Corn tortillas are a staple food in Mexican and Central American cuisine. They are thin, unleavened flatbreads made from cornmeal or masa harina. Corn tortillas have a rich history and are an integral part of many traditional dishes. But what exactly are corn tortillas good for? Here are some of the main uses and benefits of corn tortillas.
Making Tacos, Tostadas, and Other Foods
One of the most common uses for corn tortillas is making tacos, tostadas, and other Mexican foods. Soft corn tortillas are perfect for making tacos. They can be lightly warmed and folded or rolled around meats, beans, cheese, lettuce, and other taco fillings. Crispy corn tortillas are better for making tostadas, which are open-faced tacos topped with ingredients. Corn tortillas are also used for making enchiladas, flautas, taquitos, and more.
The pliability of fresh corn tortillas allows them to be folded and shaped around fillings easily. And when pan-fried, they develop a crispy texture perfect for holding hefty toppings. So corn tortillas are essentially the foundation of classic Mexican street foods and dishes.
Making Wraps, Rolls, and Sandwiches
In addition to Mexican foods, corn tortillas can substitute for wraps, bread, or buns to make rolls, sandwiches, and more. Fill softened corn tortillas with sliced deli meats, cheese, lettuce, and condiments for a quick and easy wrap. Or use them to make veggie rolls filled with rice, beans, avocado, and salsa. The small and flat shape of corn tortillas makes them perfect for rolling up fillings of all kinds into portable wraps.
For sandwiches, stack two tortillas with fillings like eggs, chorizo, peppers, and cheese for a hearty Latin American style breakfast sandwich. Or top crispy fried tortillas with pulled pork, coleslaw, and barbecue sauce for tacos Dorados. The mild corn flavor and tender but sturdy texture when warmed makes corn tortillas suitable for both savory and sweet sandwiches.
Serving as a Base for Appetizers
Corn tortillas also serve as a great base for appetizers. Cut them into triangles and fry them for homemade tortilla chips to serve with salsa and guacamole. Wrap them around cheese, chicken, or beef and bake into flavorful rolls called flautas or taquitos. Slice them into strips to make chilaquiles – tortilla chips simmered in salsa. Stack them into “tostadas” and top with beans, lettuce, cheese, and more for an open-faced crisp tortilla snack or appetizer.
Soft corn tortillas are also perfect for making small tacos or sopes as appetizers. Their flexibility allows them to hold a variety of savory party fillings from queso and chorizo to shrimp ceviche. They are sturdier than crackers for scooping up dips like bean dip, salsa, and guacamole as well.
Making Casseroles and Layered Dishes
Tortillas lend themselves well to making casserole and baked dishes. Cut them into strips and layer the strips in pans alternately with sauces, meats, beans, salsa, and cheese to make stacked enchiladas, chilaquiles, and tortilla lasagnas. Mix broken tortilla chips or torn up soft tortillas into ground meat or chicken filling for a casserole called chilaquiles. Soak tortillas in sauce and layer them with more sauce, cheese, and other ingredients for dishes like tortilla pie and tortilla tart.
The added thickness and soft texture corn tortillas provide makes them perfect for casseroles. They hold up well to baking and add an extra layer of corn masa flavor. Both crisp and softened tortillas can be layered or mixed into a variety of tasty baked dishes and lasagnas.
Thickening Soups, Stews, and Chili
Adding pieces of corn tortillas to soups, stews, and chili helps thicken the broth. The natural masa in corn tortillas works as a thickening agent. Simply tear up day old corn tortillas into pieces and add them to simmering soups and stews. They break down and release their corn masa to give the broth more body.
This technique is used in many Latin American soups and stews like pozole, menudo, and caldo de res. The soft pieces of tortilla also provide an extra corn boost to complement the other flavors. For chili, lightly fry tortilla pieces in oil before adding them for even more thickness and texture.
Uses for Leftover and Stale Tortillas
Stale or leftover corn tortillas don’t have to go to waste. Besides using them for soup thickeners, there are many ways to repurpose corn tortillas past their prime. Turn them into crunchy taco shells by frying them into a U-shape. Make tortilla chips by slicing and baking them until crispy. Use them for chilaquiles by simmering tortilla pieces in salsa.
Break up stale corn tortillas and add them to meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, and breading for extra texture. Blend them into powder to make homemade tortilla flour. Turn them into breadcrumbs for coating fish, chicken, and more. With some creativity, leftover tortillas can be put to good use in both sweet and savory dishes.
Along with their versatility, corn tortillas have some good nutritional value. Here are some of their health benefits:
- Corn tortillas are naturally gluten-free, making them a good option for anyone avoiding gluten.
- They are lower in calories, fat, and carbohydrates compared to flour tortillas.
- Corn tortillas contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals like folate, thiamine, zinc, and magnesium.
- The corn masa provides antioxidants that may help reduce inflammation.
- They have a low glycemic index, meaning they don’t spike blood sugar levels as much as other carbs.
The corn itself provides vitamin C, lutein, zeaxanthin and flavonoids as well. So enjoying corn tortillas as part of an overall healthy diet can provide nutritional benefits.
