Yes, many Mexicans do make their own tortillas at home. Handmade tortillas are an integral part of traditional Mexican cuisine and culture. Fresh, warm homemade tortillas are preferred over store-bought by many for their superior texture and flavor.
Why Make Tortillas from Scratch?
There are several reasons why making tortillas from scratch at home is common practice in Mexico:
- Tradition – Tortilla making has been passed down for generations as part of Mexican culture and family traditions.
- Quality – Freshly made tortillas taste far superior to store-bought. The texture is soft and pliable yet strong enough to use for tacos, etc.
- Cost – Homemade tortillas are much cheaper than buying pre-made ones.
- Control – Making them at home allows control over the ingredient quality and flavor.
- Pride – There is a sense of satisfaction and pride in making tortillas the traditional way.
The Tortilla Making Process
While corn is the traditional grain, tortillas can also be made from wheat flour. Here is the basic process for making corn tortillas by hand:
- Nixtamalize corn – The dried corn kernels are cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater or food-grade lime and water. This unlocks the nutrients in corn and makes the kernels easier to grind.
- Grind masa – The nixtamalized corn is ground into a fine, dough-like paste called masa. This is traditionally done with a stone grinder called a metate.
- Knead the masa – Water is gradually added and kneaded into the masa until it reaches the proper consistency – smooth, soft and lightly sticky.
- Form tortillas – The masa is rolled into balls and flattened into rounds using a tortilla press between sheets of plastic or wax paper.
- Cook on a comal – The raw tortillas are cooked on a flat griddle called a comal until lightly browned and puffed.
Tortillas are best consumed immediately while still warm. Leftovers can be wrapped in a clean towel to preserve freshness for a day or two.
Flour Tortilla Method
Flour tortillas are made using a simple dough of wheat flour, salt, baking powder, shortening or lard, and water. The ingredients are combined into a pliable dough, then rolled flat and cooked like corn tortillas.
Who Makes Tortillas at Home in Mexico?
Making tortillas is a common practice across Mexico and woven into the cultural fabric. Many Mexican families make tortillas at home regularly for their own consumption. Some key facts:
- Women are predominantly the ones who make tortillas, as part of their domestic duties.
- Frequent tortilla making starts early – daughters learn when they are young girls.
- Daily tortilla output can be 100+ for a large family!
- Making them is considered part of a good wife’s/mother’s responsibility in many traditional households.
- Some families make tortillas multiple times a day to ensure freshness.
That said, not all Mexicans make their own. Store-bought tortillas have become more common with modernization, though homemade remains preferred.
In some Mexican towns, families bring their masa to community tortilla workshops. Large electric or gas-fired machines press the tortillas, which speeds production. This allows the women to socialize and share the workload while still making homemade tortillas.
Tortilla Making Equipment
Handmade tortilla making does not require fancy contraptions. Here are some traditional tools used:
|Metate||Stone grinding tool for nixtamalized corn into masa|
|Molcajete||Lava stone mortar and pestle for grinding|
|Tortilla press||Wood or metal press for flattening balls of masa into tortillas|
|Comal||Round flat griddle for cooking tortillas|
|Plastic or wax paper||Sheets placed on both sides of masa ball when using tortilla press|
|Tortilla warmer||Insulated container for keeping cooked tortillas warm|
|Towels or basket||For storing leftover tortillas to keep fresh|
With minimal equipment, the entire process can be done by hand. Electric grinders, presses and griddles make large batches faster.
Cultural Significance of Homemade Tortillas
Beyond just being a staple food, tortillas hold cultural importance in Mexico:
- Tortilla making has ritualistic and sentimental value, passed between generations as tradition.
- Women take pride in their tortilla making skills – a good tortilla is a mark of a capable wife or mother.
- “Tortillera” is used both as a term of endearment and critique for women.
- Offering fresh tortillas shows love and caring for family and guests.
- Tortillas bring people together – making and sharing them forms community.
- Corn was regarded as a gift from the gods and central to Mesoamerican cosmologies.
As Mexican author Octavio Paz wrote: “the autonomous and sacred world of the tortilla.”
Threats to the Tradition
Despite the strong tradition, the practice of homemade tortilla making is declining in some areas due to:
- Convenience of store-bought tortillas
- Lack of desire or time among younger generations
- Disappearance of traditional corn varieties
- Competition from large factories producing low-priced tortillas
Many Mexicans lament this loss, as it risks the cultural, social, and culinary essence of tortillas.
Are Tortillas Always Made at Home?
