Tort(illa) Reform

"El Hot Plate" Restaurant / The Kitchen

GUESTS: Mariachis

    Hi there. Alton Brown here in the Mexican restaurant down the street from your house. You know the one; in the strip mall, has sombreros on the wall over the cash register, and you have a TV in the bar and it's always tuned to the soccer channel. There's a cactus on the outside of the menu and a bunch of numbers on the inside. Oh, and here's a shocker, America, delicious though that number 16 combo may be, it's about as authentically Mexican as the Frito Bandito. There is, however, one solid piece of Meso-Americana here, the tortilla.

MARIACHIS: [band surrounds AB and begin to play]

    Indeed, it could be argued that, besides being a staple food for half the planet, this humble flatbread is one of the edible lynchpins of human history. Delectable though they are, the average gringo would no more attempt to make tortillas at home than to take up flamenco guitar. And that's a shame, because the tortilla is a truly a-maize-ing ... [pushes aside the walls of the restaurant] ... ha ha ha ha, get it? Never mind. The point is, the tortilla is way more American than apple pie. It's healthful, easy to concoct, and versatile as vice grips. And that, gentle viewer, is more than enough to qualify it as ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Kitchen

M: [leave]
AB: Good bye. Adios, mariachi guys. Hey, good luck with those music lessons. Bye. Heh.

    Actually, when I said that tortillas are one of the edible lynchpins of history, what I really should have said is that the dough, or masa from which they are made, is a lynchpin of history. How so? Well, let us consider the curious case of Cortez.


    Once upon a time in 1519, a certain Spanish businessman/adventurer named Hernando Cortez landed in what is today Veracruz, Mexico. Why? Because he had a serious hankering for gold, which he soon found heaps of in the Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlán, which was, at the time, probably the most splendid city on earth.


    Figuring he would be a far better steward of all that wealth, Cortez aided by cannons, horses, smallpox, and a legend that made him out to be a returning god, captured the city's ruler, Montezuma, and set about decimating one of the greatest civilizations our planet has ever hosted. Had Cortez stopped just for a moment to consider how it was that such heathen savages were able to erect such a bling-encrusted metropolis, he might have discovered a very different kind of gold altogether ...

The Kitchen

GUEST: Deb Duchon, Nutritional Anthropologist

    ... maize. You know, the average Meso-American diet was very corny indeed. But unlike the sweet field corn we modern North American Anglos know and love, the stuff the Aztec lived on was very very starchy and came with a very thick outer hull, or pericarp, okay? Now, probably 10,000 years or so before Columbus showed up, these early Americans learned that if they...

DD: ... if they soaked and cooked the maize in water with wood ashes in it, that the hulls would just slip right off.

    You notice how I don't even have to think "nutritional anthropologist" anymore, and she shows up?

AB: Okay, I'll bite. What's with the wood ashes?
DD: They're alkaline, of course.
AB: Ah. Well, that certainly explains why, last summer, when I left all those ashes in my grill, and it rained a bunch, the bottom of the grill corroded out.
DD: I remember that. But today's Mexican cooks don't use wood ashes anymore. They use cal.
AB: Oh, short for calcium hydroxide, a.k.a. slaked lime. It's used in the construction business to help concrete harden.
DD: But the really fascinating thing about it was that the Meso-Americans thought they were just removing the pericarp, but what they were actually doing was setting in motion this miraculous and amazing phenomenon.
AB: I sure hope you're not about to launch into one of your long soliloquies without the benefit of a visual aid.

DD: Well, check this out then.
AB: Okay.

The miracle of nixtamal...

DD: [DD clicks a remote and a large cage descends]
AB: Whoa. Wow, what a sweet visual metaphor representing the many nutrients locked away inside a kernel of corn. Hah, think I'll have a little proline. Hey, what gives? I can't get any of them out.
DD: Nixtamalization is like a chemical key that unlocks all the wonderful nutrients that are locked inside a kernel of maize.
AB: So what kind of nutrients are we talking about here?
DD: Well, for one thing, amino acids like lysine and tryptophan. But most importantly, vitamin B3 better known as niacin. Now if the Aztecs hadn't had nixtamalization, they wouldn't even have the energy to build that magnificent empire of theirs. And once Cortez showed up, he probably wouldn't even have paid much attention to them. He certainly had no reason to destroy their empire like he did.
AB: Got it.
DD: But in a way, they got their revenge, because when Cortez and the other conquistadores brought maize back to the Old World, they didn't take nixtamalization.
AB: Yeah.
DD: So the countries and peoples that adopted corn as their main grain soon suffered from a terrible disease of malnutrition called pellagra.
AB: What's pellagra do?
DD: The three dreaded Ds: diarrhea, dementia, and death.
AB: Well, I guess that's Montezuma's real revenge.

