Corn tortillas, old world and new


We were in the state of San Luis Potosí some years back, in the very small town of La Plazuela, when we came across the tortilleria — the shop that makes fresh corn tortillas. Every Mexican town has at least one tortilleria, but this one was special. The tortillas were being made from freshly ground, dried corn, instead of packaged Maseca, the corn flour usually used. We watched the grinding process, and waited around for the hot tortillas. Ay caramba, were they good! I don’t think we have had tortillas made from corn kernels ground on site since.

Amadeo, a resident of La Plazuela, ate egg tacos every morning made with these tortillas. He was a poor man, and when I saw his breakfast, I realized there wasn’t more than a small smear of cooked egg in each taco, essentially tortillas flavored with a bit of egg. His large meal of the day was tortillas with beans, and he told us that he was lucky he liked beans and tortillas so much, since that was the food God gave the poor of Mexico.

File:Tortilleras aztecas.jpg

Corn tortillas date back to pre-Columbian times, and still figure prominently in traditional Mexican cuisine. Then as now, the corn kernels are first soaked in an alkaline solution of lime (known as cal in Mexico) and water. This softens the outer skin, which is then rubbed off by hand. This process is known as nixtamalization. If you buy a bag of Maseca in Mexico, that is what the word nixtamalizado on the package means.

Despite the growing popularity of spongy Bimbo bread, tortillas are everywhere. They are the basis of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, enfrijoladas and much more. These days, they are more likely to be made from the dry masa mix, rather then freshly ground, dried corn. There is no comparison between the flavor of the two, but a corn grinder is not a usual household applicance, even in Mexico. So we all eat tortillas made from Maseca, though today’s modern Mexican youngsters probably do not even know what tortillas made from freshly ground corn taste like. No doubt, in the remote villages of Mexico, the real tortillas are all they know.

For some reason, my dear chief taster has had this fantasy that his esposa will some day slap masa between her hands and make corn tortillas for him regulary. Maybe this has something to do with a wish to return to simpler times. With a tortilleria only a block away, this is one fantasy that is not going to happen. Or so I thought until he gave me a beautiful, wooden tortilla press as a gift. What else could I do, but make tortillas for him. This one time.

Do you have a tortilla press and a mate who thinks you are going to slap together fresh tortillas for breakfast? If so, buy a bag of Maseca, or better yet, go to your local tortilleria and buy some fresh masa. That’s what I did. A half kilo of fresh masa cost six pesos, the same as a half kilo of tortillas. In other words, it cost the same for an equal weight of freshly cooked, steaming tortillas as it does for the masa, leaving me to go home, press the tortillas, then stand over a very hot griddle. But if making corn tortillas will make your day, here’s how to do it.


If you live in a town with a tortilleria, buy fresh masa. One pound (one-half kilo) will make twelve to fifteen tortillas. If you are not lucky enough to live near a tortilleria, buy a bag of Maseca or Quaker Masa Hariana de Maiz and follow the instructions on the package. Their instructions call for 2 cups of masa mix, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir together, adding water in small increments if the dough is too dry and cracks when a test tortilla is pressed, or adding more masa if it is too wet and sticks to the plastic bags in the press.


Whether your masa is fresh from a tortilleria, or mixed at home, pinch off enough dough to roll a ball in your hands that is slightly larger than a walnut. Keep the balls covered with a towel or plastic bag so they don’t dry before they get to the griddle or comal.


Lay a plastic bag on your tortilla press, set a ball of dough in the center, cover that with another plastic bag, and bring down the upper part of the press with moderate pressure. That’s it — remove the tortilla from the bags and place on a very hot, unoiled griddle. After a few minutes, when brown spots start to appear on the under-side, turn it over. It will start to puff a little. Cook another minute or two, until small brown spots again appear underneath. Don’t overcook or it will be crispy. We are after soft tortillas.

Once you can stand back and survey your handiwork, you are ready to make quesadillas, Baja fish tacos or enchiladas rojas. The side of the tortilla that puffed up is called the “face” and experts say it goes inside a taco or quesadilla, because it may peel off. Once I have the tortillas cooked and off the griddle, I can’t tell which side is which. But, I’m no expert.


The two illustrations at the top are from the Florentine Codex and the Mendoza Codex, repectively, and are in Public Domain.

53 thoughts on “Corn tortillas, old world and new

  1. memory/ memoria

    I just want to say mucho gracias por yo información .i learned más about cooking authentic old World (i love this )mexicano tortillas in 5minutos from your website than i have in uno year of hours researching. I have also been learning to speak spanish por uno year. I am grateful for your in depth research and sharing it .i look forward to learning más “OLD WORLD” tradicional living from San Luis Potosí México

    1. “Tortilla breads” brought a smile to my face. Yes, I guess tortillas are the bread of Mexico. I hope you can enjoy them freshly made if you can find a tortilleria in your part of the country. Thanks for visiting!

