The Troublesome Yet Terrific Tortilla (Part 2)
Continuing on with the product formulation optimization theme, using tortilla formulation specifically as an example, we dig in further. As a reminder, tortilla formulation is more complicated than it may at first appear. As I wrote previously:
“From the standpoint of the uninitiated, a tortilla seems a simple beast. As a plain product on its own there are no fillings or inclusions, no added flavors, swirls of color, or fancy shapes. Even the plastic bags in which they’re sold ten at a time are nothing special. But the phrase “deceptively simple” does exist for a reason. And one could reasonably argue that it was coined as a product formulation expert was doing some deep thinking about the common, yet commonly unimpressive, tortilla.”
In this recent post I also spoke about the two different types of tortillas (corn and wheat flour), and noted some of the complexities of both of them including nixtamalization in the case of corn tortillas, and the presence of gluten and necessary added fat in the case of the wheat flour tortillas. Clearly, when done well, both types of tortillas are fantastic, but my family was handed down a wheat flour tortilla tradition from my Mexican great grandmother Guadalupe Otila Macias, and since I was a wee child I’ve been truly mesmerized by this type.
Watching my grandmother mix and knead them by hand, roll them out with a flick or two of the wrist, and then bake them on top of a cast-iron griddle on the stove–the incredible smell–and then passing one steaming and blistered with flavor from hand to hand with nearly burnt fingertips, taking bites and smiling uncontrollably. These are some of the most powerful memories of my childhood. Why would I ever want to change a single detail in my original family recipe?
As I mentioned previously, wheat flour tortillas can be tricky because the gluten proteins in wheat (i.e., glutenin and gliadin) when hydrated, help to create a stretchy and springy dough that is notoriously hard to roll out. To produce a less tough and easier to roll tortilla, people traditionally added some amount of fat to the dough in the form of freshly rendered pork lard. The added lard reduces the overall gluten development, and the tortillas become more aromatic and the mouthfeel more tender and less chewy. And when everything is just right, the tortillas puff magically like perfect little pillows, making them even lighter in texture. But what about when everything isn’t just right?
The Baking Powder Bandage
The problem is that getting the ratio of ingredients just right can be very tricky. If it is even a bit off, or the griddle temperature is not optimal, or the tortilla maker is just not paying the right amount of attention, the tortillas can end up dense and unpleasant. The solution to this problem used by most is an addition of baking powder. It allows the tortilla maker a bit more flexibility in all of the important conditions. However, the texture of a baking-powder-risen tortilla is not quite the same as one without, and it has been written more than once by tortilla aficionados that the baking powder version is simply not as good.
The Vegetable Oil Blunder
Another problem is that as refined plant-based vegetable oils have become much cheaper, and good fatback from which to make lard has become less readily available in the marketplace, recipes have begun to call for either liquid oil or hydrogenated oil, also called shortening. These oil-based tortillas simply aren’t capable of tasting as good as those made from the roasted and rendered fat of flavorful hogs.
So, the modern homemade wheat-flour tortilla, which itself is scarce compared to the store-bought versions with little personality, is itself a shadow of its former glorious self. But if these changes to the modern tortilla have led to a poverty of quality, what is to be done about it? How can we possibly attempt to recreate a product formulation that most of us have never tasted?
I’ll explain how I approached this challenge in an effort to do just that. Stay tuned for más detalles in Part 3.