Wheat flour tortillas, an American original. Sort of. I mean, it’s an American original, inasmuch as the wheat brought over by Europeans collided with the ancient practice of corn tortilla making somewhere around the U.S.-Mexican border.
The process of making corn tortillas has changed very little since the Aztecs. Dried corn kernels are soaked and then heated in an alkaline solution that dissolves their hull, kills fungus, and changes the chemical structure of the corn (by adding niacin and calcium and bringing the proteins closer to balance, among other things). The process is called nixtamalization (not exactly user-friendly, I know, but this is what happens when you let the Aztecs name things). The result is a product the aztecs called nixtimal, although we know it better by the Powhatan Indian name, hominy.
The hominy is then ground and cooked again, then kneaded into a dough; the other ingredients are added to that dough, which is rolled out into tortillas. This is the same process used today by large commercial tortilla makers, restaurants, and home cooks who prefer real masa tortillas.
So first of all, no, corn tortillas are generally not made from flour of any kind.
Second, while masa flour does exist (called masa harina), it wasn’t invented until 1908 using a process patented in 1909 by a San Antonio corn miller named Bartolo Martinez. Even then, it was sold primarily to migrant workers during harvest season, and wasn’t widely available until the late 1940s. There’s no question that the use of wheat in making tortillas predates that; references to wheat tortillas being prepared are in newspapers over fifty years older than masa harina.
(Yes, dried ground corn existed earlier than that, but you can’t make a tortilla out of corn until it’s nixtimalized; wet cornmeal turns into a slurry, not a dough. Makes a heck of a cracker, though. And there was no nixitimalized corn flour until Bartolo Martinez.)
Finally, even the fact that it’s possible to make a tortilla out of a dried corn flour doesn’t make it a co-equal competitor for the name “flour tortilla.” It’s like insisting that we shouldn’t use the name “instant coffee” to describe freeze-dried coffee crystals because, a few decades later, someone decided to invent a machine that makes real coffee instantly. Except instead of a few decades, make it millennia, and instead of being a machine that makes better coffee, it’s a process that makes slightly less delicious tortillas.
So, no, “flour tortilla” is a perfectly fine way to refer to a wheat flour tortilla. Pffft. If you told an Aztec you were making a “corn flour tortilla” they’d look at you like you’d lost your marbles. And then probably scream because you’re clearly some kind of a time-traveling demon. But first, they’d give you a look.
Too long, didn’t read? Fine. The next time someone says it’s wrong to call these “flour tortillas,” just direct them to Yesterdish.com, and then say this…
From the box of C.C. from Ceres, California.
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/4 cup shortening
You’re going to use about 2/3rds of a cup of warm water, give or take; add slowly and adjust for humidity as you go.
- Blend flour, salt and baking powder with a whisk.
- Cut shortening into flour, as if you were making a pie crust. You should be able to pick up a pinch of the resulting mixture and squeeze it into a ball that holds together.
- Pour in all but two tablespoons of the water and stir until it forms a dough; if it’s too dry, add the two tablespoons, one at a time.
- Once the dough has come together, knead until it’s smooth and even, then let it rest 20 minutes.
- Divide the dough into eight balls, which ought to be about the size of table tennis balls, and let them rest again for 20 minutes.
- Dust the work surface with flour, then pat the ping-pong ball into something like the shape of a round beer coaster. Then with a rolling pin (or a short dowel from a hardware store covered in plastic wrap, which is what I use), roll them as thin as you like, but at least until they’re eight inches in diameter.
- On a hot, ungreased griddle or skillet (aim for north of 450 degrees, if you can control that directly), cook the tortillas for 30 seconds on each side. They’ll blister if you’re doing it right. As you work, transfer each to a plate and cover with a warm towel.