Taste and Texture
Of course, one of the best things about corn tortillas is their distinctive taste and texture. They have a sweet, nutty corn flavor from the masa harina or freshly ground cornmeal. The masa gives them a smooth, almost doughy texture that stays pliable when warm.
And while corn tortillas steam up soft and pillowy, they can also get nice and crispy when fried. This combination of soft and crispy textures makes them so versatile in recipes. Their naturally sweet corn taste also complements both savory and sweet ingredients.
Easy to Make Fresh
While corn tortillas can be purchased ready-made, they are also very easy to make fresh at home. Homemade tortillas have an even richer corn flavor and soft texture straight off the comal. All you need is masa harina, water, and a tortilla press to shape the dough into discs.
The fresh masa flavor of homemade tortillas is worth the small effort to press and cook them yourself. You can shape and cook them as needed for tacos, enchiladas, and more. Going the homemade route allows you to control ingredients and customize sizes as well.
Corn tortillas are one of the most affordable bread options around. Packages of ready-made corn tortillas can cost between $1-$3 depending on brand and quantity, making them cheaper than loaves of bread. Even high quality, organic tortillas typically cost less than $5 per package.
Making them from scratch at home using masa harina or cornmeal is even more economical. The ingredients to make dozens of corn tortillas only runs a few dollars total. Their low cost makes corn tortillas accessible for all budgets.
Long Shelf Life and Freezing
Properly stored, corn tortillas will stay fresh in the fridge or pantry for 1-2 weeks. They can also be frozen for much longer storage. Place unused corn tortillas in a sealed container or zip top bag. Refrigerating helps retain their signature pliable texture longer.
To freeze, wrap tortillas tightly in foil or plastic wrap in stacks with parchment paper between. Frozen tortillas can be thawed at room temperature and briefly reheated to restore their softness and warmth. The ability to buy packages of tortillas and freeze extras helps reduce waste.
Versatility in Both Sweet and Savory Dishes
While known more for savory dishes, corn tortillas can also be adapted for sweet recipes. Layer them with cinnamon, fruit, and cream cheese for a sweet breakfast casserole. Top them with melted chocolate and nuts for tortilla nachos dulce. Cut them into chips and serve with ice cream instead of salsa. Fry them into taco shells and fill with fruit, whipped cream, and caramel sauce.
The mild corn sweetness gives them versatility for desserts as well. Shape leftover corn tortilla dough into cookies, empanadas, or bake into a tart crust. With a touch of creativity, corn tortillas find a perfect sweet spot in addition to their well-known savory applications.
Naturally Vegetarian and Vegan
Corn tortillas make an ideal wrap, sandwich base, thickener, and baking ingredient for vegetarian and vegan diets. Their simple traditional ingredients of corn, water, and lime contain no animal products. Ready-made versions seldom include dairy, eggs, or animal fat either.
Meatless recipes can benefit from the protein and nutrients in corn tortillas. Their neutral flavor and hearty texture when warmed complement vegetables, beans, rice, hummus, and more. Tacos, enchiladas, rolls, and casseroles call for corn over flour tortillas to keep things veggie-friendly.
Traditional Culinary Uses
No discussion of corn tortillas is complete without talking about their significance in Mexican and Central American cuisine. They have been a staple in the region dating back to ancient Aztec and Mayan times. Traditional dishes rely on fresh corn tortillas as a core ingredient and cooking vessel.
Some authentic ways corn tortillas are used include tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, sopes, chilaquiles, molotes, huaraches, papadzules, and many more. Their importance in Mexican gastronomy earned tortillas recognition by UNESCO for intangible cultural heritage.
Bring Interest to Leftovers
Have leftover taco meat, roasted veggies, or chicken dishes? Wrap them in warm corn tortillas to instantly give leftovers new life. The versatility of tortillas allows you to transform leftovers into tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, sandwiches, and other quick meals.
Keep corn tortillas on hand specifically for revamping leftovers into quick lunches and dinners. Even plain rice and beans become more interesting when stuffed into a warm tortilla. Add some lettuce, tomato, cheese, or salsa to meal prep staples to assemble fast, fresh wraps.
Corn tortillas make excellent kid-friendly food. Children love foods they can pick up and eat with their hands. Soft or crispy tortillas are perfect for little hands and less messy than slices of bread. Roll up fillings inside tortillas for easy finger food.
Kids also love building their own tacos, wraps, and rolled tortillas. Set out baked tortilla bowls, strips or squares along with prepared fillings for DIY dinners. The fun shapes and versatility of tortillas encourage kids to consume healthy fillings. For lunchboxes, wrap tortillas around veggies, cheese, sliced meat or peanut butter.
Corn tortillas are so much more than just a flatbread. Their versatility in the kitchen is practically endless. They can be served soft, fried into crispy shells, baked, toasted, layered, rolled or folded. Tortillas work well as the foundation for appetizers, snacks, entrees, and even desserts.
With their pliability, affordability, long shelf life, and kid-friendly qualities, corn tortillas are a pantry staple. They provide a neutral yet slightly sweet corn flavor and sturdy texture perfect for both savory and sweet applications. From their important role in Hispanic cuisine to uses in global recipes, corn tortillas are an indispensable kitchen staple.