  2. Janet Inksetter

    Hello Kathleen,
    I thought it high time I told you how much I appreciate your blog and your recipes. It has been a good resource for me and I just used it to refresh my knowledge of food shopping, prior to our annual visit to Bucerias.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  3. Wow! This post was amazing. I’m tinking about open a Taqueria in Barcelona. Just a project but rally waiting to achieve it! ;) Your post was very useful in order to know the recipe of Tortillas.
    If you have special recipes about tacos please let me know!

    Thank you very much.

  4. Anjanette O'Driscoll

    I just discovered this site, and I love it!!!
    However, I don’t seem to see any recent postings… I hope this is an error on my part!

    Anyway, I completely love your recipes and plan on trying many of them.


    1. Hi Anjanette,
      I’m glad you found Cooking in Mexico and that you like it. Sorry, but there are no recent postings. My life has taken a different direction, and I just don’t have time right now for what it takes to maintain a blog, though I still reply to every comment and answer every question. It had just about become my life, and I needed to let something go. I hope to return to blogging again. In the meantime, you will find a wealth of recipes in the Recipe section at the top of the page. I hope you try some of them.
      EDIT: As of September 19, 2015, I’m blogging again, starting with the new recipe for Enchiladas Suizas. Thanks to everyone who waited for me.

      1. Anjanette O'Driscoll

        Thank you so much for responding! I’m sorry to hear, that I’m too late, but I completely understand!
        I plan on trying many of the recipes! My fathers family are from Jalisco, Mexico, and my husband and I dream of retiring in Mexico. Somewhere in the Yucatan, hopefully!
        I’m very familiar with traditional Mexican food, but always interested in learning new things to make!

        All the best to you!

        1. Thanks for understanding, Anjanette, but since you just found Cooking in Mexico, you have an entire collection of recipes and articles to read, so your lateness in finding the blog does not deprive you of anything. :) I’m keeping my entire blog up for anyone to view, and I am surprised at how many readers it still has.
          Jalisco is my favorite state in Mexico. One book I read calls Jalisco the “most Mexican” of Mexico’s states. We live only about 15 miles from Jalisco, and go their frequently, as Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, is our main errand destination, and we often visit the town of Mascota to buy fresh eggs and cheese and enjoy the cooler mountain air. The food, music, folklórico dancers with their lovely dresses, the charros (Mexican cowboys), the volcanic mountains and fertile valleys of corn and agave fields — all make for a very interesting state. I hope you and your husband find your retirement home someday, either in the Yucatan or Jalisco.

  5. Sara

    Mmmm, freshly made tortillas, yummy! I have noticed that the tortillas in Mexico City are more yellow in color than the tortillas I have enjoyed elsewhere Mexico (which tend to be more whitish). Do you know the reason for this? I have been assuming that different corn flours are used, but that theory doesn’t go together with the assumption that most tortillerías use Maseca. I hope you can bring some clarity to this issue and thanks for a great blog!

    1. Hmmm … as I have not had corn tortillas in Mexico City in many years, I’m not sure what the reason for the different color would be, but it must have to do with using a corn that is more yellow. I have read that corn is imported from the U.S. by the big masa harina makers, and U.S. corn tends to be more yellow. Perhaps the masa harina maker that supplies Mexico City is using imported corn, but this is only a surmise.

      Here is an interesting article on corn tortillas in Mexico, from Rachel Lauden’s excellent blog, A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics.

  6. sharon elkan

    Hi Kathleen,
    Kate and David Cotter, and Michael and I were visiting San Sebastian Oeste this week. The street that you drive in on, on the same property as the tire repair (llantera, who has the only compressor in town) has fresh masa. I watched the woman grind the corn in a large electric grinder. The corn is grown in small plots around San Sebastion. I was so excited to find this. Lots of compliments on the dinner.

    Sharon Elkan

    1. sharon

      At the time, last Dec. 2011, there was just the masa dough freshly ground for sale. I had to make the tortillas at home. We will return to buy more dough. Can the dough be frozen for later. Do you know where to buy freshly ground corn around Vallarta?

      Thanks and best regards,
      Sharon Elkan

      1. Hi Sharon,
        Masa dough can be frozen for later use. Divide it up onto smaller amounts before you freeze it, so you don’t have to thaw all of it to make a few tortillas. You can buy masa and tortillas made from freshly ground corn at a tortilleria on Calle Nicaragua near the stadium in PV. I have also been told that a tortilleria across from where Rizos used to be (I think they moved) sells tortillas and masa made from ground corn. I have not tried either place.
        Hope to see you soon — K

    1. Susan, I buy fresh masa dough at a tortilleria in La Cruz. The tortillerias in Bucerias also sell it — all tortillerias sell fresh masa dough. I don’t know where they are located in Bucerias, but anyone should be able to tell you.

