The secret behind making nixtamal and tortillas

Having just returned from a few weeks off in Mexico, I thought I would post something about the mainstay of Mexican food, corn, and particularly how to prepare nixtamal and corn tortillas the traditional way.

What is nixtamal?

Nixtamal is dry corn soaked in and cooked in a solution of slaked lime and water. Slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) should not be confused with unslaked lime (calcium oxide), which cannot be used to prepare nixtamal. To slake lime, you first add it to water, allow it to bubble, let it stand for a bit and then you use the water to process the corn.

Preparing nixtamal may sound complicated but is actually very simple. First, mix lime and water in a large non reactive pot, then place over high heat. The proportions are about 500 grams of corn for 1 tablespoon of lime. When the lime is fully dissolved, add the corn and bring to the boil. If making nixtamal for masa to make tortillas, boil for a couple of minutes, remove from heat, cover and leave to soak overnight. The next morning, rinse the corn in a colander to remove the lime while rubbing the corn kernels to remove the softened hulls. Once cleaned, the nixtamal can then be ground into masa.

If you want to do this the traditional way, you should use a metate (a flat stone made of lava rock) and mano (flat oval shaped rolling pin, made from the same lava rock)

metate y masa harina_commons license

Metate and mano

to grind the corn into masa. If you don’t have one, you can also use a hand cranked grinding machine, making sure you grind it as fine as your machine allows.

After the nixtamal has been put through the mill, you should work water into the masa, until you achieve a dough of medium to soft consistency.

Making tortillas

Now is where the real fun begins. To make tortillas, knead the masa until it becomes smooth, pushing with the heel of the hand (3 to 5 minutes). Wrap the dough in film to prevent it from drying. Place a comal or a heavy-bottom frying pan over medium-high heat.

Break off a piece of the dough, place it in the dough press between 2 squares of waxed paper or plastic,

tortilla press_commons license

Tortilla press

to keep your tortillas from sticking to the press, then press hard. Remove the tortilla from the press, then peel off the plastic. If the dough has the correct amount of water, the plastic will peel off easily. If the plastic sticks, the dough is too wet. If the tortilla cracks around the edges, the dough is to dry.

Tortillas on comal_commons license

Baking handmade tortillas


Baking tortillas

Bake the tortilla in the ungreased frying pan until the edges start to dry (about 30 seconds),  then flip and bake for another 30 seconds. Cover to keep warm, you’re done !



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