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The first tortillas

March 6, 2012

Corn tortillas  or “tlaxcalli”  as they were known to the Aztecs were a staple long before the arrival of the Spanish.  That ever present and indispensible corn tortilla will a subject for future posts, the subject today  being  the wheat flour variety.  I’ve wondered when and how flour tortillas came about. Maybe they were inspired  by Spain’s Arabic influence.  The round thin disc shape of the corn tortilla and  ingrediants of a wheat flour flatbread  naturally come together to form the softer flour tortilla.  It has the same function as the corn counterpart.   In general both kinds serve for taste and for holding a filling.  A thicker style of flatbread did not develop to become as useful or popular.  I have a feeling that the unavailability of leaveners or ovens might have something to do with that.  The comal must have been much more practical though I know some thicker flatbreads like some pitas can be cooked on a grill or griddle.  Were community ovens in wide use?  Maybe the Mexican Indians were reluctant to quickly accept the foods and techniques of the colonizers. Diana Kennedy writes that wheat was one the first crops  introduced by the Spanish, the first mill being licensed in 1525 to provide for food, bread, and communion wafers. She adds that wheat was cultivated  much later in north and northwest areas of Mexico  where the flour tortilla is more prevalent.

This recipe , which I am using as a starting point to search for my ideal tortilla, is from “From My Mexican Kitchen”  and is identical to the one in her earlier “The Art of Mexican Cooking”.   In the former mentioned,  she suggests bread flour as a substitute for the hard wheat flour she insists is best for this tortilla.

She writes the following ingrediants:

1 pound (450g), approximately 4 scant cups bread flour or all-purpose with 1/4 cup (63ml) gluten added

4 ounces (115g) solid vegetable shortening, cut up and softened (about 1 cup/250ml)

1 scant teaspoon sea salt

1 cup (250ml) warm water

This is the only place I’ve ever seen gluten as an ingrediant.  Wheat gluten can be found in some grocery stores that offer specialty items for baking. Apparently, gluten can also be extracted from flour at home.   Another note is that 4 ounces of solid vegetable shortening comes to 1/2 cup , not 1 cup as is written.   Also, sea salt comes in a varitey of  grain sizes. Larger grains of salt will result in less overall volume.

This recipe makes 24,  6 or 7 inch (15-18 cm) tortillas.

I reduced  the amounts of the ingrediants to 3/4.  For instance, I used 3 scant cups of flour instead of 4.  It makes 10  2.5 ounce tortillas that are 6-7 inches in diameter.

For the first batch , I substituted lard for the vegetable shortening just because I happened to have one and not the other.  I worked in the fat till the dough had a crumbly texture.  I added the water and kneaded it about 4 minutes. It might be necessary to adjust the amount of water to get it to a good consistency. I got it to a slightly tacky, not sticky feel, like a post-it note.  I scaled the dough and let it rest about an hour as in the recipe.  The balls of dough were easy to roll out and did not shrink back very much at all. As the tortillas were cooking on my iron skillet over medium high heat, I had to press down on some areas to make sure it cooked evenly. I also burst any large bubbles that came up.  I cooked each side about 30 seconds. There were some almost translucent patches that did not seem to cook as much. I am guessing that the high amount of fat might be a factor.  But the tortillas were very tasty and did the job.  I think the recipe  can use a little more salt.

As a variation of the first batch,  I used all-purpose  instead of bread flour. I could not detect any difference in the behavior of the dough.

For the third batch, I used bread flour and vegetable shortening as in Kennedy’s recipe. The dough required more water .  I also kneaded it for a little longer, maybe 5 minutes, to get to the consistency.  It felt like a tougher dough. Upon rolling it out,  it  stretched out more easily without shrinking back, resulting in a thinner tortilla.  I think that’s what is called extensibility of the dough, the other quality being elasticity.  Bread flour, having more gluten, is no doubt the factor here. Could this be why Kennedy prefers bread flour for this particular tortilla? According to Kenndey, certains regions prefer a thinner tortilla.  I didn’t notice that quality so much when I used bread flour and lard.

The fourth batch used all-purpose flour and vegetable shortening. This dough seemed to shrink back more than all others when rolled out.

All doughs produced very delicious tortillas. The recipe just needs a little more salt for my taste.  These tortillas were designed to be thin. They tasted doughy when I tried them a little thicker.  Some patches are thinner than others and have a translucent quality about them.  The tortillas hold up well wrapped in a kitchen towel and put in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator for at least 5-6 days.

I realize that there will be a certain amount of subjectivity in my methods.  They won’t have the precise measurements  of a carefully controlled scientific experiment.  I don’t think I’ll need to take it that far.  The first  4 batches had almost subtle differences in ingrediants.  When I start changing ratios of fat to flour , or the amount of time of kneading, I believe I’ll start seeing bigger differences.

For the next batches, I’ll experiment with baking powder.

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