|Tortillas as needed (how to make masa)|
To make fresh masa, you first need to make nixtamal.
Nixtamal is dried field corn soaked in, and heated in, a solution of slaked lime and water. Slaked lime, calcium hydroxide, is generally available in the form of "builder's lime" -- not to be confused with unslaked lime, calcium oxide. Unslaked lime can't be used for making nixtamal unless you slake it first by adding it to water, allowing it to bubble and then stand for a bit, and then using the WATER for processing the dried corn. It's the lime, by the way, that contributes to the unique taste and texture of corn tortillas. After the corn has soaked for the required length of time (depending on whether making nixtamal for masa or pozole), it's rinsed to remove the lime and then rubbed to remove the husks.
Mix lime and water in a large, non reactive (enamel or stainless steel) pot. Place pot over high heat and stir until lime is disolved. Add corn and, stiring occasionally, bring to a boil. If making nixtamal for masa to make tortillas, boil for a couple of minutes, remove from heat, cover and let soak overnight. If making nixtamal to make masa for tamales, boil for about 15 minutes, remove from heat, cover and let soak for a couple of hours. If making nixtamal for pozole, boil for 15 minutes and let soak for another 5 to 10 minutes. After soaking for the desired length of time, rinse the corn in a colander to remove all traces of the lime while rubbing the kernals to remove the softened hulls. Once cleaned, the nixtamal can then be ground into masa or left whole to be further simmered until tender to make hominy for pozole or menudo.
Making tortillas using fresh masa or masa harina...
Masa harina is fresh masa that's been dried and then ground into a flour-like consistency, to make masa harina you must first make masa. Masa harina is similar to, but not the same as, fine ground cornmeal. Trying to make corn tortillas out of regular cornmeal, even finely ground, would probably be unsatisfying. I suppose it would be possible to make nixtamal for tortillas, grind it into masa, dry it, grind it again and then re-hydrate it to make tortillas. But why not just make fresh masa from nixtamal and then make tortillas with it. Both nixtamal and masa can be frozen for later use.
If you wanted to be authentic, you could use a metate (a flat stone made from lava rock) and mano (sorta like a flattened, oval shaped rolling pin also made from lava rock) to grind the corn into masa...but a plate-style grain mill is a lot easier. My hand cranked Corona brand does double duty...I not only use it for masa but also for grinding grain, malted barley and other specialty malts for homebrewing. For tortilla dough, you need to adjust the plates for a fine grind to come up with a smooth dough that isn't grity. Tamales can be made from masa ground a little coarser allowing the use of a food processor if a plate mill isn't available. It might be possible to use a food processor for tortilla dough, but I doubt you would end up with the smooth consistency desirable for tortillas. After the nixtamal has been put through the mill, water should be worked into the masa as needed to make a medium-soft consistency dough. Hand-patting tortilla dough is an art in itself and the necessary skill takes a long time to learn (I tried it, but gave up out of frustration). A rolling pin can be used, but a tortilla press works better. I have both a cast iron and an aluminum press, but I don't see why one couldn't use a couple pieces of hardwood and a hinge to fabricate a viable substitute for a storebought press.
Tortillas de Maiz
Gradually knead the masa into a smooth consistency, pushing with the heal of the hand (3 to 5 minutes should be sufficient depending on whether using fresh masa or reconstitued masa harina). Wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic wrap to keep it from drying out. Place a comal or heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Break off a piece of the dough about the size of a golf ball and pat it a few times to partially flatten it. Place the ball of dough between a folded sheet of polyethylene (wax paper could probably be used in place of the plastic) on a tortilla press (a little off center towards the hinge) and press hard. Remove the tortilla from the press and peel off the plastic. If the dough has the correct amount of water, the plastic will peel easily off the tortilla. If the plastic sticks, the dough is too moist. If the tortilla cracks around the edges, the dough is to dry. Place the tortilla on the hot, ungreased comal and bake until the edges start to dry (about 30 seconds). Flip and bake until lightly speckled on the underside (about 1 minute). Flip a second time and bake for about 30 seconds more. As the tortillas come off the comal, they should be wrapped together in a towel to keep them soft and warm. The side that's up after the second flip is considered the inside...where the filling would go if making tacos, flautas, enchiladas, or whatever.
To be honest, fresh nixtamal and masa (as well as fresh tortillas) are so easy to find in So. Calif. I don't have to go through all that hassle (although, I do usually buy fresh nixtamal to grind into masa for making tamales). But for those who aren't so lucky, the above process should take care of the situation. Good luck in your efforts...
From: Rich McCormack (Poway, CA)
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