It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the dynamic, regional Mexican food scene without the classic tortilla. When it comes to Mexico’s eating style, and, well, eating Mexican food virtually anytime and anywhere, tortillas play a recurring role.
By the Tortilla Industry Association’s measures, tortillas are the second most popular bread type in the U.S., and, of course, across the border, they are a staple.
Tortillas are essential for mouthwatering street tacos, a foundation for chilaquiles, and are almost always on hand wherever it is you consider the best Mexican food near you.
Long and short is that in the world of Mexican food, tortillas’ roots run deep. But there’s more to the tortilla story than tacos and burritos. To help you up your Mexican food I.Q., we’re breaking down all you need to know about tortillas. We’re talking about the difference between corn versus flour tortillas, regional preferences, how to reheat your storebought tortillas, and the history that runs through it all.
Here’s all the must-know info about tortillas to get you up to speed before you next travel to Mexico:
A Super Brief History Of Corn And Wheat In Mexico
Before we talk about the difference between corn and flour tortillas, let’s go over how those two ingredients got into the Mexican food scene in the first place.
For centuries, corn and wheat provided food and livelihood for the region’s people. Corn goes way back to the time of Mesoamericans (as in the Mayans and Aztecs), where they not only cultivated corn but also they worshipped it and even believed it to be the crux of their origin story.
It’s tough to say when (some say before 500 A.D.) or how the corn tortilla was invented, but they existed by the time Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica––meaning areas including Mexico and parts of Central America––in the 1500s.
Here’s The Deal With Corn Tortillas
We have to give multiple praise hands emojis for the hard work and time it takes to make traditional corn tortillas.
It begins with an ancient process known as nixtamalization where you soak whole, dry corn kernels in lime water (btw, we’re talking lime as in calcium hydroxide, not the citrus). Soaking corn in this alkaline bath improves the corn’s nutritional profile and also removes the hull (as in that annoying piece that gets stuck in your teeth when you eat popcorn).
For traditional corn tortillas, this is the beginning of a many hours-long process that softens the kernels before it’s then ground by hand on a metate (a stone ground tool) to create masa harina (dried corn flour).
The masa harina is then used to make tortilla dough, which gets pressed and cooked over a comal (a flat and round griddle commonly used in traditional Mexican cooking).
Now for a bit of corn trivia: did you know there are more than 50 native––aka landrace––varieties of corn? That number was much larger before so today some organizations are partnering with local farmers in Mexico to preserve and cultivate native corn.
The bottom line is if you see tortillas (or any product really) made with native corn, vote with your dollars and buy it so that we can all work to keep up that biodiversity!
And This Is How Flour Tortillas Came To Be
Now let’s dive into the history of the flour tortilla. While some may wonder how authentic flour tortillas are to Mexican cuisine, digging into 16th-century history sheds some perspective.
Areas now known as the northern Mexican states — including Sonora and Chihuahua, and the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas — sowed wheat instead of corn for several reasons. For one, Spanish conquistadors introduced wheat to the area, which grows better in Northern Mexican soil than corn.
Second, as Catholics, they believed wheat had close ties to Jesus Christ. Oh, and finally back in the day Europeans looked down on corn and considered it food for animals and thus no bueno for humans.
It’s a different story nowadays as flour tortillas are a mainstay part of regional Mexican cooking. In some parts of Mexico, flour tortillas can be thick and chewy with a strong wheat taste while the popular Sonora-style flour tortillas are made with just flour, water, and salt, and are tissue-thin.
As a whole, flour tortillas are more pliable than corn, making them the perfect wrapper for burritos, and are an essential ingredient for northern Mexican quesadillas and carne asada tacos.
Where To Buy Good Tortillas
In general we recommend a visit to your local Latin market for freshly made corn or flour tortillas — the fresher they are, the better they’ll taste!
Also, for corn tortillas, we’re fans of Masienda, a Southern California-based tortilla company that makes organic corn tortillas with heirloom Mexican corn.
Here’s How To Reheat Tortillas At Home
We’ve learned the hard way that reheating store-bought tortillas is somewhat of an art. While toasting tortillas on the stove works in a pinch, there are a few pre-heating tricks to ensure your tortillas are also nice and hydrated — the key to a delish tortilla.
To reheat (and hydrate) a tortilla, we like to mist the tortilla with water before heating it on both sides in a frying pan (or comal if you have one) and then holding them in a clean dish towel or tortilla warmer until you’re ready to use them. If you’re more of a microwave person, place a stack of tortillas in a damp paper towel, seal them in a plastic bag, then briefly zap them in the microwave. Try it yourself with our favorite brand of tortillas.
Or, join us on a future Salt & Wind trip to Mexico, where we’ll take you up close and personal through some of Mexico’s best foodie experiences.
Photo Credit: Tortilla by Andrew Cebulka; Corn by Kristin Duvall