While reporting on the trip behind the masa made at Park Slope’s Taco Santo for our 2014 Fall travel issue, we got a tutorial on tortilla making from chef Alejandro Bonilla Manjarrez.
Taco Santo’s corn flour tortillas, used for the tacos shown above, are distinctive for a number of reasons. Taco Santo is one of a small number of places in New York City preparing masa — or corn flour dough, to Mexicans — from scratch, and one of an even smaller number making that masa from dried corn rather than an instant mix.
The process begins with soaking the dried corn — usually blue or red heirloom varieties from Mexico — in hot water with a little powdered mineral lime to soften the outer hull. The kernels are then drained and finely ground, and the fragrant dough is mixed with salt and water and kneaded until it is smooth and supple.
At Taco Santo, the tortillas are also hand-pressed, rather than sheeted out and cut by machine as with most store-bought tortillas. That yields a rougher texture and more rustic flavor.
They are also typically cooked to order on a comal, or griddle, just before you eat them. Note that they are even more delicious if you prepare them as Taco Santo owner Jacques Gautier and chef Manjarrez do, by using lard or another animal fat rather than vegetable oil. (Eat them by their lonesome with sprinkle of sea salt and lime: tacos de sal.)
Finding a plentiful supply of the field variety of dried corn suitable for masa making is difficult for a U.S. taqueria — Gautier and Manjarrez have a top-secret supplier — but it’s easier for home cooks, who can use the dried multi-colored “Indian” corn typically used for table decorations, says Gautier. (Farm stands here in often start selling it toward the end of summer; the lime, which is called cal in Spanish, is easy to find in Brooklyn’s many Mexican markets.) Gautier perfected the recipe for that method in Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook, which we’ve reprinted here.
Fresh Masa and Handmade Tortillas
Makes about 3 dozen tortillas
From Jacques Gautier, Chef/owner of Palo Santo and Taco Santo restaurants in Park Slope; reprinted from Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook (Sterling Epicure, 2011)
1 pound dried Indian corn or other dried corn if Indian corn is hard to find (from about 6 cobs)
2 teaspoons mineral lime (or cal)
1 tablespoon salt
Oil or lard for cooking the tortillas
1. Break the corn off of the cob by holding it firmly with both hands and twisting to loosen the kernels. Then break the cob in the middle and work the kernels off with your thumbs.
2. Put the kernels into a pot with the lime and cover with water. Simmer over low heat for about an hour or so, until the kernels are soft but not mushy. Let them cool in the liquid to room temperature.
3. Strain out the boiled corn (reserving the liquid) and grind it using a meat grinder, food processor, high-powered blender or a grain mill on a course setting. Then process the corn a second time (on a finer setting, if using a grinder or mill) with a tablespoon or two of the cooking liquid: just enough so the mixture forms a paste-like dough. Add the salt and work the masa with your hands to get it to a smoother texture. Add a little bit more of the cooking liquid if necessary. The finished masa should be smooth, moist and workable, but not sticky or too loose.
4. Form the masa into 1-inch balls. Heat a griddle, preferably cast-iron, over medium flame, and grease lightly with a little oil. Line a tortilla press with plastic or wax paper and press the balls, a few at a time (however many will fit onto your griddle) into tortillas about 4 inches across. (If you don’t have a tortilla press, flatten the balls between plastic grocery bags using a heavy book.)
5. Turn the tortillas over onto the hot griddle to cook. Flip them once they are firm enough and slightly toasted, and cook on the other side. Keep warm under a towel or in a plastic tortilla steamer until all are cooked.
Photo Credit: John Taggart