Luckily, corn tortillas are one of the easiest DIYs around. All you need is a bag of masa harina and a tortilla press, plus a zipper lock bag, some salt, and hot water. That’s it. Really.
I like to make my corn tortillas with Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina because I think it has the best flavor for a mass-produced masa. Plus, it’s made from non-GMO corn, so there’s that. If you can’t find it, you can also make these using Maseca, a common Mexican brand that is sold at many grocery stores.
Before mixing the tortilla dough, it is important to start heating the cooking surface. I use my large cast iron skillet, but a cast iron griddle is even better if you’ve got it. (They’ve got more room to cook more tortillas at once.) You can also use a nonstick skillet, but don’t preheat it for as long as cast iron. I give the skillet about 8 to 10 minutes of preheating time before getting started with the tortillas.
While the skillet is heating, I also prepare the tortilla press. I like to line it with a sandwich-sized zipper lock bag. I cut the sides of the bag so that there’s only one intact seam. The bag should open like a book. Place the seam alongside the hinge of the tortilla press.
You should also get your steaming system ready to go. I just use a thick kitchen towel on a plate. You’ll transfer the cooked tortillas to the towel as you take them off the skillet.
Now mix the masa: Stir a generous pinch of kosher salt into 2 cups of masa. Pour in 1 ½ cups of very hot tap water. Use your hands to mix the water into the masa. It will look very watery at first, but the masa will absorb the water very quickly. Continue to knead until the mixture is the texture of Play-Doh. If it feels dry, add a little more water. If it feels too wet, add a little more masa. This isn’t an exact science — depending on the brand of masa harina and the ambient humidity, you may need more or less water.
Pinch off a heaping tablespoon of tortilla dough. If you want to be exact about it, you’re looking for 26 to 30 grams of dough. Roll the dough into a smooth circle, about the size of a walnut in the shell. Cover the remaining dough with a damp kitchen towel.
Place the dough ball in between the two pieces of plastic in the center of the tortilla press. Cover the ball with the plastic.
Place the lid of the tortilla press down on top of the plastic-covered dough ball. Use the handle to gently press the ball into a tortilla. You’re looking for a medium amount of pressure; you don’t want to totally decimate the dough, but you do want to press it with conviction.
Lift up the press and take a look. You should see a tortilla that is about 5 inches in diameter and about ⅛-inch thick. It should have fairly smooth edges. If the edges look rough or dry, you’ll want to add some more water to your dough mixture. Add about 1 tablespoon water and try again.
Peel back the top layer of plastic and flip the tortilla onto your left hand. Carefully peel back the second layer of plastic. Return the bag to the tortilla press. (If the tortilla is sticking to the plastic, the dough is too wet. Stir in about 1 tablespoon masa harina and try again.)
Now carefully flip the tortilla onto the hot skillet. Let it sit, undisturbed for about 15 seconds. It should now be firmed up enough on the bottom to flip. Use a rubber spatula and your fingers to flip it over. Let the tortilla cook on the second side until it begins to brown and puff; this will take somewhere between 30 seconds and 1 minute. Flip the tortilla back to the first side and repeat.
Remove the tortilla from the skillet and wrap it in that kitchen towel you placed on a plate. Let it steam while you keep on cooking tortillas.
Once you’ve found a rhythm, it’s pretty easy to cook multiple tortillas at once. I can fit three tortillas in my skillet at one time, so I try to do so. If you’ve got a griddle, you can go for more. Keep transferring the cooked tortillas to the towel-lined plate as they come off the skillet, forming a large stack. Keep them covered so that they steam. You will want the final tortilla to steam for at least 1 minute before you serve the tortillas.
Serve them warm for the best results.
Recipe: Homemade Corn Tortillas
Makes 18-20 small taco-sized tortillas
Note: I prefer to use Bob’s Red Mill masa harina. If you use another brand, such as Maseca, you may need to use more or less water. You will need a tortilla press and a sandwich-sized zipper lock bag for this recipe.
2 cups (262 grams) masa harina
Pinch kosher salt
1 ½ cups hot water
Heat a large cast iron skillet or griddle over medium heat for at least 8 to 10 minutes.
Cut open the sides of the zipper lock bag so that it hinges open on the bottom seam. Place the bag in the tortilla press so that the seam is alongside the hinge of the press. Line a plate with a clean kitchen towel.
While the skillet is heating, mix the masa and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands, mix in water and knead until smooth. The mixture should be the texture of Play-Doh. If it is still very sticky, stir in a little more masa. If it is very dry, stir in a little more hot water. Cover the masa mixture with a damp towel.
Pinch off about 1 heaping tablespoon (26 to 30 grams) of the masa mixture. Roll it into a smooth ball. Re-cover bowl of masa mixture with the damp towel.
Place the masa ball between the two halves of the zipper lock bag so that it is centered in the tortilla press. Place the top of the zipper lock bag over the masa ball.
Place the top of the tortilla press over the plastic and gently press down using the handle. Open the press; you should have a tortilla that measures about 5 inches across and ⅛-inch thick.
Remove the top layer of plastic and flip tortilla onto your palm. Gently peel back the second layer of plastic. The tortilla should be smooth. If the edges are cracked, the masa mixture is too dry; add more water 1 tablespoon at a time. If the tortilla sticks to the bag, the masa mixture is too wet; add more masa harina 1 tablespoon at a time.
Transfer the tortilla in one smooth motion to the skillet. Let the tortilla cook, undisturbed, for 15 to 20 seconds. Use a rubber spatula and your fingers to flip the tortilla. Cook until just starting to brown, 30 to 45 seconds, on the second side. Flip the tortilla back to the first side and cook until just starting to brown, 30 to 45 seconds. Remove the tortilla from the skillet and wrap in the kitchen towel on the prepared plate.
Repeat with the remaining masa. You can cook as many tortillas at once as will fit on your skillet/griddle. It takes practice to get the timing right, so don’t worry if you can only manage one or two at once.
As the tortillas finish, continue to transfer them to the kitchen towel, forming a tall stack. Let the final tortilla steam for at least 1 minute before serving. Serve warm.