    Now let's pretend for just a moment that you really want to make tortillas from scratch. First, you have to make nixtamal from, say, a pound—about two cups— of dried field or flint corn which can be found at health food stores, co-ops, and of course, that new-fangled World-Wide-Web-Information-Superhighway, yes Sir.

1 Pound Dried Corn

    Anyway, first step: wash the corn thoroughly in a sink. You don't have to soak it. You just want to kind of knock all the dust off and move it to a stainless steel pot large enough to hold the corn plus six cups of water, and one-half ounce—about two tablespoons—of calcium hydroxide. Canners call this pickling lime; builders call it slaked lime; Mexican cooks call it cal, which I think is a far, far nicer name. You can get it on the Internet quite easily.

6 Cups Water
1/2 Ounce Calcium
   Hydroxide, aka Pickling
   Lime, Slaked Lime, Or Cal

    Now we're going to bring this slowly to a boil. You want it to take about 30 to 40 minutes. And it is very important that you use a stainless steel vessel and a stainless steel spoon because the cal can discolor metals and it can bleach out wood. So, steel, got it?
    When your corn hits a boil, cover the pot, kill the heat, of course, and just stash the pot someplace out of the way overnight. And do not put it in the refrigerator because cold will shut down the chemical reactions that we are counting on taking place here.

AB: [addressing the pot] See you in the morning.

Tortilla literally means 'little tart'.

The Kitchen

    As you can see by my new shirt, this is the next day. And you can also see that our lime solution has definitely loosened up the hull on our maize, but you will also have to apply a little mechanical encouragement. I usually rub the kernels under running lukewarm water for five to six minutes. After that, you'll still want to remove the lime residual flavor. So, give it a soak in clean water for about two minutes. Change the water, and soak it for another two. Then, and only then, may you consider the grinding process.
    [looking through an array of grinding devices] Let's see. Blender: not fine enough. Grain mill: fine enough, but it can't handle the moisture. Meat grinder attachment on the mixer: can handle the moisture, but again, it's not fine enough. Coffee grinder: ooh, bad idea. Food processor: there's definitely some potential there.

    But you know, any real self-respecting masa master would bypass such modern marvels in favor of, a metate y mano. There it is, ladies and gentlemen. This beautiful engine of masa destruction carved out of two blocks of solid lava rock is the final word in corn grinding. Does it take a lot of back-breaking labor just to manufacture enough dough to have tortillas for a small family? Yes! But the purist in me says, "You gotta do what you gotta do." Meanwhile, the kind of lazy American male in me says, "Hey, maybe we should try the food processor again."


    Shift your nixtamal's location to the work bowl of your food processor and basically just pulse 10 to 15 times for starters. Then just scrape down the bowl a bit just to mix things up. And we're going to add about two tablespoons of water and process again, say, eight to ten times. There.

2 Tbs. Water

    Now, we will add another two tablespoons of water, and time for a little bit of salt. One teaspoon of kosher should do the job. Do not leave this out or your tortillas will definitely taste a little on the dead side. And that goes in. And pulse until the dough comes together. There.

2 Tbs. Water
1 tsp. Kosher Salt

    Just check the dough. Just grab a little handful. [the dough clumps together readily and fractures rather than crumbles when broken, very much like pie crust at the same step] That's what you want to see. So we will remove this to our favorite work bowl carefully extracting the blade, of course. And we'll knead that into a wee ball.
    If your dough doesn't want to form a nice little ball, just knead in another tablespoon or two of water and it'll come around. Now it's important that you wrap this in plastic and let it sit on your counter for half an hour before you start making tortillas, because the dough has got to absorb that water. So, half an hour; no more and no less. There.
    Now, if this still seems like too much work for you, most megamarts carry dent hydrated ground masa, which can simply be mixed with water to create the dough that we desire. Of course, depending on where you live, you may have an even better option. Excuse me.

Los Amigos, Atlanta, GA – 10: 15 am

    Although traditionally crafted corn tortillas are undeniably delicious, they are also très perishable, ergo, they ship poorly. And that's good, because just about every city and large town in the United States with a Latin American community has a tortilla plant just like this.
    Now besides offering truly great tortillas—which, I might add, freeze fabulously if left to bag and then double-wrapped in aluminum foil—most factories are more than happy to sell you all the maize, cal, nixtamal, or masa dough that you need to make your own tortillas at home.
    Now I don't have space for a Tortilla-Master 6000 like this at my house, so I will require the services of an ancient mangling device called a tortilladora. And where will I be able to get such a device? Well, I should think, uh, any well-stocked dungeon should do.

