Out of competitive and narrative necessity, The Great British Bake Off presents baking as something of a high-wire act, where small mistakes can undo hours of work. This is not necessarily an inaccurate representation – lots of baking requires exacting precision, studied technique, and balancing patience with urgency – but it is a limited one.
On the culinary spectrum, the hours-long GBBO creations sit at one end. Today, I would like to talk to you about a food at the opposite pole: tortillas.
Tortillas check all of the boxes for the tired-but-hungry home cook. The ingredients are inexpensive pantry staples that won’t spoil quickly: flour, water, salt, and a fat like butter or lard or bacon grease for flour tortillas; masa harina (not all that hard to find), salt, and water for corn. Those ingredients can be easily scaled in either direction. If you want to halve the recipe, you do not need to divine how to put half an egg into your mix. (Granted, you should not want to halve the recipe, because that means fewer tortillas, but it’s nice to know the option is there.)
They’re also very easy to make. Consistency matters, but if your dough is too dry or too sticky, the solution is simply to add a little more water or a little more flour/masa. Most recipes will advise you to let your dough rest for half an hour, but it’s not essential; you can still make good tortillas if you’re in a hurry and need to skip that step.
Strictly speaking, you don’t even need a tortilla press. I find they’re helpful for making corn tortillas in large amounts (less so for flour), but if you’re just dipping a toe into the homemade tortilla pond, you can flatten either variety with a rolling pin and some elbow grease. Then you just cook your tortillas in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium or medium-high heat, depending on how finicky your stovetop is, until they’ve got nice brown spots on both sides.
Congratulations! You have made your own tortillas. The space around you is now a tiny bit better than it was before.
The entire process offers you both forgiveness and flexibility. Biscuits need to be cut carefully once they’re rolled, because re-rolling too much will throw off the structure. But a tortilla doesn’t mind if you start over and roll it anew. Cakes and breads need to rise and get poked and knocked on before you’re sure they’re done. A tortilla bubbles or curls at the edges with almost no wait, and if you overcook one slightly, great news: You’ll be making a dozen more and learning as you go. Tortilla making is mechanical without being overly delicate, repetitive without being stressful. The pace is yours to set and change, and there is a very quiet but meaningful freedom in allowing yourself to tackle this work as vigorously or casually as you prefer.
Perhaps you have lingering questions, like whether you should make corn or flour tortillas, or what their best use is when they’re done. Again, the tortilla is flexible: Do whatever you feel like, far from the prying eyes of the internet. Make breakfast tacos, or fajitas, or chips, or put butter and cinnamon sugar on a flour tortilla and repeat the process three times and call it a snack. Without exception, you’ll be happier that you took the time to make your own tortillas instead of buying them at the grocery store.
Tortillas are also extremely good surprise gifts. Wrap some in foil, and leave them with a neighbor or friend or family member. Nobody’s day got worse because they were given some warm, fresh tortillas, and if you don’t believe me, imagine someone leaving a stack on your doorstep right now.
I have yet to find a form of stress relief that’s cheaper, easier, and more welcoming than making tortillas. Go find a recipe and see for yourself. Worst case, you’ll be just as stressed, but you’ll have snacks.