Paper thin soft chewy, Sonoran-style flour tortilla
For a couple years now, I’ve been taking jabs at creating the perfect flour tortillas.
Now, any conversation evoking the word “perfect” ought to be subject to a clearer definition, doesn’t it? So here is mine. The perfect flour tortilla, in my view, should be unleavened (otherwise it’s just a thin pita), translucent, thin but elastic, flavorful enough to be a standalone enjoyment, and above all else, embodying a soft chewiness that you could feel in between bites.
It’s safe to say that the recipes I used over the years didn’t stray far from the typical ones floating around the internet, more or less, kneading flour, warm water (often ambiguous on the exact temperature), some sort of animal fat all together which is rolled out and toasted on a skillet. Simple, yes, and those aren’t horrible either. Anything containing that amount of lard just can’t be. But in the end… lifeless, doughy, and without flare.
Well that ends today.
You see, there is a place in Mexico called Sonora. Legend has it, that as far as flour tortilla goes, they’ve got the best. Large in diameter, tailored for burritos, their flour tortilla is stretched paper thin by hands and toasted only for a few moments on an inverted hot iron wok, resulting in delicate, see-through tortillas that had famed this region. People swear by it. And if there were a better flour tortilla in Mexico, it hasn’t been discovered. Perfect? As close as it’s gonna get.
So, It gave me ideas.
I took a couple weeks to really sift through the steps of what makes an optimal flour tortilla dough, with enough gluten in strength to be so thin yet chewy, carrying enough flavors that it runs the risk of being snacked away before anything can be wrapped with. Then for those of us who has not mastered the art of stretching a dough out to the extent of paper-thinness by hands, I have an ingenious solution – a classic technique of making Peking duck crepes.
Instead of rolling a single dough out as thinly as humanly capable, I stacked two on top of each other, separated by fat/oil, then roll them out as thinly as humanly capable. What happens is that when they cook, they puff and separate from each other, and what you get is two tortillas that are only 1/2 the thickness of what you normally could pull off!
Can you blame me for feeling clever? As you are peeling these translucently thin and elastic tortillas away from each other and marveling at their supple chewiness and savory aroma, and go on to ecstatically wrap them with everything in sight, well, you’d thank me.
- 2 cups (260 grams) bread flour with 12~14% protein
- 1 tsp (4 grams) light brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp (4 grams) fine sea salt
- 3/4 cup (180 grams) hot water at 140~150F/60~65C
- 4 tbsp (56 grams) lard or goose/chicken fat or unsalted butter, not melted
- 2 tsp all-purpose flour
- In microwave or on stove, heat water to 140~150F/60~65C. In a stand-mixer with dough-hook, mix bread flour, sugar, sea salt and hot water on low speed until it comes into a cohesive dough. Increase the speed to medium-high and knead for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the dough is elastic and smooth. It should pull away cleanly from the sides and bottom of the bowl, but sticks right back when the machine stops. If it's too dry, add a teaspoon more water, and if too wet, add a teaspoon more flour. Knead for an extra 5 minutes for each addition. Add 2 tbsp of lard (or other types of fat you're using) into the bowl, and knead on medium-high speed for another 10 minutes, until the dough again pulls away cleanly from the side and bottom of the bowl, but sticks back when the machine stops. Adding the fat later instead of in the beginning, gives the dough more chance to develop more gluten formation. Cover the bowl and let rest for at least one hour. You can also keep it in the fridge overnight.
- Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tbsp of fat in a small pot and whisk in 2 tsp of flour. Continue to cook on low heat until the flour is light brown in color, about 5 minutes. Let cool completely.
- (The following instruction is tailored to making 13-inches/33 cm tortillas. If you don't have a griddle or skillet that big, you'll need to adjust the numbers accordingly). Once the dough is rested, transfer it onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 8 equal portions (if you're making smaller tortillas, you'll need to divide into higher even numbers, like 10 portions for 12 inches skillet, or 12 portions for 10 inches skillet, so on so forth). Shape each portions into smooth balls and arrange them in the chronological orders they are handled (this allows each dough to have equal resting time between handling).
- Now go back to the first two balls, dusting with flour as needed, and roll each one out into 6 inches/15 cm wide disks. Generously brush the fat-flour mixture on one of the disk all the way to the edges, leaving zero margin, and place the other one on top. Set the stack on the side, and repeat with the rest of the dough balls, again arranging them in the chronological order they are handled. You'll have 4 stacks in total.
- Now go back to the first stack you made, dusting with flour as needed, and roll it out as thinly as you can, so thin that you can almost see a little of your countertop through it, which will be about 13 inches/33 cm (smaller if you're using smaller skillet and smaller portions of dough). It's very important that you keep flipping it back and forth so the the two stacked tortillas are rolled out evenly in thinness. As explained in the video, this technique allows you to create super thin tortillas without any special skills. Because you're rolling out two stacked tortillas together as thinly as possible, and when they cook and separate, you get two tortillas that are only 1/2 the thickness of what you can typically get.
- Brush the fat-flour mixture lightly on the surface of the griddle or skillet, which should be hot enough that it starts to smoke when the fat hits (if you're using cast-iron, it'll need to be preheated on medium-high heat for about 5~10 minutes). Gently place the tortilla on top. The griddle or skillet should be hot enough that it only takes about 10 seconds for the first side to take on tiny brown spots but not burning it. Flip it back and forth while pressing on it with a spatula, until the tortillas starts to puff up all around and have little blistered brown spots on both sides. Transfer onto a plate or basket and cover with a damp towel. Repeat with the rest.
- Once cool enough to handle, simply separate the two tortillas from each other, which should be very easy. This technique will leave one side of the tortilla un-blistered, which I think is fine because they are soft, chewy and flavorful as is. If you want char on the other side, too, I would strongly advice NOT to toast the other side on the griddle as this will dry it out. Instead, torch only the back side lightly with a blow-torch until there are tiny black dots here and there, which adds good charcoal flavor to it, too. This is a great way to re-heat the tortilla as well if you are making them a couple hours ahead of time. But I would not recommend making then longer than couple hours ahead. Fresh tortillas are still the best.