This plant produces 1.3 million tortillas a day.

The Dungeon

GUEST: Dungeon Master

AB: Hello? Dungeon Master? Anybody home? [looks at a display, and comments to himself] Rubber chickens. Hello? Anybody home?
DM: Greetings, master. How might I serve your impudence?
AB: I need a tortilla press.
DM: Ah, want to put a little squeeze on something, eh?
AB: Tortillas.
DM: Right, tortillas. Say no more, master.
AB: Look, if this is going to be some big hassle, I'll just go to a kitchenware store.
DM: Ha, ha, ha, ha. That's rich. Come this way.

[they both walk to a box of tortilla presses]

DM: Would master wish to mashy-mashy something up a little old school? Please. [motions for AB to clear the table next to the box] Here we have a traditional wooden press. The victim ...
AB: ... dough ...
DM: ... whatever, goes in here. Then this slab comes down and the handle applies the pressure.
AB: What else is it good for?
DM: Well, other than eliciting confessions, it's just good clean fun.
AB: Ha, ha, ha, ha. Have anything a little more 20th century?
DM: Oh yes. Here we have an electric model.
AB: Oooh.
DM: This one presses and cooks at the same time. The only thing this baby's missing is spikes.
AB: That's what I was thinking. A little too specialized. Anything, I don't know, 19th century?
DM: Oh, yes. Here we have a couple of metal presses. One in aluminum, the other in iron. The aluminum one is nice and light, but, not heavy enough to inflict serious damage. Not like our iron friend here.
AB: What's with the funny paint job?
DM: Oh, merely a protective coating. I might also point out, this one comes in a bigger model. Would master wish to mashy something a bit larger.
AB: Oh, like, maybe, uh, a flour tortilla for a quesadilla.
DM: Or, a Madagascar cockroach. Slam! Dah! Heh heh heh heh heh heh.
AB: [takes the larger iron tortilla press] I gotta go. [leaves]
DM: Oh, very well. Thanks for coming down.
AB: Oh yeah.
DM: Drop in anytime.
AB: Oh, sure thing, buddy.

Southern grits are ground from hominy, a white corn version of nixtamal.

The Kitchen

    Well, a little math reveals that 1.5 ounces would be the appropriate mass for each of these tortillas given the size of our press and the size of our batch of dough. So I'm just going to use this one and a half ounce scooper to approximate that and lay it out on my scale. Well, 1.55. That's close enough. Just roll them up almost like little wedding cookies and stash under a nice moist towelette.

Measure dough into 1.5 ounce balls and place under a damp towel.

    Now before we can actually get to pressing, we need to make sure that the rest of our tortilla station is set up and ready. We have here, for instance, the hot zone. Now traditionally in Mexico, the tortillas are cooked on a special either earthenware or thin cast iron griddle called a comall [COMB-all] or comal [co-MALL], depending on where you are. I'm just using a heavy-duty griddle that I have. This one is cast iron, which I like. What's important is that you place it over heat that will allow you to maintain about 400 degrees. That's our key temperature. And the easiest way to figure that, of course, is with one of these snazzy infrared thermometers. If you don't have one, just remember that a drop of water looks like this on a 400 degree griddle [demonstrates: the drop sizzles for about a second or two before it completely evaporates]. You want to see that again? [repeats] That's it.
    Now, we've got our hot zone. Moving on over, we have our landing pad: basically a tea towel that will keep our tortillas nice and warm, and of course, I've got mine on top of a heating pad set on high. Do this and people will call you a geek. Personally, I'm okay with that. Let's get to pressing matters, shall we?
    Okay, here we have our press as seen before. Of course, this surface, that paint, is strictly for protecting the metal. It's not going to do much for the tortillas. So, I'm going to line this with some plastic. Now this is just a zip-top bag that I've just cut the sides out of. And of course the zip part is gone. So place that inside, grab one of your dough balls, and place thusly. Notice I'm not putting it dead center. I'm pressing it just off to the side, near the hinge. Lay over the plastic, kind of press it out with your hand. There we go. And then, gently apply the pressure. Just give it a squeeze, all the way down, as far as it will go, and you've got yourself one lovely tortilla.
    Now these are rather fragile, so peel the plastic off that way, then put over your hand and lay it over. Now we transfer to the heat. There we go. We'll go here. There. Nothing is going to happen right away, but it's only going to cook about a minute per side. A little jagged exterior there is not a bad thing; it's a homemade tortilla. But if you have any really deep cracks around the outside, it could be a sign that your dough is a little too dry. You might want to knead in a little water and try again after allowing the dough to rest for a while.
    You know that the tortilla is starting to cook when you start to see steam come out of it because the moisture inside the tortilla is boiling away. And that's something good. That's not smoke, that's steam. The goal here, of course, is to be able to cook two tortillas at one time [AB is using a long rectangular griddle over two burners] while you're busy pressing the others. But it'll take a little practice. Just work in your tong and give it a flip. You'll see just a couple of blackened areas where the larger pieces of corn have slightly burned. That's okay.

