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On Independence Day, and the tyranny of bad tortillas

The Fourth of July is, no question, pretty exciting. There are the parades, the loudly flapping flags, and the burgers that dribble down the inside of the wrist; there’s the candy-sweet corn and the half-melted ice cream, the cold pool, and the icy beer. And of course, there are the fireworks—including unexpected blasts from a neighbor’s backyard two days too early, a little blitzkrieg that sent me ducking and cursing skyward on my walk home from the video store. But sometimes the greatest excitement comes with something smaller, simpler, more monochromatic, and less flammable—something like, say, a stack of humble homemade flour tortillas.

This story begins a week or so ago, when I returned home from work to find Brandon stretched out on the living room floor, gently stroking my beautiful, sleek cookbook-for-the-coffee-table Saveur Cooks Authentic American. Upon closer inspection, I saw that his fingers were tracing four curvy, boldface words: New Mexican Flour Tortillas. Now, by way of background, dear reader, you should know that Brandon is a great devotee of a certain brand of ultra-fresh refrigerated flour tortillas sold at New York’s Fairway Market, and here in Seattle, he’s been just short of starving, an exhaustive tortilla search having as yet failed to yield a good local source for anything resembling the soft, chewy specimen he’s grown accustomed to. For a man who lists among his principal interests “anything with the consistency of salsa,” the scarcity of worthwhile tortillas is downright dangerous. But that afternoon, the search came to an end—and with a turning point that steered us to the only place we’d forgotten to consider, the kitchen.

Clearly, a celebration was in order, and by happy coincidence, a national holiday was strategically positioned only a few days away. With a brief strategizing session, a bit of menu planning, and a hot cast-iron skillet, we could have an apartmentful of friends and fresh tortillas, and a fireworks show to celebrate our Independence Day, an end to the tyranny of sub-par supermarket flatbreads. So it was that yesterday evening, Kate arrived at six with a bagful of guacamole ingredients; mushrooms, bell peppers, and red onion for roasting; a one-gallon tub of hand-picked raspberries; and a pint of whipping cream; and Nicho followed shortly thereafter with his lovely girlfriend Nicole, a few chicken sausages, and hard cider. Brandon and I had spent the afternoon simmering a pot of black beans with sautéed onion, jalapeño, and cumin seeds, and as the hours passed, he slaved happily away at three signature hot sauces: a fire-roasted tomato salsa, a chunky pico de gallo, and a fiery green sauce of garlic, cilantro, jalapeños, lime juice, and salt. On the other side of the kitchen, I turned to the tortillas.

With only four ingredients—flour, salt, shortening, and water—they were heartbreakingly simple to make, the dough like a silky, resilient fabric. With my mother’s old wooden rolling pin in hand, I sank into an easy rhythm: roll, cook, flip, cook, roll, cook, flip, cook.

The warm tortillas were thin and tender, crisp outside and yielding inside, with the rich sweetness of flour bound with salt and fat. We huddled around the table with a gold-tinged stash of them—soft, seconds-old, toothsome scoops for salsas and spicy tar-black beans, chunks of seared sausage and roasted pepper, creamy guacamole, and cooling sour cream.

In one little apartment in Seattle, America had a very happy Independence Day.

Flour Tortillas
Adapted from Saveur Cooks Authentic American

I’d always thought I was more of a corn-tortilla girl than a flour one, but this recipe has solidly converted me. Once you get a feel for the dough and settle into the rhythm of rolling and cooking it, you might never want to buy tortillas again.

4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp salt
6 Tbs vegetable shortening (preferably a non-hydrogenated type, such as Spectrum)

In a small saucepan, bring about 2 cups of water to a boil.

In a large bowl, stir the flour and salt together with a whisk. Mix in the shortening with your fingers until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Stir in enough boiling water (about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups) that the dough holds together; you will want to begin by stirring with a spoon, since the water is scorching hot, but you should finish by working the dough with your hands.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead until smooth, 2-5 minutes. Do not overwork it. Form the dough into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes.

Set a well-seasoned 9" cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Place the ball of dough on a lightly floured surface, and cut it into 6 wedges. Cut each wedge into 3 smaller wedges, for a total of 18 wedges. Use a rolling pin to roll out a wedge into a very thin circle—as thin as you can make it, like a sheet of fabric—roughly 7 ½ to 8 inches in diameter. When the skillet is hot but not smoking, cook the tortilla until slightly puffed, about 20-30 seconds. Flip, then cook for 20-30 seconds more, or until flecked with golden or brown (whichever you prefer) spots. Place on a cooling rack. Repeat the process with the other 17 wedges. Allow each tortilla to cool completely before stacking them.

Freshly made tortillas are soft and perfectly delicious at room temperature, but to reheat them, you can warm them briefly in a low oven. These keep well in the fridge, wrapped in paper towels and sealed in a plastic bag, and they also freeze nicely.

Yield: 18 tortillas


Anonymous Nicky said...

