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When the ancient Mexicans invented tortillas - their flat, round, unleavened bread - they invented the most versatile bread of all. It can be stacked, rolled, folded, torn, cut, and crumbled; it tastes good soft and hot, crisp-fried, or toasted. It can be shaped with the hands and easily baked on an improvised griddle over any source of heat; it keeps well, and can be reheated later.

Mexicans substitute tortillas for eating utensils by using them as a scoop, or as a plate when laid in the palm of the hand and filled with food.

The tortilla is a food born out of the necessities of primitive people. The first ones were made of the native corn, dried to keep until the next crop came in. The kernels were simmered in water with lime until partially soft (this is called "nixtamal"), then laboriously ground by hand on a stone mortar called a "metate". The moist meal called "masa", was patted into a thin pancake and baked on a "comal" (a clay griddle).

When the Spaniards introduced wheat flour, cooks quickly used it for tortillas, too. However, the flour tortillas never became as widely use, and now they are more a specialty of the northern part of the country.

Today the ways of preparing tortillas have changed somewhat in the more urban areas. Machines may grind the corn and wheat, and occasionally machines may shape, bake, and even freeze the product. The moist masa sometimes is dehydrated and sold in bags like flour, later to be mixed with water at home.

In the United States, taco stands and supermarkets peddle the tortilla and hostesses serve purchased tortilla chips to scoop cocktail dips.

But the corn tortilla made most places in modern Mexico is little different from what the Mexican Indians made hundreds of years ago. In the market places, you will see women working huge mounds of masa, which oozes excess liquid, until the dough has just the right feel. Then they slap and pat it into cakes and bake them on the spot.

The slap-slap sounds of many tortilla-makers at work and the heady scent of cooking corn are sensuous experiences of the real Mexico which many visitors long remember.

Tortillas are so basic to Mexican cookery that an understanding of how to buy, make, and cook them will provide greater success for anyone preparing them.

How to Buy Tortillas

In most food stores i the West, both corn and flour tortillas are sold, usually by the dozen in a plastic-wrapped package (or sometimes in a box or can). They may be found in the refrigerated area of the store, in a freezer, or on a shelf.

Corn Tortillas are usually 6 inches in diameter; flour tortillas are 7 inches or much larger.

Frozen tortillas keep almost indefinitely under ideal freezing temperature (0°F or colder), but do lose their flavour and moisture within a matter of weeks in refrigerator freezing compartments at higher temperatures. Those that aren't frozen may be kept refrigerated for 14-21 days, or frozen at home for some what longer storage.

Thaw frozen tortillas before reheating by seperating them, brushing off ice crystals, and laying them flat. They will thaw in about 5 minutes; if you don't use them right away, cover with foil or plastic film to keep from drying out.

The quality of tortillas you buy can vary considerably. If you want the best cooking results, compare the brands available to you. If you buy unfrozen tortillas, be sure they are fresh. Bend the package to see that the bread is still tender and flexible; it should not look dry around the edges.

The tortillas you buy have already been cooked. But to serve them as bread or to use them in cooking, you will need to reheat or fry them.

How to Make Tortillas

Flour tortillas can be made from the regular all-purpose flour you may have on hand, but corn tortillas require the special corn preparation called masa harina (dehydrated masa flour), if you do not have access to fresh masa. Don't try to make tortillas with regular corn meal, which is too coarsely ground and prepared differently from the corn for masa.

Masa harina is sold in 5-pound (or larger) bags at most supermarkets. Since it is also used for tamales and other specialties and keeps like flour, it would be wise to buy an ample supply.

Both flour and corn tortillas can be patted into shape by hand, but the technique is something that may be best learned at a Mexican's mother's knee. Lacking such upbringing, you may roll the dough with a rolling pin, trimming each tortilla to an even round if you wish. For quickest and best results, you may want to invest in an inexpensive tortilla press or even make one according to the instructions that follow.

Homemade Tortilla Press

A tortilla press that works well can be easily made from a few scraps of lumber. And the rougher your woodworking, the more authentic it looks. See diagram below.

USe any 3/4 by 1-inch-thick wood on hand, choosing unwarped boards that will fit together evenly. Cut the paddle-shaped bottom from an 8 1/2 by 12 1/2-inch piece, leaving a handle on one end where you attach the 2 by 2-inch pressure arm. Glue and nail four 1 by 2 crosspieces to the top and bottom boards to prevent warping should the press need to be washed. Attach hinges securely with long screws.

Last, locate the arm's 1/4-inch bolt at a height where the arm can lever down (not completely horizontally) over the top of the press.

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