Learn how to make homemade corn tortillas and say goodbye to the plasticky, crumbly, store-bought ones for good.
I always thought I just wasn’t a fan of corn tortillas. The ones you buy at the store are dry and crumbly and taste vaguely of plastic. Ew. But real corn tortillas, the homemade ones, are a total taco night game changer.
Fresh corn tortillas are soft and flexible, structurally sound, and, perhaps most importantly, don't have any hint of plasticky texture or flavor.
Actually, the most important thing is that homemade corn tortillas are extremely easy to make. But the lack of plasticky flavor is a close second.
Now, of course I must caveat that I am not Mexican or Hispanic and this is not the food of my people. I learned this recipe from Chef John over at Food Wishes who is also not, I don't think, Mexican or Hispanic. So what I'm sharing with you is what I learned from him and what I've found to be helpful for me.
making your corn tortilla dough
This dough is quite possibly the easiest thing you will ever make. I timed it and it comes together in literally 60 seconds.
First, mix together 1 cup masa harina with ½ teaspoon kosher salt. If you want, you can also add a pinch of cayenne or dried cilantro for color and flavor. Pour in ¾ cup hot (HOT!) water, and use your hand to mix until it comes together in a ball. Then, wrap it with a damp paper towel, and let it rest for 20-30 minutes.
Do you need to let it rest? Resting gives the masa harina time to fully hydrate. If you're in a rush you can skip this step, but if you can afford to, it's worth it. Right after you make the dough it might feel too wet or too dry and you'll want to adjust it right away but, given 20-30 minutes to rest and hydrate, you might find it's actually balanced perfectly.
That said, if the dough feels dry, you can add a tiny bit more water by running your hands under the faucet and kneading the dough against the sides of the bowl until the water absorbs. If the dough feels too wet and sticky, lightly dust the bowl with masa, and then smush and press and knead it together until absorbed.
The more you make corn tortillas the more familiar you'll get with your preferred dough consistency. When I make them I prefer a slightly drier dough. When Jimmy makes them he prefers a slightly wetter dough. To each their own! The tortillas will taste great either way.
dividing your tortilla dough
You're probably sick of hearing me advocate for the kitchen scale, but here we are again. You don't need one to make these, but since they're pretty small (4-5" in diameter) inexact measurements can really throw things off. Set your kitchen scale to grams so that you can be as precise as possible.
It's fine if your tortillas aren't all exact, but if you have one that's 40 grams and one that's 50 grams, you're gonna have two extremely different sized tortillas.
Weigh the large ball of dough, then divide by eight to figure out how much each dough ball should weigh. (If you, like me, aren't great at doing math in your head and you have Siri or an Alexa device, this is the perfect opportunity to put them to use.) To shape the dough balls, just tear off chunks of dough until you have the right weight, then press and smoosh to roll them into balls.
Just like when you rolled the big lump of dough into a ball, if you find that the smaller balls are crumbling apart or not sticking together as you roll, use wet hands to shape them. (As Chef John always says: "Wet hands make smooth balls.")
NOTE: Unlike in yeasted doughs (like bagels and pita pockets) where you always want to fold and stretch your dough to develop gluten, corn tortillas are gluten-free. You don't have to worry about protecting your precious gluten strands. Go ahead and smoosh, tear, and press it together.
pressing your homemade corn tortillas
If you have a tortilla press, this is easy. Even if you don't have a tortilla press, this is still pretty easy. Either way, you're going to want to have two sheets of parchment paper or a large ziplock bag (with the sides split open) on hand. If you press the dough without the paper or plastic, the tortilla dough will stick to the press and good luck trying to peel it off.
Gently flatten one of your eight dough balls and place it in the center of the tortilla press on the parchment paper or plastic sheet. Make sure whatever liner you're using is flush against the hinge of the tortilla press and any extra paper or plastic sticks out the open side where the lever is. And then just... press. It's that easy!
To peel your pressed tortilla off the plastic or paper, first peel the top layer off. Then, flip the bottom layer over so that the tortilla is on your palm and then use your other hand to gently peel the plastic off.
Troubleshooting: If the pressed tortilla is so thin and fragile it won't release from the sheet in one piece (or at all), the dough is likely too wet. Scrape the tortilla dough off the sheet, roll it back into a ball, and dust it lightly with masa harina. Let it rest while you press the other dough balls, and then try pressing it again.
The edges of a pressed tortilla should be mostly smooth with minimal jagged edges. If you're seeing lots of jagged edges, the tortilla seems to be on the thicker side, and it cracks when you try to peel it off the sheet, your dough is probably too dry. Scrape it off the sheet and use damp hands to roll it back into a ball. Then try pressing it out again.
If you don't have a tortilla press: Use two heavy books. You'll probably have to sit on the top book to get the right amount of pressure, but it totally works. Definitely don't skip the plastic/parchment paper lining on either side of your makeshift tortilla press or you'll be scraping tortilla dough off your books for weeks.
cooking your tortillas
Since you don't use any oil or cooking fats to cook your tortilla, just a bare medium-hot surface, you'll want to pick either a non-stick skillet or a well-seasoned cast iron pan. With cast iron, you're more likely to get nice dark spots and browning around the edges. With a non-stick pan, you'll get paler tortillas, but can do that fun flick-of-the-wrist to flip them when the time comes.
