Mexican flatbread comes in many varieties with different names depending on the region. Some of the most common names for Mexican flatbread include tortilla, sopapilla, gordita, sopaipilla, tlacoyo, and more. These flatbreads can vary in ingredients, preparation methods, and use. Tortillas, one of the most well-known types of Mexican flatbread, are made from corn or wheat flour and are a staple accompaniment to many Mexican dishes.
What is Mexican Flatbread?
Mexican flatbread refers to unleavened bread made from corn, wheat, or a blend of the two flours that is flattened into thin, flat discs or ovals. These breads can vary in size from 4 inches across to over a foot wide. While corn tortillas are most common, flour tortillas have become popular as well, especially in Northern Mexico and the United States. Regardless of main ingredient, Mexican flatbreads are generally made by mixing the flour with water to form a dough, kneading briefly, then pressing or rolling the dough flat before cooking.
Common Types of Mexican Flatbread
There are many different varieties of Mexican flatbread, each with their own unique names, ingredients, and uses. Some of the most popular include:
Corn tortillas are the quintessential and most well-known Mexican flatbread. To make them, dried corn is soaked and cooked in limewater, which helps remove the tough outer hull. The kernels are then ground into a paste called masa which is formed into balls and pressed flat. Corn tortillas have a rustic texture and appearance and a distinct sweet corn flavor. They are used for making tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, and many other dishes.
Flour tortillas are made from wheat flour and are softer and fluffier than their corn counterparts. They were created in Northern Mexico where wheat grows more easily than corn. Flour tortillas have become popular outside of Mexico as well. They work wonderfully for burritos, soft tacos, and quesadillas.
Sopaipillas are puffy fried pastries typically made in a disc or rectangular shape. They are often served as a snack, dessert, or side dish with honey. Sopaipillas are made by deep frying a wheat dough until crispy and golden brown.
Gorditas, meaning “little fat ones”, are thick corn flatbreads that are stuffed with fillings like cheese, shredded chicken, or refried beans. They are baked until the dough is cooked through and the fillings melted.
Sope or Tlacoyo
Sopes and tlacoyos are thick, doughy oval corn flatbreads that are pinched up around the edges to form a rim. They are topped with ingredients like beans, lettuce, cheese, meat, salsa, and crema.
Tlayudas are large thin Oaxacan corn tortillas that are grilled or griddled until crisp. They are topped with ingredients like refried beans, Oaxaca cheese, salsa, and shredded meat.
Ingredients in Mexican Flatbread
While corn and wheat flours are the main ingredients in most Mexican flatbread doughs, many other ingredients can be added to enhance flavor and texture:
Small amounts of lard or vegetable shortening give the dough pliability and softness. Bacon fat is also sometimes used for flavor.
Baking Powder and Salt:
Leavening agents like baking powder help flour tortillas puff up slightly. Salt enhances overall flavor.
Ingredients like garlic, onion, cilantro, spices, or cheese can be kneaded into some doughs for extra flavor.
Fillings and Toppings:
In addition to the dough itself, items like beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cheese, meat, and salsa are key components.
The Process of Making Mexican Flatbread
While there are variations depending on the exact type of flatbread, the basic process is similar for most:
1. Mix and knead the dough:
Combine flour, water, and any other ingredients until it forms a pliable dough. Knead briefly to develop the gluten.
2. Allow the dough to rest:
Letting the dough rest allows time for the flour to fully hydrate and the gluten to relax, making it easier to press out.
Use a tortilla press lined with plastic or waxed paper to press the dough into thin rounds.
Traditionally, tortillas are cooked one at a time on a hot comal griddle. Modern methods include skillet cooking or baking.
5. Adding fillings/toppings:
For gorditas, sopas, tlacoyos, and tlayudas, fillings and toppings are added after cooking the flat dough.
The History of Mexican Flatbread
Flatbreads made from corn have been a staple food in Mexico for thousands of years, dating back to indigenous civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, and others. Corn was domesticated in Mexico around 10,000 years ago and quickly became an essential crop.
The Origins of Corn Tortillas:
Corn tortillas emerged as a way to effectively use nixtamalized corn, in which the kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution to remove the hard hull and make the nutrients more accessible. This technique dates back at least 1200-1500 years. Ancient Aztecs and Mayans used stone tools and hand grinding to make the masa for tortillas and tamales.
The Evolution of Wheat Flour Tortillas:
Wheat was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish during colonization. Wheat flour tortillas were created in Northern Mexico where growing corn was less viable. They gained popularity when industrialization and mechanized flour production made wheat flour more accessible.
Modern Machines and Methods:
Today, masa flour for corn tortillas is mass-produced and mechanized tortilla presses allow for higher efficiency. However, traditional hand-patting and cooking methods are still used.
Regional Variations in Mexican Flatbread
Mexican flatbreads take on many forms depending on the region. Here are some of the regional variations found across Mexico:
Flour tortillas are widely preferred here. They form the basis of burritos and soft tacos found in states like Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, and Baja.
This is the heartland of corn tortillas. Sopes, gorditas, and of course tacos al pastor all originated in the central region in states like Mexico City, Puebla, and Michoacán.
The Yucatan Peninsula:
States like Yucatan and Quintana Roo have influences from Mayan cuisine. You’ll find regional flatbreads like piedras (a thin, crispy corn tortilla) and panuchos which are refried bean stuffed tortillas.
