Tortilla Making 101: Corn Tortillas and Sopes

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If making flour tortillas is all about the rolling pin, corn tortillas are all about the press. No flour dusting, no endless rolling, no lard-lubricated hands. Not to imply that corn tortillas are a walk in the park; the difficulty here isn't in the pressing, but in variable nature of the corn dough itself.

See also: -Tortilla Making 101: Flour Tortillas

A good commercially produced corn dough, or masa, will have only three or four ingredients: corn, lime (the mineral, not the citrus), salt, and water as the occasional fourth. Doughs listing any added preservatives should be avoided, as this indicates the dough is not produced daily, and a freshly produced dough, still warm from the mill, will yield the best results.

The best dough, of course, come from several of the busiest tortilla factories in town, and is sold for less than a dollar per pound. Look for a dough with a smooth and grit-free texture to it. Coarsely ground corn will produce a decent tortilla, but not a great one. Visit La Sonorense in South Phoenix or any of the various Ranch Market locations around town for two of the best local masas. Ranch Market also carries a wide selection of corn tortilla presses; invest in a sturdy cast iron version, as the lighter aluminum ones are likely to crack if dropped or pressed with too much force.

The masa, while perfectly usable as purchased, is likely to need an extra bit of moisture to ease in hand-pressing, and a bit of sea salt to improve the flavor. The dough should have just enough tack to it that it almost sticks to your hand. Almost. The taste of salt should be just barely discernible. The amount of water and salt needed can be easily added with a bit of hand-kneading, adding the water by just wetting the palms of your hands, and slowly introducing more into the dough as needed.

The dough can be easily pressed from this point into tortillas, and cooked in the same way as flour tortillas are -- on a dry skillet, over medium heat, not so hot that a splash of water on its surface leads to instant evaporation, but instead produces water beads that dance for a few seconds before disappearing. Cut a plastic bag -- a gallon-size Ziplock bag is best -- to roughly the same size as the tortilla press; these sheets of plastic are the only thing that will make it possible to get the raw dough from the press unto the skillet.

A dough ball about the size of a golf ball, weighing approximately 1.5 ounces, will yield a 6-inch tortilla. When pressing, place the ball in the center, and with the first press, wiggle the handle slightly from left to right, pressing firmly but lightly. Rotate the tortilla 180 degrees and lightly press again to even the thickness. Laying the tortilla gently and evenly on the skillet's surface, the first side should be cooked in about a minute or two. It will be ready to turn over when the edges start to curl up. Turn it over, and if all things have aligned in your tortilla making, you will be rewarded with an air pocket beautifully inflating your tortilla. Enjoy this sight, and let it settle on its own before removing from the heat.

The great thing about masa is its versatility. The same dough used to make corn tortillas can be used to make the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside sope. Portion out a dough ball twice the size as that for tortillas, 3 ounces in weight. While there are presses specifically for sopes, it is just as easy to press them by hand, pressing on the same plastic used to line the tortilla press, forming into a disk 4 inches in diameter and a quarter-inch in thickness. Fry them over medium high heat in enough oil to cover them. Cook only for one or two minutes -- just long enough to firm up the outside. Remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel, allowing it to cool just enough to be able to handle the sope. Pinch the outside edge on one side, creating a retaining wall of sorts for the toppings. Return to the oil and fry until golden brown, turning as necessary. Drain again on paper towels, and enjoy with your favorite meaty toppings.

As proprietor of Muñeca Mexicana handcrafted food, Minerva Orduno Rincon makes everything from mole poblano to goat milk caramel to spiced (not spicy) cocoa.

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