Whichever pan you use, you'll want to heat it to medium-high and make sure it's nice and hot before you start cooking your tortillas. You'll know your pan is hot enough when a few drops of water splashed on the surface sizzle and evaporate immediately. You can also adjust the temperature as you cook — if your tortillas are coming out pale, crank it up. If they're blackened around the edges, turn the heat down a smidge.
Now, I'm going to make the cooking part as simple as possible, because it's the step that felt the most overwhelming to me the first few times I made them:
- Gently place your tortillas in your pan
- Cook 30-45 seconds on the first side
- Cook 60 seconds on the second side
- Press & puff, let sit for 3-5 seconds
what's a "press & puff"?
In order to achieve a tortilla that is flexible and structurally sound, you need to get some steam in the middle. Press a sturdy spatula (metal preferred) flat across the surface of the tortilla and then release. The tortilla should puff up slightly as the two sides separate from each other. (Sometimes it takes a few tries to get it to puff, and some tortillas puff more dramatically than others. I've found that using the heel of the spatula works better than pressing the entire spatula flat across the tortilla.)
Once your tortillas have puffed, let them sit on the skillet a few seconds, and then transfer them into a clean dish towel to continue steaming for an additional 20-30 minutes.
Why do they need to steam after cooking? When you take your tortillas off the skillet you'll notice they're stiff and inflexible. As they steam in the dish towel, they soften and become flexible. If you skip this step you'll end up with tortillas that crack and split, instead of tortillas that fold neatly around your taco fillings.
Some practical notes:
- Prep ahead: You can make the dough ahead of time and leave it in the fridge (with a damp paper towel) for up to 3 days. Refrigerated dough can be a little harder to press, and is more prone to cracking, than freshly made dough, so it's better to do this with a slightly wetter dough, or to let the dough come back to room temp before pressing them.
- Prep during: I know it's annoying that there's two periods of 20-30 minutes where you have to let the dough rest, but those time windows are actually perfect for making your taco fillings and toppings. Time it right and everything will be ready to eat at the same time.
- Be efficient: If you find you're pressing tortillas faster than you're cooking them, cut some pieces of parchment paper to hold the uncooked tortillas. You'll need a separate piece per tortilla or else you'll run into trouble when you go to flip them off the paper and onto your hand.
Recommended tools for homemade corn tortillas
- 8" tortilla press
- Gallon ziplock bag or parchment paper
- Kitchen scale
- Sturdy spatula
- Large cast iron skillet or griddle or small non-stick skillet
- Clean dish towel or tea towel
- Large bowl for mixing
homemade corn tortillas
- 1 quart resealable freezer bags
- Sturdy spatula
- 1 cup masa harina
- ¾ cup hot tap water (not boiling water)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
- Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl with your hand. Pour hot tap water into the bowl and continue mixing with your hand until it combines into a dough. Shape it into a ball.It should feel cohesive, like playdough, but might be a little crumbly. If it feels too crumbly, or won't stick together, simply wet your hands and shape it again.Loosely wrap the dough ball in a damp paper towel and let it sit for 15-20 minutes so the dough can fully hydrate.
- When the dough is ready, use a kitchen scale to divide the dough into 8 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, and place them back in the bowl, under the damp paper towel.
- Heat your preferred pan (non-stick or cast iron preferred) to medium-high heat. The skillet should be so hot that when you flick a drop of water on it, it sizzles and evaporates almost immediately.
- Take one of the pieces of dough, flatten it gently between your palms, and place it in the center of a tortilla press between two sheets of plastic or parchment paper (a quart ziplock bag with the sides split open works well here) and press down to flatten into a disc.If you don’t have a tortilla press, you can use two heavy books to press your tortillas. Press hard, you may even need to sit on the books.
- Peel your tortilla off the plastic or parchment paper and transfer it to the hot skillet. Cook for 30-45 seconds.
- Flip the tortilla over and cook for an additional 60 seconds.
- Flip the tortilla over one more time and use your spatula to press down on the center of the tortilla to make it puff up. Let it sit like that for 3-5 seconds.You may find this works better if you use the heel of the spatula, or you may need to press a few times. Some tortillas puff more dramatically than others, so don’t expect a huge balloon — even a gentle sigh of a puff will do.
- Transfer the tortilla to a clean dishtowel, and loosely wrap the towel around it to let it steam and soften.Repeat with the rest of your tortilla dough.
- When all tortillas are cozily nestled in their warm dishtowel, let them sit an additional 15-20 minutes to finish steaming before serving. This is the perfect time to prep any taco toppings.
- If you find you’re making tortillas faster than you’re cooking them, cut a few pieces of parchment paper and transfer the pressed tortillas to them to wait for their turn in the skillet.
- Prep time includes time for the dough to rest before shaping. Cook time includes time for steaming. If you’re really in a rush, you can skip the 15-20 minute pre-shape rest and press the tortillas right away — you may find they’re a little dry, so just use wet hands to shape the dough balls.