Famed for its mole sauces and cheese, Oaxaca also produces large thin tlayudas baked on griddles over open flames and topped with stringy Oaxaca cheese.
The Gulf Coast:
Buttery, flaky cazuelitas originate from Veracruz. This puffy boat-shaped flatbread is baked with a layer of melted butter inside.
Uses for Mexican Flatbread
Mexican flatbread serves both a practical purpose for making other foods and as an accompaniment. Here are some of the many ways it is incorporated into Mexican cuisine:
Tacos, Tostadas, Sopes, Gorditas, and Other Topped Dishes
Perhaps the most common use for Mexican flatbread is as a base for forming other dishes:
The taco is one of Mexico’s most famous foods. Fillings like meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, and salsa are wrapped inside a tortilla.
Tostadas begin with a flat tortilla that is fried or baked until crisp. It is then covered in layers of ingredients.
Sopes and Tlacoyos:
As described above, these thick oval tortillas have raised edges that provide a built-in receptacle for fillings.
The pocket in gorditas perfectly contains fillings of all kinds.
Crispy Tortilla Snacks
Flat tortillas can also be served as snacks once toasted, fried, or baked until crisp:
Chips and Totopos:
Triangular corn tortilla chips are a favorite snack worldwide. Totopos are their circular equivalent.
You’ll find these on Mexican restaurant combos – filled tacos are fried until the tortilla shell is crunchy.
Day old tortillas are cut and fried into chips then simmered in salsa and egg for a comforting casserole.
Wraps for Quesadillas, Burritos, and Enchiladas
The doughy flexibility of tortillas allows them to wrap around all kinds of fillings:
Two tortillas encase cheese and other fillings that melt together as they griddle cook.
Large wheat flour tortillas wrap around Mexican rice, beans, meat, and more.
Corn tortillas rolled around fillings and baked with sauce on top.
Warm tortillas on the side are a perfect vehicle for scooping up foods like:
Refried Beans and Rice:
Soft taco-style tortillas work nicely with these staple sides.
Chilaquiles and Huevos Rancheros:
Help sop up the delicious egg and sauces in these comforting dishes.
Salsas and Dips:
Scoop up guacamole, salsa, and queso with chips or totopos.
Soups and Stews:
Dip your tortilla into pozole, menudo, or caldo.
While less common than savory uses, flatbreads make occasional appearances in Mexican sweets as well:
These puffy fried pastries are classically served dusted in cinnamon sugar.
Disk-shaped fritters are a popular Christmas dessert, especially with syrup or dulce de leche.
Tortillas in Sweet Tamales:
Corn masa can be used to make the dough wrapper around sweet tamale fillings.
Nutrition of Mexican Flatbread
Mexican flatbread provides a nourishing base to a meal when enjoyed in moderation. Here is the nutrition profile of common varieties:
A 6-inch corn tortilla contains approximately:
Corn tortillas provide energy from complex carbohydrates. They also offer a bit of protein, vitamins, and minerals like potassium and folate.
A 6-inch flour tortilla contains approximately:
Flour tortillas are higher in calories but provide more protein. They contain B vitamins like thiamin and iron.
Beyond basic nutrition, incorporating Mexican flatbread into a healthy diet may also provide benefits like:
The fiber content aids regularity and supports gut health.
Blood Sugar Regulation:
Fibrous carbohydrates help moderate blood sugar spikes.
Fermented corn tortillas contain probiotics that support the microbiome.
Nutrients may help lower hypertension, diabetes, heart disease risk, and certain cancers.
Downsides of Overconsumption
Mexican flatbread is part of an overall balanced diet. Some potential downsides of overeating breads include:
Excess calories from carbohydrates can lead to obesity.
Blood Sugar Issues:
Large amounts of refined flour may contribute to diabetes risk.
Filling up on chips or bread versus fruits/vegetables can deprive you of vital nutrients.
Some people have difficulty digesting large amounts of wheat or corn products.
Where to Find Authentic Mexican Flatbread
To experience genuine Mexican flatbread, consider dining at the following types of eateries:
Mexican Bakeries (Panaderias)
Stop into a panaderia for freshly baked bolillos, teleras, tortillas, and more. Chances are you’ll find ensalada rusa, sweet breads, and tamales as well.
Taquerias and Tortillerias
Look for small taco shops, street vendors, and tortilla factories selling tacos, quesadillas, and warm tortillas right off the comal. You may even get to construct your tacos on homemade tortillas.
Many Mexican butcher shops also function as informal eateries, serving tacos and other snacks on homemade tortillas.
Sit-down restaurants featuring authentic Mexican regional cuisines are a tasty place to experience tortillas and flatbreads presented in their original context.
Food and Street Markets
Outdoor mercados are packed with sizzling street food stands cooking up quesadillas, sopes, gorditas, and tacos on fresh corn or flour tortillas.
Making them at Home
Try your hand at homemade flour or corn tortillas following traditional preparation methods for the ultimate fresh experience.
Mexican flatbreads have sustained generations and formed the foundation of Mexico’s cuisine. From the ancient civilizations to today, corn and wheat based flatbreads impart nourishment, variety, and tradition wherever they are found across Mexico’s diverse regions. Beyond nutrition, they bring people together and fortify both body and community. This humble and ubiquitous staple remains an irreducible element of Mexican meals and food culture.