In Spain 'tortilla' often refers to an open-face omelet.

    Although true 'tortillacs' will testify to the fact that a good tortilla needs little more than some salt and perhaps some butter to reach perfection, the success of the taco would suggest that the shape and hand-friendly size of the tortilla make it a perfect delivery device for an infinite number of goods, from the traditional shredded meat and beans, to my favorite fried anchovies and mayonnaise with hot sauce. Hey Deb, what did you bring?

DD: Well, the tortilla is a perfect wrapper for these chapulinas.
AB: Chapulinas? What's that, pray tell?
DD: Fried grasshoppers with chili powder. And I brought a whole bowl of them, too. Have some? [passes them to the Mariachies who begin passing them around the table]

    Well, it's our lucky day. You know since fresh tortillas don't have any preservatives in them, they will go stale relatively quickly. But don't despair.

AB: [the bowl of chapulinas reaches AB] Oh no, you guys have them.

    Stale tortillas? No problem. Just grab your handy dandy spritzer ... [AB's spritzer has a dinosaur head] Rrrraarrrrgh ... and give them a spritz on one side, a spritz on the second side, give them a little rub, and just stack them up, and move them down to a 300 degree oven for just a few minutes until they warm up. Of course, this has all been pretty nifty. But the most serious and special top secret tortilla trick of all time is yet to come.

Things the Aztecs put in tortillas: waterbugs, frogs,
salamanders, algae and tiny lake worms.

The Kitchen

    Submitted for your approval: one pound of homemade tortillas. Cost: about 15 cents. 15¢
    Next, we have one pound of store-bought, but fresh, locally made tortillas. Cost: eh, about a buck. $1
    Then we have one pound of Joe's Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips. Price: about three dollars and 80 cents. $3.80

    Why the discrepancy? Well, it's sure not the chips. And you know, it's probably not the cost of this baby-seal-choking plastic bag. Gosh, it must be the stunning display of marketing crafts. I think that's a big rip-off. And what's worse is that by the time this gets to your home, [handles the bag very roughly creating a bunch of small chip crumbs and breaking the bag] the chips look like that. It's just not right, I tell 'ya. Luckily, there's something we can do about it.

    Start by carefully approaching ten stacked fresh tortillas, either homemade or store-bought if you wish, and cut them into quarters, thusly. 10 Fresh Tortillas, Cut into
    Now ordinarily, folks would just fry these. But I don't see why we can't add a little bit of flavor. For instance, if you were to mix two teaspoons of kosher salt with a quarter cup of fresh squeezed lime juice and just whisk that up, well heck, you'd probably have a solution that was very, very salty and very, very tart. If it tastes really bad, then it's probably a perfect marinade for these chips. 1/4 Cup Freshly Squeezed
    Lime Juice +
    2 tsp. Kosher Salt

    Just take your pieces of tortilla, dunk them, then let them dry on a rack for about an hour before you fry them up in 365 to 375 degree oil. They'll cook for 20 to 30 seconds. Take them out when they float up on the top of the oil, or when they start to, you know, turn black around the edges.

Allow to Dry For 1 Hour

2 Quarts Peanut Oil Heated
    To 365-375 Degrees

    Well, there you have it, kids. Crisp, yet meaty. Delicious salty lime tortilla chips containing no chemicals. Well, other than sodium chloride. No preservatives. No artificial anything. And they only cost, I don't know, a cent and a half to make. And note this: they hold chunky salsas and weighty guacamoles better than store-bought which need never darken your kitchen door again.

DD: Hey, Alton: those mariachis, they remembered they had this Bar Mitzvah to play so they didn't get to eat their tacos. [hands AB a taco] So anyway, enjoy, bon appétite, and adios.
AB: Adios.

    Bar Mitzvah, huh?

    Well, I guess it's just my lucky day. Here's to taking tortillas into your own hands. Not only are they a fascinating link to our true American heritage, they're delicious, fun [picks out a grasshopper from the taco], functional, and good eats. [takes a big bite, picks out a chapulina, and tosses it aside]

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010