Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cooking Perfect Tortillas

When I lived in south Texas I had flour tortillas lightly toasted on occasion, but most of the time they were taken and used cold from the package, and breakfast tacos, burritos, or fajitas assembled from them. I think the local distributors baked them just a tiny bit longer than some companies do, so they wouldn't really be "raw" tasting.

Incidentally, in Texas I saw few Mexican-Americans eat corn tortillas unless it was at Taco Bell. At regular restaurants, almost everyone had flour tortillas for bread. There, as you see in many Mexican restaurants, they are served in a covered bowl, lightly steamed. Kind of pasty to my taste.

It wasn't until North Carolina acquired a larger Mexican population that I experienced corn tortillas cooked on a griddle. The first time, I stopped at a restaurant that had tongue tacos - "lengua" - and ordered a plate. Each taco was served in two corn tortillas browned on their griddle. I was hooked.

At home, I soon tried to duplicate this but didn't have much luck. The corn tortillas, almost raw in their big bagged stacks (nice and inexpensive) from the regular groceries, which had began to stock them, got hard and leathery on my frying pan. Not good. So for a while I eschewed them and either fried my corn tortillas or ate flour tortillas.

Eventually I learned the trick. Here's how:

To make four tacos, since I was impressed with the double-wrap technique using corn tortillas, place a stack of eight on the griddle. I use a big cast iron frying pan. I also brush both sides of each tortilla with a little mix of a spoonful of water and some olive oil before I start. I don't want much oil, just a tiny bit.Place the entire stack of eight in the hot pan. On medium heat, the bottom-most corn tortilla, #1, browns on one side, just right. I flip the whole stack over with my spatula, keeping the stack lined up nicely, and begin browning tortilla #8. Then with my thumb and forefinger, I flip the done side of #1 which is now on top, over, exposing the uncooked side. When side a of #8 is browned, I flip the stack, begin browning side b of #1, and when it's done, flip the stack again, and brown side b of #8. At this point, like you, my mind begins to wander and - pay attention now!

At that point, I grab tortilla #1 and #2, and flip them both over. I then flip the whole stack again. #8 on top gets flipped along with #7. Now, both #1 and #8 are headed for the center of the stack.

So on, finishing #2 and #7, and then turning the top three. Bringing in turn #3 and #6 to the top and bottom of the stack. If you are counting, that's 16 flips to get them all. Note that if you cooked them one at a time, you would still have that same amount of flipping to do. The process of dealing them into the pan will be reduced to once.

The advantage to all this, is that as the stack begins heating up, you are steaming the tortillas. The browned portions of your stack, as they are moved towards the center, lose their leathery dry texture and become quite tender.

Eventually the last, tortillas #4 and #5, are browned on both sides. You are ready to remove the whole stack and stash it in a covered bowl and assemble your tacos, or fajitas, or what-have-you. (Slices of Texas-style slow cooked brisket come to mind.)

Once you master that, you can do your flour tortillas the same way. By the way, I never use a double-tortilla if it's a flour tortilla.


Bob S. said...

I happen to have a giganto-pak of corn tortillas (as you noted, they're pretty cheap!) just begging for use. I'll give it a shot.

When I was living in Del Rio (TX), the standard late night snack in Acuña (across the river) was tacos from a cart, about three for a buck, definitely made with corn tortillas.

Jumper said...

Did they double-wrap them? I really got hooked on them when I realized you could do that. Since then every lunch wagon I've patronized does it that way as a matter of course. Keeps the risk of collapse way down.

TBG said...

How do you double wrap them? Are you folding like a taco or folding bottom and then rolling like a burrito?

And you keep the seams on opposite ends?

Jumper said...

Although using two, and my method, keeps them from falling apart, they still would break if you attempted to fold the ends. So I don't try that with corn tortillas. Just a simple dual taco, held like a crispy one. Or they WILL go into a tube-shape if desired.

Jumper said...

Here are a couple of twosies side by side.

Jumper said...

I've been experimenting with unusual fillings too. My summer squash, of the yellow crook-necked variety, is coming in. I cubed them and fried with onions.

My iconoclastic friend Jason suggested tofu cooked with bacon is mighty fine. So my final mix was onion, squash, diced bacon, and tofu. I add a little homemade chili sauce. If I didn't have any I'd add salsa near the end of the cooking, and garlic (that was already in my chili sauce) At the end I serve the tacos with salsa on the tacos too. Last night I had no tofu so the mix was yellow squash, diced bacon, onion, and some 93% lean ground beef.

Bob S. said...

Yup, the Acuña cart tacos were double-tortilla treats, pretty much the twins of those in the photo you linked. Onions, cilantro and a bit of green salsa for toppings, and I usually added the squeeze of a lime wedge.

I did learn early on that the pricing was flexible, and Americans who spoke no Spanish were definitely not getting the best possible bargain.

Tim Molter said...

very nice... ;)

Bob S. said...

It was amusing to hear some of my less-adventurous friends fret about the cart tacos. "What kind of meat is it?" "Are you sure it's safe to eat?"

Ummm... They were cooking the big chunk o' beef or pork (depended on which cart, and which night) right in front of you on a grill atop a charcoal brazier. I had more confidence in that meal than in any of a number of restaurants I've frequented over the years.

Jumper said...

Hi, Tim, nice to see you again.

Yeah, Bob, I've seen a lot of that. One boss of mine said, RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE TACO TRUCK PEOPLE, "will it give ya the shits?" I was pretty embarrassed so I yelled at him right there. "HELL NO, IT'S DELICIOUS!"

I could tell you stories about KFC. I got one pretty cleaned up by the time I was done, but before that, you don't want to know.

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