At Mexico In Season, a Chipotle-style restaurant in South Tucson, when you order a burrito, your tortilla comes reinforced—before carne asada or frijoles negros, your large, stretchy tortilla is reinforced with a smaller, stiffer whole wheat tortilla. (You know, to maintain burrito integrity). At Taqueria Pico de Gallo, the corn tortillas are so thick and filling that two of them filled with nopales or carnitas are enough to send you leaning back after dinner, too full for dessert. At Boca Tacos on Speedway, your carne asada arrives cupped in tiny tortillas—small as a palm and cheap enough to order a handful without breaking $10.
In Tucson, the tortilla reigns supreme. And every tortilla is different—thick and moist; thin and dry; large and stretchy; stiff and flakey. It is one benefit of living 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border—the diversity of tortillas you encounter when eating out. While many local tortilla makers have managed to get their products stocked in local markets, it’s a whole different endeavor to find an unprocessed tortilla sold in the store. Tortillas are intended to be eaten fresh, moments after their making, which is why so many store-bought tortillas contain ingredients added to “maintain freshness.” As tortillas age, they also harden, which is partly why you’ll see so many vegetable gums added to tortillas stacked in a baggy–to keep them pliable and bendy by the time they make it home to you.
Trader Joe’s Corn Tortillas
I’ve made many a tortilla before—never a really good one, but many an edible one. Throughout my travels in Latin America (most recently, in Mexico), I’ve watched skilled hands pat circles. Seen steam hiss from cast iron comales. Whether you’re making corn tortillas or wheat tortillas (which are, of course, vastly different, both in terms of taste and culture), the basics are the same. You make dough out of either cornmeal or flour, and water. (Many tortilla makers also add some form of fat, both because it’s tasty and also to keep tortillas from sticking—lard is the most common, but olive oil is making a surge). If the dough’s too sticky, you add more flour; if it’s clumpy, you add more water. Round, rolled dough balls become flattened discs, which are seared on a hot surface. There’s a reason tortillas are a staple food—they’re easy. The ingredients are simple. Corn and water. Flour and water.
The reason lime appears on the label of every corn tortilla is because, before it can become masa, all corn has to be nixtamalized—basically, soaked in lime—which renders the corn more digestible and pliable. Basic nixtamalization involves simply soaking corn in pickling lime—a process that’s been practiced since before Columbus set foot in America.
Mission Yellow Corn Tortillas
This is a good example of how not to make a tortilla. Cellulose gum is the ingredient added to make these tortillas so very Super Soft (™?). While it’s so very nice when food companies tell us why they are adding certain chemicals to our cuisine (oh, for freshness!), they’re usually able to refrain from explaining how those chemicals might impact our bodies. According to CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine: “Manufacturers have used sodium benzoate (and its close relative benzoic acid) for a century to prevent the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. The substances occur naturally in many plants and animals. They appear to be safe for most people, though they cause hives, asthma, or other allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.”
Trader Joe’s Whole Grain Flour Tortillas
It’s worth mentioning that I never buy white flour tortillas. They are delicious—sweet, white flour and lard; how could they not be—but I save those treats for when they’re coming fresh off the comal. I prefer corn tortillas over wheat, mostly because I think they have more flavor (and because I think we get enough wheat in our diets without trying). But, occasionally, a flour tortilla is called for—when I want to wrap up chickpeas and eggplant, say, or make an easy tortilla pizza.
This is a fine tortilla—not great, not terrible. I appreciate that it’s sweetened by honey instead of sugar, but I don’t think tortillas need to be sweetened. I go back and forth on whether or not baking soda is unprocessed—it’s certainly an additive, but one that’s hard to get around if you want your baked goods to rise—but I don’t like to see it used unnecessarily. Like, say, in a tortilla—which is, after all, supposed to be flat.
Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Tortillas
There’s a company in Tucson called La Tuana Tortillas that sells amazingly soft, stretchy vegan tortillas that contain: 100% stone ground whole wheat flour, water, olive oil, sea salt. (The 100% stone-ground wheat isn’t a joke.) Because of the aforementioned freshness factor, buying locally made tortillas is worth the effort—there’s probably a local tortilleria selling fresh tortillas (read: no preservatives) near you. Google: “TOWN YOU LIVE IN + Tortillas.”
But if you can’t buy locally made tortillas, Ezekiel 4:9 makes a stellar sprouted grain tortilla. (They also make sprouted corn tortillas, which aren’t as stretchy as some corn tortillas but, in my opinion, have more flavor.) Again, this ingredient label adheres to the basic rule of tortilla making: grain plus water.
La Torilla Factory Hand Made Corn Tortillas
I’ve recently seen the corn-wheat hybrid tortilla a dozen times at markets around town, and I just don’t get it. Is the wheat supposed to add value to corn? Or rather, does the wheat comfort the gluten-addicted? Perhaps it’s the product for the indecisive, who stand there dithering between flour and corn.
Finally, you don’t have to chose between wheat and corn—you also don’t have to chose between two kinds of gum (cellulose and guar) or the three kinds of preservatives. Fumaric acid is considered harmless—it is a “tartness agent,” added to powered drinks, pudding, pie fillings, and gelatin desserts. And, evidently, tortillas.
Mission Wraps: Garden Spinach Herb
I love this ingredient label. For one, you know you’re getting an additive-ladeled label if your tortilla must be designated as a “Wrap.” How do you think they make it so pliably wrappable? Dough conditioners, for one. Leavening agents. Enzymes—why not? Also, here is yet another maddening example of a product that is not intended to be sweet, one that no one expects to be sweet, that contains sugar.
Just because the tortilla is green and the package is called “Garden Spinach Herb” does not mean you are actually consuming anything related to spinach (or anything that might come out of a garden). That spinach flavor comes from spinach, onion, and garlic powders; the spinach color comes from FD&C Yellow #5 and FD&C Blue #1 Lake. Both are on CSPI’s Avoid list, but here’s more about Yellow #5: “The second-most-widely used coloring causes allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, primarily in aspirin-sensitive persons, and triggers hyperactivity in some children. It may be contaminated with such cancer-causing substances as benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl (or chemicals that the body converts to those substances).”
Yup. That’s a wrap.