How to make corn tortillas without plastic

Corn tortillas were originally prepared from nixtamalized corn ground in a mill to make a dough. Today it’s simpler to make tortillas with instant corn flour, known as masa harina.

I started making corn tortillas long before I’d ever heard the term zero waste. My friend Christine taught me. I made them because they tasted good and were pretty simple to make. I continue to make them because they save me buying small packets of tortillas in plastic, and they taste so good when fresh.

zero waste tortillas

A tortilla press was the first piece of kitchen equipment I bought when I moved to Sydney, which I justified by making tortillas all the time. You don’t need to buy a press if you’re just experimenting – more on that later. I found a few places to source masa harina in paper rather than plastic. A one kilogram bag runs $6 and makes at least 60 tortillas (I make them smaller, so more still) and I can whip them up whenever I want.

It took trial and error to make them completely plastic free, since the usual method is to line the tortilla press with soft plastic. I’d clean and reuse the same ziploc bag, but still. Turns out that when my dough making skills I improved, I was able to switch to using parchment (I use a compostable brand). I’ve also tried without anything lining the press, but with no luck.

Ingredients for corn tortillas

  • 1 cup masa harina (instant corn flour)
  • 1 cup very warm water
  • pinch of salt

Some add a tablespoon of fat. I find it works either way. Alternatively, follow the recipe on the masa harina package. Some may differ slightly. It’s actually best to look at the dough texture as your guide and err on the side of less water, since you can always add more if it’s too dry.

Equipment to make corn tortillas

  • Tortilla press or try a baking sheet or a plate pressed onto a chopping board, or two baking sheets. If you’ve been to Mexico or any SoCal food market, you may have seen thicker style tortillas pressed by hand.
  • Sheet of compostable parchment paper, folded.
  • Cast iron pan or griddle.
  • Tortilla warmer or a bamboo steamer and tea towel. I scored this tortilla warmer from the local Vinnies for $4, and have seem them twice more secondhand. Anything is possible!

Method to make corn tortillas

To make the dough, combine the dry ingredients, then add the very warm, nearly hot water and mix with a fork.

It’ll start crumbly, but don’t add more water, just keep working the dough.

Knead the dough in the bowl until it resembles fresh playdough, which should take about a minute. Test by making a ball the size of a golf ball and squishing it – it shouldn’t crack.

Cover and let the dough sit for at least 20 minutes in the fridge, but an hour is better. You want the flour to fully rehydrate. I think chilling the dough might help the tortilla to puff up in the pan. You don’t need plastic wrap to cover. You could use a beeswax wrap, a damp cloth, or put the dough in an enclosed container, like I did.

To cook the tortillas, make balls from the rested dough. I like smaller tortillas, so my balls are ¾ of the size of a golf ball. Place the parchment on the press so it covers both sides and put the ball between the sheets and then press.

Remove the flattened tortilla by peeling it away from the parchment. If it’s difficult to peel away from the parchment, it could be you’ve pressed it too thinly. Just gather up the dough, roll into a ball and try again.

Place the tortilla onto the hot cast iron pan or griddle plate of a barbecue for about a minute. Flip to the second side for 30 seconds, then flip back to the first side. Now, press gently down on the centre of the tortilla with your finger to encourage the tortilla to puff. The puff tells you it’s nicely cooked through, but I don’t always achieve it.

Hard to see, but it was starting to puff here..

Remove from the pan and wrap in a tea towel inside a tortilla warmer or a bamboo steamer. The steaming it gets makes it pliable and keeps your tortillas warm.

Enjoy!

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