Choosing the Perfect Tortilla Press

81oH3xJUE3L._SL1500_When we moved into our house back in 1998, we used to frequent a neighborhood Mexican restaurant down the street. The decor in this place had accrued like barnacles over the many years it was in business: dusty paper flags, Dia de los Muertos trinkets, waiters with pompadours wearing toreador outfits, and mirrors, lots and lots of mirrors. When you had their stiff margaritas (the strongest in town) the room would spin. Combined with those mirrors, the effect was unintentionally psychedelic. The food? A commentator on a local blog that covered the restaurant’s recent closing described it as, “like ‘Taco Tuesday’ at an elementary school in Kansas.”

One of the many reasons the food at this place was substandard was the store bought tortillas they used. For some reasons, few Mexican restaurants here make their own tortillas. Tired of substandard Mexican fare, I resolved to make my own tortillas. Thus began Root Simple’s “Taco Tuesday.”

The first step was to find a tortilla press. I got a great tip from a library cookbook: get a cast iron tortilla press. Unlike the flimsy ones I found at our local market, a cast iron press will last several lifetimes. And their heft helps when it comes time to press the masa into discs. And I opted for the smaller, 6 1/2 inch press as small tortillas are used in authentic Mexican street food.

Making corn tortillas is much simpler than I expected. All you do is get masa harina (a limed corn flour), mix it roughly 50/50 with water and let the dough rest for a half hour to an hour. Next, you roll the masa into little 2 inch balls and press them between a plastic bag inserted into the tortilla press. The last step is to heat them on the stove for one minute on each side.

Making your own masa from scratch is much harder (I tried it once for tamales and found that it’s a job best outsourced). But you can bet I’ve bought my last supermarket corn tortilla. From now on they’ll be made in our own cast iron press.

Update: One of the members of the LA Bread Bakers, Gloria, put her vote in for the traditional wood press. Cooks Illustrated Magazine also recommends a wood press. Gloria also sent along the following video which shows how you can make your own wood tortilla press:

In the next edition of Taco Tuesday, I’ll describe what we’ve been serving in our tacos.

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  1. We have been unable to prevent sticking, even with saran wrap. But I guess saran wrap is not a plastic bag….

    • Yep, saran wrap just doesn’t work. It has to be a ziplock type bag, cut open. I guess it’s the weight. I’m not wild about the necessity, but it can be reused many times. Just last night I was complaining about the plastic, asking what folks did before ziplock. (greased the press? or why not skip the press and learn to make them by hand?) This morning, though, we got a tip about wooden presses that may not need plastic assistance. Erik is updating the post right now.

    • I’m afraid the wood presses use plastic too. In pre-plastic days folks used their hands to make tortillas. Skill over tool.

    • I wonder what the scientific measurement of unstickiness is.

      I wonder what wood, impregnated with oil, would measure on that scale.

    • Okay, stickiness is measured in adhesion or tack.

      Materials with “low energy” or “low surface energy” are less sticky.

      This page has a chart and an interesting formula on stickiness. It shows Polypropylene and polyethylene as being the same stickiness.

      This image (sorry it is so small) shows Polypropylene being less sticky than Polyethylene.–

      Neither shows the difference between High and Low Density PE.

      Ziploc bags are made from LDPE, so they are pretty good. Saran wrap is often made from PVC, which is more sticky than PE.

      Now, the question would be whether HDPE is better than LDPE and whether PP is better than either of those.

      Milk jugs are often made from HDPE or PP, so scrounging through the recycling would be a good start.

      The flat-sided five-gallon pails might be HDPE.

      So perhaps one could cut plastic liners from one of these things and see how it goes. I guess the milk jug would be the easiest place to start, as they are pretty thin and would fit in an existing press.

    • Ruben–thank you so much for the research! A fascinating topic I’ve never thought about but all of us encounter everyday. I like the milk jug idea a lot.

    • oops! Found it in the spam file. Strange, because usually wordpress holds link-rich comments for our approval, rather than trashing it. Anyway, thanks for the research! Sounds like plastic disks could be a good solution for this uh…sticky problem.

  2. While I have absolutely no need for a tortilla in my life, I did find the making of the wood press fascinating. As for stickiness of the dough, would the cast iron handle that? Or, maybe it is the hot cast iron that works best, not an option here.

    Maybe using the side of a milk jug might not be best since the porous nature of milk jugs can never be washed completely clean. It seems the jug can hold pathogens and food/milk in the pores.

    How about using the top of a Quaker Oats box? You would have to cut the rim off, but some kind of lid might work better.

    I wonder if waxed paper or cloth might work so the dough does not stick. You might have to try different types of cloth. Would flouring the cloth adversely affect the outcome of the tortilla? For baking, the cloth is floured first to make the surface of the cloth where the dough won’t stick. The flour can be barely applied. Then, the dough cloth can be stored in the refrigerator instead of being washed after each use.

    If traditional handmade tortillas are made with floured hands, maybe the flour taste on the tortilla is not a bad thing.

  3. Pingback: Lila Downs Video Showing Tortilla Making in Oaxaca | Root Simple

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