Tortillas are flat, thin, light-colored, round breads, made from corn or wheat. Depending on the region, they may vary in size from 6-30 cm. Along with tacos, burritos and enchiladas, they are considered a staple food for most people in Mexico and Central America. In the U.S., wheat flour tortillas are the fastest growing segment of the entire baking industry. Flour tortillas are a favorite of NASA astronauts and have been on their space menus since 1985 due to their ability to handle microgravity problems, unlike bread crumb.
Tortillas are extremely versatile products and are suitable for virtually any occasion. They have been traditionally homemade for centuries and are mainly used as wraps for tacos filled with shredded meats, beans, vegetables, cheeses, hot/spicy sauces, and other fillings. They can also be served warm with a topping instead of a filling. Among native Mexicans and Central Americans, tortillas are commonly used as eating utensils.
The first tortillas were invented and consumed by early Mesoamerican civilizations. Pre-Columbian cultures such as the Aztec and Mayan relied on corn as a vital component of their diet. Traditional corn-based tortillas were handcrafted by the lime-cooking or nixtamalization of maize which involves alkaline cooking, steeping, washing and stone-grinding of grain kernels to produce masa. Around the sixteenth century, the technology for wheat flour varieties was developed in northern Mexico.
Tortillas can be made using three basic methods:
While hot-pressing results in soft-textured tortillas, die-cutting is more efficient and less expensive. Hand-stretching generates larger and thinner tortillas.
Types of tortillas
- Wheat flour Tortillas: produced from refined or patent flours and can be either yeast-leavened or chemically-leavened. These tortillas have a thickness of 2–3 mm and diameters that vary from 15 to 33 cm. Most wheat tortillas are industrially manufactured by hot-press or die-cut processes.
- Fresh masa Tortillas: made with a fresh masa or “whole corn dough” following the Nixtamalization process. Corn kernels are treated with a calcium hydroxide solution, i.e., lime steeping and cooking, followed by grinding, to produce masa—the Spanish word for “dough.” The fresh masa is mixed with other ingredients and additives, and then sheeted between rollers and formed to desired dimensions.
- Dry masa flour Tortillas: made from commercially-available dry fresh masa and mixed with other ingredients in the bakery. This type of tortillas is preferred by food service facilities and retail bakeshops.
Wheat flour tortillas formula (amounts are given in baker’s percent):
- Patent flour, 11–12% protein content (100%)
- Water (45.0–60.0%)
- Fresh Yeast (compressed) (0.1–1.0%)
- Salt (0.1–2.5%)
- Shortening (2–10%)
- Gums (water holding improvers and dough strengtheners) (0.3–4.0%)
- Soy flour (water holder and nutritional profile improver) (1.0–5.0%)
- Vital wheat gluten (dough strengthener) (0.3–5.0%)
- Non-fat dry milk (0.3–2.0%)
- Ascorbic acid (oxidizing agent) (0–200 ppm based on flour weight)
- Vinegar 100 grain or 10% acetic acid content (mold inhibitor) (0–1.0 lb / 100 lb flour)
- Scaling/metering of ingredients
- Dividing and rounding
- Sheeting/stretching or hot-pressing
- Counting and stacking of units
A variant of the above process includes the following sequence:
Mixing → extruding → die-cutting → baking → Cooling → Counting and stacking of units → packaging.
- Compared to die-cut or hand-stretched methods, hot-press wheat tortillas have a smoother texture and are more elastic, as well as slightly chewy and resistant to tearing and cracking.
- Adequate gluten development is essential for good dough machinability, quality and shelf-life. The addition of wheat gluten can significantly improve tortillas rollability.
- The addition of 10-20% waxy (high amylose) flour provides excellent stretchability, a much desired quality for on-site consumption (restaurants).