  7. Hello, Kathleen! Since arriving in Mexico about 1 1/2 months ago, we’ve been enjoying freshly made (not by me) corn tortillas. Even though they aren’t made in the traditional way, they are still enormously better than the packaged tortillas we’re used to — they’re so supple and delicious (and cheap!).

    We’re in La Paz right now, preparing to head to the mainland, and should be in anchored in La Cruz by early January. If your offer still stands, we would love to meet you.

    -Nicole (and Aaron)
    s/v Bella Star

  8. Walking to the local toritlla factory is one of my fav child hood memories, a sprinkle of salt and rolled , yummy. I am fortunate to have acess to freshly ground masa, love your tortillapress! thanks for sharing!

  9. Darlene

    I got really hungry just reading about your tortillas!
    Thanks so much for showing us how to make these little gems!

    1. Kathleen, unfortunately we don´t eat tortillas in Perú, even though we have the most wonderful corn. They are not a part of our diet, that´s why I wanted to learn how to make them. xoxo

      1. Maybe you don’t have corn tortillas, but Peru has quinoa, a wonderful grain, which is not found in Mexico. In the US, I can buy quinoa, but I have never seen it here. I don’t think you are lacking by not having tortillas, with such a tasty grain in your fields and stores.

  10. I grew up in Central America eating tortillas every day, but the first time I tried to make them myself was not long ago. I wanted to make tortillas in Perú every now and then. Well, I was thrilled because the first time I made them, they looked like puffed pita breads… LOL. That was wonderful.

    1. Yes, they do puff up, but deflate as soon as they cool. I don’t know if the common tortillas of Peru are made of corn or wheat — I will visit your web page of delightful Peruvian recipes, and see if I find the answer.

  11. Kathleen I was looking forward to your tortilla post and I missed it…or arrived a little late! After the week I’ve had I am lucky to get on the computer again! This is a great post and I really have to pull out my tortilla press, and run to the tortilleria! Our weather is back in the mid 80s but we still like to eat soup!

    1. it sounds like you have the option of buying freshly made tortillas, also. It takes a true tortilla aficionado to make them at home. Good for you!
      We are still in the upper 80’s. Oh, to have temperatures cool enough for soup …

    1. Christine, if the tortillas have cracks, the masa dough is too dry. Try kneading in a bit of water, one teaspoon at a time, for a more moist dough. Then make a test tortilla. If it still cracks, you need a bit more water. Don’t add too much — it doesn’t take much water for sufficient moisture. I hope you try making the again.

  12. Hey! Loved your post, thank god a tortilleria has been open in Toronto so now we can go buy fresh corn tortillas there, I am sure it doesn’t taste as good as the fresh ground masa but at least is something! Keep having fun and enjoying all the delicious food which I miss so bad!

    1. Even here in our town, I can’t get tortillas made from freshly ground corn. They are made from packaged, ground corn, the same as you buy, so they probably taste the same. They are still much better than packaged tortillas, so we will count ourselves fortunate. Maybe there is a decent Mexican restaurant in Toronto, as well — I hope so.

  13. Oh, yummm! I’m glad to hear that maseca is still nixtamalized as it ups the nutritional value of corn a great deal. My mom occasionally made corn tortillas when I was growing up, and she always rolled out flour ones. Nothing like them! I lived in Alberta, Canada, and have memories of leaving Mexico with piles of corn tortillas! My mom would also buy dried chiles to make enchilada sauce since she couldn’t buy it where we lived. We were probably the only farm kids on the prairies eating that way!

    1. I think Maseca has to be nixtamalized. Otherwise, the hard, exterior skin would make for a rough textured tortilla. It sounds like you have many memories of a rich, food-inspired childhood. Good for you!

  14. Very neat! Believe it or not, have actually bought organic hominy from a place called Anson Mills, they grow it from heirloom grains. As you mentioned, it has to be soaked in the culinary lime solution then cooked in a slow cooker for a loooooong time. Once that’s done it has to be ground and while hot and then…. you can make tortillas. It’s a weekend project, no doubt, but really worth it.

    1. The method you describe is different from that used in Mexico, as corn soaked and ground for tortillas is not cooked first. Yes, it does sound like a week-end project. I hope you let me know about it if you try this.

  15. I can’t tell which side is which, either, although every time I buy my tortillas at the tortillería, I ask, and then I forget by the time I’ve come home. I buy my tortillas at a tortilería that uses fresh masa, too. My tabletop corn grinder is for making tlacoyos and antojitos!

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