A good flour tortilla warmed on a comal (grill), is a treat unto itself.
Soft and fragrant with a slight sweet scent, flour tortillas are pliable, unleavened bread adaptable for many uses. They can be an edible scoop or a wrap for a meal to go. They can be grilled, baked, and lightly fried. The ingredients are deceptively simple: flour (harina), water, fat, salt, and, depending on preference, baking soda.
Finding a good flour tortilla is not as difficult as it was once in the Boston area. Employees at Allan Rodriguez’s El Centro restaurants, in the South End and Dedham, and his La Neta taco spot on Newbury Street make hundreds of flour tortillas every morning. El Barrio tortillas, made by chef Alex Sáenz and his crew, are served at Sáenz’s Taqueria El Barrio in Boston’s Time Out Market; 600 packages of tortillas are made weekly and sold in 30 area boutique grocery stores.
And over in Canton, in an unmarked factory, Maria and Ricardo’s is making flour tortillas with the same simple ingredients as the others — but on an industrial level. There, hundreds of pounds of freshly made masa (flour dough) are churned in mixers before being poured into a towering machine to create dough balls (known as testales — flour shells). The balls are proofed, pressed into discs, passed through an oven, then onto a cooling chamber before being packaged for sale.
“A good flour tortilla should be soft, not have a strong aroma or smell of preservatives,” says Ezequiel Montemayor, CEO of Harbar LLC, which owns Maria and Ricardo’s. “It should easily roll to be able to hold the ingredients of your recipe.”
Rodriguez demonstrates the flexibility of his flour tortilla by folding a freshly made one into eights and then unwrapping it intact. The key: the tortilla is warm. “You have to warm it so the tortilla can get back its elasticity,” says Mely Martínez, author of “The Mexican Home Kitchen” cookbook and a Milk Street guest chef.
Tortillas are a staple in today’s US diet, from tortillas chips to Taco Tuesdays. They’re also a $5.7 billion industry in the United States, growing an average of 5 percent annually since 2017, according to global research firm IBIS World. The growth is attributed to the introduction of alternative tortilla versions — Maria and Ricardo’s brand includes quinoa, sweet potato, almond flour — but flour is the most popular type consumed in the United States.
Flour tortillas were first made after the Spanish seized control of Mexico in the early 1500s. They eschewed the corn version and introduced wheat to the country. In the ensuing years, wheat was found to grow best in the northern state of Sonora, says Paula E. Morton in her 2014 book “Tortillas: A Cultural History.” Flour tortillas become the preferred regional variety by the early 1700s, including in parts of the 10 US states that were formerly Mexico’s territory. The rest of Mexico prefers corn tortillas.
“Flour tortillas are not used as much in Mexico as people think,” says Martínez, who was born in northeastern Mexico. “They are mostly something people consume in the northern states of Mexico, like Sonora, Nuevo León, even Sinaloa.”
Boston’s embrace of the flour tortilla is more modern. In the 1980s, newcomer Heidi Maria Hartung couldn’t find store-bought tortillas — flour and corn — free of preservatives and reminiscent of those she had while growing up in Mexico. Hartung founded Maria and Ricardo’s in 1986 in a Jamaica Plain factory. The brand now makes about 1 million tortillas every day and sells to restaurants, including the local Amelia’s Taqueria and Los Amigos Taqueria outlets, and nationwide. (Prices vary on type of flour tortillas offered but sell in the range of $3 to $6 per dozen.)
Rodriguez began selling his flour tortillas to friends in the early 2000s while running his Boston construction company. He grew up in Sonora and learned how to make flour tortillas as a child because his father, a government official, also ran a side business selling flour tortilla quesadillas at lunchtime. He opened El Centro, South End, in 2011. His flour tortillas sell for $2 each, and can also be purchased raw for takeaway.
Sáenz was drawn to flour tortillas because his business partner, Servio Garcia, hails from Sonora, and both wanted an authentic, regional tortilla for their taqueria when the original location opened near Boston University. It took two months to develop a recipe, with less fat than typical, that Sáenz’s team liked.
“Before we opened Taqueria El Barrio, I was a corn tortilla guy,” recalls Sáenz, who also co-owns BISq Meats and Sandwiches in Time Out, and Hemlock Grill at the Brookline Public Golf Course. “Then I realized fresh flour tortillas are like fresh bread.”
Demand for a dozen of El Barrio’s tortillas, which are sold raw, is high. (Sáenz does not set the price established by businesses for his tortillas; Formaggio sells them for $8.95.) Sáenz says one store related some customers buy 20 packs at a time to freeze at home until needed.
There are four basic sizes of flour tortillas. A 6-inch tortilla is typically used for fajitas or tacos; an 8-inch is often used for enchiladas; a 10-inch is favored for quesadillas. And then there’s the 20-inch thin sobaquera (armpit to hand length) native to Sonora. Sobaqueras, also known as tortillas de aqua, are typically used for burritos.
No matter the size, flour tortillas are labor intensive. And the recipe can be affected by the flour brand (never mix brands), humidity, and heat. All recipes call for flour and salt. Where they vary is in the type of fat. Traditional recipes call for pork lard. Maria and Ricardo’s use a non-hydrogenated oil. Sáenz uses a vegetable manteca, a solid white fat, that makes his tortillas vegetarian and vegan.
Martínez says she knows an Austin, Texas, chef who uses butter mixed with milk for the fat. “They’re really yummy, like a biscuit in a tortilla shape,” she says. “I know people who, nowadays, use olive oil, but I find it’s too strong.” In addition to manteca, Rodriguez adds a bit of sugar. “Not to brag, but no one has these tortillas,” he says with pride about his tortillas.
How long to proof depends on the recipe. Rodriguez rests his dough for 2 hours.
Martínez’s recipe calls for 30-45 minutes. Resting is critical. “The gluten develops when you rest the dough so that, when you stretch the dough, you can make thinner and fluffier tortillas,” Martínez says.
Yet the joy of fresh flour tortillas for some is found in cooking them on the griddle.
Sáenz says El Barrio’s tortilla customers tell him “Wow! My kids love seeing your tortillas puffing up” when cooked at home. Montemayor loves watching flour tortillas cook as “that caramelization and toast point come up and it bubbles.”
These days, most people in Mexico buy flour tortillas rather than make their own due to constraints on their time, says Martínez. She has her own reason for not frequently making them: “I don’t make flour tortillas often because I have a weakness for them. I know I’ll eat them all!”
Sometimes, as with most treats, you have to eat flour tortillas sparingly.
Peggy Hernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez.