February 14, 2018
When it comes to tacos, it’s usually the toppings that steal the show—the flavorful meats, bold sauces, and colorful garnishes. But what about the base? This week in the test kitchen, our food editors zeroed in on the building block that’s too often an afterthought on Taco Tuesday: the humble tortilla.
Our friends at Vermont Tortilla Company stopped by to demonstrate a different way of making corn tortillas. While the 42 Burners team had made tortillas using masa harina (dehydrated corn flour) before, they’d never prepared them completely from scratch. Vermont Tortilla Company founders (and husband-and-wife team!) April and Azur Moulaert start with the corn itself, specifically dried yellow dent corn (so named because of the dent in the kernels), and an ancient technique called nixtamalization, which the test kitchen was super curious about.
Here’s the skinny: dating as far back as 1200 B.C. Mesoamerica, nixtamalization calls for simmering and steeping corn in an alkaline solution such as water and mineral lime. The process breaks down the outer shell of the corn, improving its nutritional value and giving it that characteristic buttery, earthy tortilla flavor.
The Moulaerts grind the nixtamal (treated corn) with volcanic stones into masa (dough) for their tortillas. The results are a far cry from most ready-to-eat corn tortillas available in the U.S., which are made with masa harina and more highly processed. April says, “It’s much more time-consuming to make tortillas this way, which is why so few people do it, but the taste is really different. So is the texture—most corn tortillas break easily, which is why you often see two used for one taco, but that kind of cracking doesn’t happen with ours.”
Another plus: Vermont Tortilla Company uses only organic, locally grown corn for their tortillas, from Adirondack Organic Grains. April says, “We were really inspired by the local foods movement. We wanted to make a product that would support our local economy and landscape, and corn just happens to be one of the things you can grow near us!” The Moulaerts brought some of their fresh masa for the 42 Burners team to turn into tortillas, and David Schneider of New York’s Oaxaca Taqueria set up a bar of the restaurant's greatest-hits taco fillings.
The food editors took turns shaping balls of masa, flattening them with a tortilla press, and cooking them on the stove. There was even a race to see who could get their tortilla perfectly puffed first. Azur says, “When you’re making tortillas at home, the puff is a source of pride, like a soufflé when it comes out of the oven.” The winner? Banana bread champion Greg Lofts!