While homemade tortillas are still common, not all Mexicans make their own today. Here are some scenarios where store-bought tortillas are used:
- In large cities, many buy factory-made tortillas for convenience.
- Young people may not know how or have little interest in learning.
- Smaller families may not need to produce many tortillas regularly.
- Those without time or desire may opt for store-bought versions.
- Non-traditional households may not uphold the custom.
- Tourists and visitors rely on restaurants, taquerias, shops etc.
Despite growing modernization, handmade tortillas are still a hallmark of Mexican cooking for most.
When Homemade Tortillas Persist
Traditional homemade tortillas persist strongly in many areas, especially:
- Rural areas and small towns preserving cultural customs.
- Lower income households where homemade is cheaper.
- Older generations maintaining food traditions.
- Households who take pride in tradition and want control over quality.
- Families who grow/process their own heirloom corn.
Additionally, special occasions, holidays and family events call for homemade tortillas even in modern homes.
Tortilla Etiquette and Customs
Proper tortilla etiquette is ingrained from a young age in Mexico:
- Never throw away or waste tortillas – it is considered deeply offensive.
- Eat any dropped pieces immediately to show respect.
- Letting homemade tortillas go to waste can bring a scolding!
- The eldest are served tortillas first as a sign of honor.
- Dropping a tortilla should be followed by asking for a blessing from those present.
- Tortillas should only be flipped or moved with utensils, not touched by hand.
Following such etiquette shows reverence for the cultural and spiritual importance of tortillas.
Nutrition of Homemade Corn Tortillas
Freshly nixtamalized corn and handmade tortillas have nutritional advantages over industrial factory tortillas:
- Corn is alkalinized in mineral-rich limewater, adding calcium, iron, zinc and niacin.
- Essential amino acids like lysine and tryptophan become more available for absorption.
- The bran and germ are retained instead of stripped away.
- There is more flavor allowing less salt to be added.
- No preservatives or additives are required.
- GMO-free heirloom corn varieties can provide superior nutrition.
With obesity on the rise, many nutritionists in Mexico are encouraging a return to traditional homemade tortillas and corn preparation.
Downsides of Commercial Tortillas
Industrially-made tortillas often have less nutritional value:
- Made from dry masa flour instead of fresh wet-milled.
- Masa is from degermed corn losing nutrients.
- Preservatives added to prolong shelf life.
- Higher in additives and processing aids.
- Higher glycemic index impacting blood sugar.
- Less flavor encouraging more salt use.
Overall, homemade tortillas made properly are more nutritious than commercial ones.
Global Spread of Tortillas
The tradition of homemade tortillas is not limited to just Mexico. Globally, tortillas are also made by hand at home by:
- Central American communities preserving the Mayan/Aztec food legacy.
- Salvadoran, Honduran, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan families.
- Hispanic communities in the United States and Europe.
- Asian and African nations influenced by Mexican culinary traditions.
- Enthusiasts interested in Mexican cuisine and ancient grains.
However, no one outside of Mexico can replicate the true cultural essence surrounding tortillas.
Threats to Traditional Homemade Tortillas
Despite a long history and cultural significance, homemade tortillas face threats in Mexico from:
- Urbanization leading to loss of traditional lifestyles.
- Influence of modern supermarket culture favoring convenience.
- Competition from cheap industrial factory-made tortillas.
- Disinterest among younger generations in learning.
- Loss of heirloom corn diversity from modern agriculture.
- Drought and climate pressures on smallholder corn farmers.
Many organizations are working to protect both the cultural traditions and native corn varieties surrounding tortillas.
Preserving Mexico’s Tortilla Tradition
Efforts are being made to preserve homemade tortilla culture in Mexico:
- Teaching youth about their culinary heritage.
- Supporting smallholder farmers growing native corn.
- Promoting ancestral preparation methods like nixtamalization.
- Reviving artisanal practices with apprenticeships and workshops.
- Creating GI designations to protect regional specialties.
- Organizing festivals celebrating storied tortilla varieties.
Education and pride in tradition offer hope of maintaining this element of Mexico’s living cultural heritage. As Mexican chef Ricardo Muñoz puts it: “a Mexico without tortillas is not Mexico.”
Making tortillas by hand at home persists as an important tradition in Mexico passed between generations. More than just a food, tortillas hold cultural, spiritual, social and emotional significance tied closely with identity. Fresh homemade tortillas integrate families and communities through recipes spanning centuries. Yet the custom faces threats in modern times from industrialization and fading interest among youth. Many hope that by honoring the ancestral wisdom surrounding tortillas, this cherished tradition will continue nourishing people both physically and culturally.