What’s the better move: Make tortillas at home or buy them?

Written by Mona Holmes

Hand crafted tortillas. Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez for KCRW.

If you’re like me — a frequent home cook who nevertheless likes to eat out — you might be used to saying the following phrase out loud: “Can I make that at home?”

My husband always nods in approval while I run off to buy a pasta maker, the old-school, hand crank type, and small batch flour from Pasadena’s Grist & Toll. Or there was the time my cousin and I decided to try making pupusas, because we loved them and found a great recipe. My heavy hand has tried and failed at tamales. There’s even the labor-intensive cassoulet recipe I’ve been making for decades after a visit to Paris.

But I still haven’t tried homemade tortillas.

I talk about homemade tortillas often and at great length with my colleagues or friends I grew up with. For most of my adult life, I’ve heard some version of these answers to the question, “Should I make tortillas at home?”

“Just make them at home. My mother did it everyday when I was a kid.”

“Don’t bother, it’s too much trouble. Besides, there’s someone who can always make it better than you.”

“Try it. It only takes a few ingredients. You never know, you might be good at it!”

I gave up tortilla making a few years back, but that’s primarily because of the dynamics of my job and the abundance of great tortillas in Los Angeles. But in 2020, while many folks were making sourdough breads and other baked goods while sheltering-at-home, I thought tortillas would be far easier. So I bought a metate, wax paper, and a tortilla press. 

I pictured myself in my kitchen using that same metate — a stone tool used for mashing grains and seeds — to prepare the nixtamal for my homemade tortillas. This requires ample time and arm strength. After a few minutes, I realized my ambition was bigger than my patience, and opted for masa or cornmeal from the store. But at that point, hunger took over and I was less than two miles away from El Ruso. So I picked up a handful of owner Walter Soto’s gorgeous blistered flour tortillas to take home. I didn’t dare ask him for advice at the time. I put the tortilla tools back in my kitchen storage area, where they remained for over a year.

Eighteen months later, I asked folks in LA’s food community about how to restart my tortilla journey — this time with a stronger understanding of how Mexican families approach the task. I first spoke with Connie Cassio, owner of the Nayarit-style seafood restaurant Coni’Seafood. She encouraged me to play for Team Make-Tortillas-at-Home, while keeping it simple. 

“Tortillas are always best freshly made at home, if possible,” Cossio says. “It’s not good if you’re on a diet though! They’re so delicious, nice, and fluffy. Use Maseca (dehydrated corn flour) and just add water.”

Todo Verde owner Jocelyn Ramirez has an approach based on recipe requirements. Ramirez believes that investing in a quality tortilla press is essential and uses a cast iron one.  

“For times I feel a dish absolutely needs handmade tortillas, I typically have a few organic masa harina brands in my pantry,” says Ramirez. “Some brands I rotate are [chef grade] Masienda, Gold Mine Corn Masa Harina Organic Flour, and Bob's Red Mill. If you're already taking a huge shortcut using masa harina, might as well make sure it's good quality, non-GMO corn so you have a delicious tortilla. When I'm in a pinch, I use Kernel of Truth's pre-made tortillas, and always have a stash in my freezer.”

Author and food writer Bill Esparza believes there are benefits to both making and buying. He also provided background for understanding the practices of this essential dish in both Mexico and Los Angeles. 

“In Mexico, people both make them and buy them,” says Esparza. “In the pueblos, tortillas are still made by hand, even using metates and slapping them into tortillas by hand. People buy heirloom corn cheaply and make their nixtamal. In big cities, it’s cheaper and saves time for working families to buy great tortillas at the many tortillerias.”

In Los Angeles, Esparza says Chicano families buy them from neighborhood tortillerias in areas like Boyle Heights, East LA, and the San Fernando Valley. 

“I recommend buying tortillas de nixtamal and supporting our local artisans,” he says. “Or, our tortilla institutions that use a mix of nixtamal and masa harina, if you can afford it. But families that don’t have the means shouldn’t be judged for using masa harina, or industrial corn tortillas. That’s what they can afford.”

Armed with direction from respected colleagues, I went to the kitchen storage and dusted off my tortilla press. I researched five recipes and kept texting the neighbor who encouraged me to keep going. First batches of anything are never good, but my second corn tortilla was passable. 

It turns out the key to this entire tortilla-at-home project had more to do with not giving up than some kind of magic touch. But handmade is a hard sell while living a short walk or driving distance to legendary tortillas makers. Besides, I’m not a quitter.

While I’m not giving up entirely, I gave away my metate. I’ll start with a simple dehydrated corn flour and keep practicing. In the meantime, I’ll make the three minute drive to the longstanding master tortilleria, La California Tortilleria in Glassell Park, buy a dozen, and marvel at the taste.