How to make tortillas terrific

I’m an unabashed lover of Mexican food, and in my house, burritos, tacos and quesadillas are among my favorite things to make when I’m short on time and meal ideas. I know I’m not alone. Aside from the sheer variety of stuff you can wrap inside a tortilla – from the ubiquitous beans and cheese to grilled shrimp in a cilantro-lime dressing – these Mexican-food staples are popular far beyond our border because they are inexpensive and a cinch to make.

But while many of us focus on the innards of our tacos, burritos and quesadillas, too often the tortilla itself – that all-important culinary housing – is an afterthought. If you’re prone to wrapping your favored ingredients in a flour or corn tortilla that’s simply been microwaved or not even heated at all, know that there is one more step you can take that works miracles in moments. It all begins with the wrapping.

For the best flavor, texture and pliability, tortillas need to be heated properly before being used and eaten. And that really isn’t in a microwave, which can make them rubbery. If you skip heating altogether, tortillas tend to be stiff and fall apart in your hands. And no one wants a lapful of burrito filling.

For the solution, look to your stove, which can heat tortillas one of two ways: in a pan or directly over a flame.

For the latter option, a gas stove is a must, since fire is required. I was taught this trick by a native of Mexico years ago while, ironically, waiting tables at a French restaurant. But I still can’t forget the results he obtained by simply placing a tortilla directly over a stove’s flame. It was the perfect tortilla. Steaming hot, slightly charred and so tasty that it almost made me forget the savory stuff inside.

To do this on your own is easy, but since you’re working directly with fire and no pan as a buffer, it requires absolute attention and strict safety measures. (This can also be done on a barbecue grill, which yields wonderfully smoky results.)

To fire-grill a tortilla, grab long metal tongs with a heat-resistant handle, turn the flame to low, and place the tortilla directly on the stove grates, just as you would a pan. Let it cook a few seconds, then turn using the tongs to grip the tortilla. Repeat this often until the tortilla starts to puff and become slightly charred. It will only take about a minute, and of course be ready to flip and/or snuff should the thing catch fire. (Remember to use low heat!) When the tortilla is hot and is browned or charred to your liking, you’re ready to wrap or just simply enjoy the tortilla on its own.

A secondary way to cook tortillas is in a pan, which is safer than the method above and also offers great results. It’s also the way to go if you don’t have a gas stove.

For this method, grab a pan that is a bit larger than the tortilla you’re cooking and heat over medium. Like the direct-flame method, flip often so both sides of the tortilla get nice and hot. The tortilla – especially flour ones – will likely puff up and that’s normal; we actually want that.

For this method you can also use uncooked tortillas, which I consider the high-definition of home tortillas and the next best thing to made-from-scratch. These are tortillas that have not been fully cooked but are instead finished by you at home in a pan. It’s kind of like that take-and-bake bread, and the results are sublime.

Finally, if you want some crispness to your tortilla to make a tostada or crunchy taco, that can be accomplished with oil. Using the pan method, pour in enough vegetable oil so it covers the bottom by about an eighth of an inch and heat over medium until the oil starts to shimmer. Carefully lay the tortilla in the oil and cook until it gets brown and crispy.

Repeat for the other side and then place on a paper towel to cool and drain. For tostadas, leave the fried tortilla flat. For tacos, fold them over after draining excess oil.

Whatever you decide to fill your burritos, tacos or quesadillas with, the point of entry will now be as much a star as the ingredients inside.

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1 Comment »

  1. Krissi said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    I didn’t know that you were taught by “a native of Mexico … while waiting tables at a French restaurant.” How cool, and delightful to ‘have’ to sample your cooking on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

    ~ Wifey

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