Dear Molly,
what a great idea! I never thought it would be this easy (at least your description sounds easy!) to bake homemade tortillas - they look adorable :) We haven't had any Mexican food at home for ages, because I really don't like the tortillas from the supermarket and I haven't found good refrigerated ones either. Shouldn't take me too long to try those myself! Thanks for sharing :)

12:36 AM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Can I just say AGAIN that your writing is fantastic. Really Molly. I mean it. I savour every word of it. And now I have to go make tortillas.;-)

1:41 AM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Hi Molly, Im definitely inspired to try making my own. The tortillas have a "best before" date that is often months and months away, leaving me rather hesitant.
But can I comment on the new fellow lying on your living room floor. Any man who can be found not only stroking a cookbook, but stroking it gently, is definitely a keeper!
Glad you had fun :)

3:01 AM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger Compmouse said...

Molly, you've found the answer to one of those recipes that I've been meaning to look up for ages but never got around to it. I've been wanting to make these! And now I can! Thanks! You're the best.

5:40 AM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

How adorable Brandon sounds, and a maker of tasty sauces! What perfect little tortillas you've made - they look absolutely tempting. It is wonderful how the simplest of ingredients can transform into something so entirely magical.

6:08 AM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

That's it. Next project: tortillas! Very inspiring, as alwys, Molly. Do you think Brandon might part with some of those sauce recipes?

11:23 AM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Nicky, these really are ridiculously easy. It's a bit tricky to judge the amount of water necessary to bring all the flour together into a dough, but after that, it should be smooth sailing. It's a lovely dough to work with, and you'll get a good feel for it after rolling two or three tortillas. Here's to Mexican food in Munich...

Zarah Maria, thank you! As usual, I'm blushing over here.

Michele, as a fellow skeptic when it comes to supermarket tortillas, I hope you'll give these a go. They're so simple and so satisfying, both to make and to eat. And as for the fellow, yes, he's a keeper. He's already been warned: I'm not letting him escape.

And Compmouse, you're welcome! Get out the rolling pin and go, m'dear.

Tara, it is magical, isn't it? A perfect example of a whole that's greater--much greater--than the sum of its parts.

And Dawna, I heartily approve of your next project. And as for Brandon's salsas, I'm sure he'd be more than willing to share his secrets. The problem is, however, that he doesn't use a recipe. [As you can imagine, for someone like me--someone who thrives on the thrill of a new recipe for this or that--his skills are both baffling and awe-inspiring.] For the sake of humanity, I'll see if I can get him to at least come up with a rough formula...

1:23 PM, July 06, 2005  
Anonymous Brandon said...

Dawna...Here are the salsas I made...

There was a standard pico de gallo, which is just chopped tomatoes, lemon or lime juice, diced sweet onion (red, vidalia, walla walla etc.), seeded diced jalapeno/serrano to taste, and some salt.

There was also a roasted tomato salsa, which is:
10-12 plum tomatoes
1-3 jalapeno/serrano chiles (to taste)
1 medium onion
3-5 cloves garlic, peeled
Coat everything in olive oil and broil in the oven on 500 degrees for about 10 minutes until everything is moderately charred (remove from oven half way through to rotate everything), or you could just throw them on the grill. Let everything cool and then put it in a food processor with some fresh cilantro and the juice of 1 lemon or lime, and add salt and a 1/2 of a teaspoon or so of ground cumin.

There was also a very spicy green salsa, which was:
8 cloves garlic, peeled
4-5 jalapenos (seeded if you want it more mild)
2 cups cilantro
2 limes and/or lemons, juiced
salt to taste
Put it all in the food processor and voila...

Hope you enjoy these as much as I do...

2:35 PM, July 06, 2005  
Anonymous maria said...

molly.... oh my gosh. your posts are the best words i read all day. what a fun description & i love the recipe. thank you once again! cheers, mav

6:34 PM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

Thank you very much, Brandon! That green salsa sounds fantastic - it's amazing how sometimes the most delicious things are so simple. I'm looking forward to feasting on these soon.

8:43 PM, July 06, 2005  
Blogger farmgirl said...

What an absolutely delicious post! I made my first flour tortillas several years ago and haven't been able to eat storebought since. I've never tried the boiling water method, though. Very interesting. Can't wait to experiment with it. And if you happen to have any very good lard laying around, I highly recommend trying it in place of the shortening. Yummm.

1:38 PM, July 07, 2005  
Blogger McAuliflower said...

Oh... I'm soo glad you're spreading the delight of homemade tortillas.

A naughty thing we like to do with our tortilla dough is to pan-fry it (all rolled out) in an inch of hot oil, making it all bubbly crisp but soft and chewy inside. Then drizzle it with honey and strawberries and top with vanilla ice cream. Goodness- I can't believe I'm saying (and reading) all this before I've had my freakin breakfast!!

10:29 AM, July 09, 2005  
Blogger Chocopie said...

I like tortilla. But it needs much time and many hands.I'll try it, although it doesn't look easy.^^

5:30 AM, July 10, 2005  
Blogger Clare Eats said...

I have to make some of my own tortillas.. you cant get decent ones here gggrrrr Rhubarb all year *grin* but no good tortillas, especailly corn ones.

