comal for a few years now. I notice that the pros get the nice puff on all of the tortillas when they make them, but I only get puff on about 25% of the ones I make. What could I be doing wrong? I just use salt/warm water and masa in my mix and sometimes will add a little oil. Thanks in advance!
— Puff the Magic Tortilla
I wish I knew how to make tortillas — actually, I don’t, because that might then disincentivize me from eating as many tortillas across Southern California as I possibly can. So I forwarded your question to Patty Garcia, chef and author of Keto Mexican Recipes. Take it away, Patty!
The perfect puff
The reason corn tortillas puff comes down to science. If you know me, you'd know how much of a fan of science I am and when it comes to cooking, so it's even more fascinating.
Tortillas puff when the humidity of the dough reaches boiling temperature and the steam tries to get out, thus creating a bubble inside. If you have followed all the proper steps, your tortilla will undoubtedly puff.
So how do you that? It’s all about technique and achieving the right circumstances for the steam to puff your tortilla up. You can get to this level by practicing and using the right ingredients and practices, like these:
- Don't use masa harina.
Seriously, I know most people trying to teach how to make tortillas at home tell you it is super convenient and it's readily available, blah, blah, blah. No. Using this product will result in a lower quality that you do not want to serve your family (or your worst enemy, really). Plus, because it is a dry product, it will lack the moisture that the steam requires to puff the tortilla up. If you make the masa with this, it keeps absorbing the water and it never stops drying, so your dough is never going to reach optimal consistency which is needed for all intents and purposes.
Masa harina constantly requires that you keep adding water, and as a beginner, this will be frustrating because sometimes you'll put too much, making it sticky; Other times, you won't put enough and it will be dry and the tortilla will crack at the edges and it won't be soft and pliable. So please, skip the masa harina. You'll thank me later.
- Don't add other ingredients.
I've seen some recipes that put a little bit of wheat flour, baking powder, powdered milk, sugar, etc. This is not necessary and they are shortcuts people use to achieve that coveted puffiness, but I'm telling you, all you need is practice.
- Make sure your dough is the right consistency.
Sometimes, if the masa has pieces of corn, or if the masa is a little bit coarse, then that texture will make the dough tear a bit and it will make a hole for the steam to get out and we don't want that. We want a smooth, even masa.
- Knead it properly.
Again, you want the texture and consistency to be even to achieve that delicious corn bubble. If the masa is not properly kneaded, then it may have gaps and won't be uniform.
- Make sure your masa is not dry.
Remember that we are trying to make steam here. If your masa is dry, there won't be any humidity to form the steam with, plus dryness also affects the final product. You don't want a dry tortilla because it will have dry edges and it will be hard and kind of toasty. No bueno. Keep it covered as much as you can.
- Your tortilla has to be even.
If you are using a prensa (tortilla press), make sure the amount is right for it (for a six inch tortilla, a 1 oz. ball of dough will suffice). Once you place your ball inside the prensa, it will most likely be slanted, making one side fatter than the other side. This will not work because the steam will begin to form the bubble on the thinner side, but it won't be strong enough to puff the thicker side.
After you press the masa, turn it around and press it again. This might take a few tries but you will get there with practice. Touch the tortilla with your hands. You will get a feel for a thicker/thinner side, and this is what makes cooking from scratch a glorious experience.
- Griddle temperature.
The temperature of the comal is key here, and I could tell you a number but I will be doing you a disservice. Every comal is different — the thickness, the material from which it's made, the flame you are using. Not all fires are the same, so please play with it until you find the right temperature. If your flame is too low, the tortillas will take longer and they will always taste like they're raw. If the fire is too hot, then it will dry them, burn them, toast them, etc. All the things. I recommend a medium-high heat, but it's up to you to figure out yours.
- Handling the tortilla in its raw form.
Be careful with your nails, fingers, tools, etc. If you tear the raw tortilla or if you make a dent or if you fold it by mistake, it will prevent the bubble from forming. Just be gentle when you pick it up and separate it from the plastic and when placing it on the griddle.
- The turning.
Tortillas are turned over just a few times. Not over and over for no reason. Once your comal is at optimal temperature, place your tortilla. The first turn will happen when your edges start to get dry. The second will take place when the tortilla starts to change color all over. Turn it again.
Now: the moment you have been waiting for! The moment of truth. On this turn is when the puff will or won't happen. If your tortilla starts to bubble up all around, and then so many bubbles start to rise and then they all become friends and form a single bubble inside your tortilla… you’ve made it, my friend. Congratulations!
I hope this guide helps you, but it is not a recipe. It's a technique, and like everything else, in order to achieve optimal results you have to practice, practice, practice!
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