As a girl, I always looked forward to taco night. While other working moms saved time by using crispy, pre-formed taco shells, my mother bought yellow corn tortillas in big bags and fried them to perfection. What’s more is that she didn’t just use them for tacos. She topped corn tortillas with peanut butter and sliced bananas — a dish my sister dubbed “breakfast pizza” — and stuffed them with various sandwich ingredients for lunch.
For years, I thought nothing could beat the taste of my mother’s corn tortillas until I met my friend and coworker, Aitana, who was born in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. She turned me on to a method passed down from her mother and grandmother called nixtamalization, which dates back to ancient times. Apparently, regular corn is very difficult to grind — especially when done by hand — and nixtamalization makes the process easier.
Nixtamalization: An Ancient Tradition
This beautiful method involves cooking dried field corn — not sweet corn — in calcium hydroxide known to Mexicans as cal and Americans as pickling lime. After a few hours simmering in this alkaline solution, the outer skin of the corn loosens and rinses away, leaving soft, inner kernels. These kernels are called nixtamal, a word that comes from the Mesoamerican language, Nahautl. To make tortillas, nixtamal is crushed or ground and combined with water to form dough called masa.
When she makes masa, Aitana uses a Mexican mortar and pestle called a metate e mano to grind the corn, and she goes ‘old school’ when forming her tortillas. Instead of using a press, she shapes the masa into plum-sized balls and rolls them into thin rounds between sheets of parchment paper. To say this is an art form is not an understatement. It has taken me years to master Aitana’s tortilla-rolling technique.
After she forms her tortillas, Aitana cooks them in a smoking-hot, cast-iron skillet. When they are lightly toasted and begin to bubble, she stacks them on a kitchen towel and wraps them to keep warm while she gathers her taco fillings. Think grilled steak, jalapeno peppers, sliced avocado, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. One bite of Aitana’s tacos, and I said goodbye to store-bought tortillas for good.
A Culinary Transformation
Nixtamalization gives corn tortillas a nutty, earthy flavor that makes any dish made with them extra-delicious. In addition to tacos, I use them to create enchiladas, quesadillas, casseroles, and — of course — breakfast pizza and sandwiches. While my husband loves corn tortillas stuffed with my signature egg salad, my son says they make the “best-ever” tuna melts.
Time is a luxury these days, but when I have extra, I make masa from organic white dent corn I buy online in 5-pound bags. Instead of using a metate e mano for grinding, I make do with a hand-cranked corn mill, and some people get by with a food processor. In a pinch, I buy packaged tortillas from a local natural foods store just down the street. They make their own masa, but unlike the corn tortillas I grew up with, these don’t stay fresh for long. Fortunately, in our crazy-for-corn-tortillas household, this is never a problem.