Ingredient of the Week: Tortillas
If you live in Texas, the tortilla is a staple in your pantry right next to the loaf of Texas toast. It's such a regular part of our diet, we often don't think twice about its history or endless possibilities. Stop a minute, and give the tortilla the attention it deserves. Here's some tortilla trivia to impress your amigos the next time you eat tacos.
What is it?
Tortilla means "little cake" in Spanish. The Mexican version of the tortilla we often find in Texas is a flatbread made of either maize (corn) flour or wheat flour. (This latter form is what we commonly refer to as flour tortillas.) Because it contains more gluten, the flour tortilla is less delicate than the corn, and thus can be made larger and thinner without tearing. Authentic tacos from Mexico are usually made with corn tortillas, but flour tortillas are frequently used in Tex-Mex cuisine.
The first Mexican tortilla dates back to thousands of years BC and was made of maize. When Hernando Cortez arrived from Spain in what is now Mexico during the sixteenth century, he observed the Aztecs making flatbread, then called tlaxcalli. The flatbread was later dubbed "tortilla" by the Spaniards. In Spain, though, if you ask for a tortilla, don't expect the same thing; over there, a tortilla is a potato-based omelet.
How do I use it?
With the exception of a few dishes, both corn and flour tortillas can be used interchangeably to make Tex-Mex food. Tex-Mex cuisine has such variety that it's easy to get confused: What's the difference between a taquito and a flauta? Worse yet, many non-Texans don't even know the difference between a burrito and a taco. Here's a quick rundown.
The traditional taco is made by wrapping a tortilla loosely around meat (or beans if you're vegetarian) and topping it with some salsa or pico de gallo. If you use scrambled eggs, chorizo, and potatoes, it becomes a breakfast taco.
If you wrap a corn tortilla tightly around meat or potatoes, leave the ends open, and deep-fry it, you've got a taquito.
Burritos are large flour tortillas wrapped around beans and cheese with the ends tucked in. Other meats, vegetables, rice, and sauces can also be added to a burrito's filling.
Fry that burrito, and you've got a chimichanga.
Enchiladas are typically made with corn tortillas: stuff with meat and sauce, top with more sauce, and bake.
Fry that enchilada, and you've got a flauta.
Serve tortillas with grilled skirt steak, onions, and bell peppers, and you've got fajitas.
Topped with cheese, folded, and toasted? Quesadillas.
Cut, deep-fried, and served with salsa, queso, or guacamole? Tortilla chips.
Both corn and flour tortillas are low in fat and cholesterol, although the corn has less sodium than the flour variety.
Where can I find it?
You can often buy tortillas straight from the Tex-Mex restaurants themselves. At the Original ninfa's on Navigation, you can watch tortillas being made fresh. Revival Market sells pre-packaged tortillas from Hugo's. I personally love the bigger-than-your-face, buttery-thin tortillas from Lupe.
If you're truly adventurous, the Homesick Texan offers a homemade flour tortilla recipe. Otherwise, you will find tortillas in the bread aisle of almost any grocery store. Having surpassed bagels and muffins, they are the second most sold packaged bread product in the U.S. next to sliced bread.
Recipe: Beef Flautas Once again, the Homesick Texan shares her beef flautas recipe. Are they flautas? Taquitos? Tacos dorados? Whatever they are, they're good.
Do you prefer corn or flour? Where can we find the best tortillas? I've heard that if you have to buy the pre-packaged kind, Mission makes the best tortillas, but I often find them too doughy. Any recommendations? Any tips to prepare tortillas for eating? Heat in the microwave? Heat in a pan with butter? What do you do with your tortillas?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.