7:39 AM, July 10, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Awww, mav, thank YOU!

Farmgirl, I'm so glad to hear that you're a fellow tortilla maker. I don't have any especially good lard within reach at the moment--and actually, I've never used the stuff! The shame!--but one of these days, you can count on it...

McAuliflower, your fried-tortilla-honey-strawberries-ice-cream formula sounds outrageously good. [I would say that it sounds "sinful," but I have a strange, visceral aversion to seeing that word attached to food. Grrr.] You know, it might even make a good breakfast...

Chocopie, have no fear. These tortillas don't take much time at all, and only two hands are necessary. Easy peasy. And fun.

And Clare Eats, yes, you'd better get going with the tortillas! A person cannot live on rhubarb alone, although it might be interesting to try.

9:27 AM, July 10, 2005  
Blogger Gina Louise said...

Molly- Sorry, not about the tortillas, but a petit merci for the gateau au yaourt. I added ginger to your lemon, but subtracted nuts and added flour for my nut-sensitive friends. C'est super bon, and it will be even easier when I make it to Lyon and have the oh-so-wonderful French containers. *Gina

11:40 PM, July 10, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Gina Louise, je suis tellement contente to know that you made and enjoyed the gateau au yaourt! Your lemon-ginger rendition sounds wonderful, and I'm horrendously jealous that you will soon have such easy access to oodles of adorable French yogurt jars. Enjoy Lyon!

10:20 PM, July 11, 2005  
Anonymous Genevieve said...

Molly - I just found you & I really adore your writing. About as much as I adore the idea of making my own tortillas! I was all set to make fajitas tonight (lime, garlic, green pepper, the works), when I realized that I was out of the boring supermarket tortillas; now my problem, it seems, is solved. Thanks!
PS Your oatmeal cookie pics are divine.

11:40 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

You're very welcome, Genevieve, and thank YOU for such generous compliments. I can only imagine how delicious your fajitas must have been tonight, with homemade tortillas...

9:46 PM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger C.Llanes said...

My authentic Mexican mom made killer flour tortillas--she used bacon grease. Perfectamente delicioso, and I am a corn tortilla girl. Trust me, it is good.

11:06 PM, January 11, 2008  
Blogger Heidi said...

I will try to make these without delay! Your description has my mouth watering, and I just ate breakfast. Can't wait for the 4th!

9:47 AM, June 23, 2009  
Anonymous Larissa said...

I am so excited to try out this recipe! Thanks! I hate the premade tortillas at the store! all those preservatives...yikes.

ps I love your writing!

11:54 AM, June 24, 2009  
Anonymous Audrai said...

Hi Molly,
The recipe looks absolutely lovely and I can't wait to try it out to prevent the rest of my family from ever eating the travesty that is store bought tortillas. The only thing is, can butter or some kind of oil be substituted in for the shortening? Thanks!

5:12 AM, July 22, 2009  
Blogger Molly said...

Audrai, I haven't tried making any substitutions to this recipe, but oil should work. I read somewhere that if you're replacing shortening with oil (in any recipe), you use only 2/3 of the amount called for. So maybe try that: 4 Tbsp. oil, rather than 6 Tbsp. shortening. Or you could try this recipe, which only uses oil to start with.

9:45 AM, July 22, 2009  
Blogger Anna said...

At out last girly weekend, my friend made flour tortillas and I've been wanting to make them myself ever since. She was a bit vague on instructions, so I'm very excited by your post. You make it look so easy! I do have a horrible, diet killing suggestion for you. We had some of these left over and the next day we made bacon for breakfast, but instead of pouring out the fat, we cut up the leftover tortillas and fried them. I can't even describe how delicious they were. I almost forgot to feel guilty :)

Oh, and thank you Brandon for sharing the salsa recipes, the roasted tomato one sounds awesome!

10:02 AM, February 01, 2010  
Blogger Marc said...

I was thinking about substituting coconut oil for the shortining (1:1). Anyone try that?

3:37 PM, August 01, 2010  
Blogger sarah said...

Apparently I'm a little slow in jumping on the make-your-own-tortillas bandwagon, but I just tried the recipe, and it was fantastic. I cut it in half because I live solo, and it was the perfect amount - about 8 or so. How does the dough keep long-term? Do you think it would be okay frozen and thawed out later? Thanks!!

7:36 PM, August 09, 2011  
Anonymous Ena said...

I had no idea this would be so easy to make. I halved the recipe and got 9 tortillas. Thank you.

4:58 AM, February 21, 2012  
Anonymous Carrie said...

Thank you for this recipe! I've been spending an arm and a leg for the Tortilla Land tortillas! These are EXACTLY like those! Thanks so much for sharing! You've saved this family a bunch of $$!

1:39 PM, August 11, 2013  
Blogger Alyssa said...

Just started reading and I'm hooked! I love that these are only 4 ingredients. But...I don't own a cast-iron pan. As a young'un, with very limited kitchen storage (but thankfully with a Le Creuset that's pretty enough to display), I am wondering if this will work with a regular old pan.

7:41 AM, May 21, 2014  

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