Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

tortilla a round, thin unleavened bread made from ground maize, a basic food of Mesoamerica. It is not known for how many millennia this has been a staple; but when the conquistadores arrived in the New World in the late 15th century, they discovered that the inhabitants made flat corn breads. The native Nahuatl name for these was tlaxcalli and the Spanish gave them the name tortilla.

Making the basic tortilla is simple, at least in theory. First a dough is made. To do this, the maize kernels are parched and cooked briefly in a mixture of unslaked lime and water. This step (see nixtamalization) loosens the husks, increases the nutritional content of the grain, and ensures that a flexible flat bread can be made. Then the corn is ground into a dough called masa in Mexico (a commercial product called masa harina, a flour made from the prepared kernels, can be mixed with water to make tortillas when corn is unavailable). The dough is shaped between the hands, or patted out on a flat surface, or stamped out with a special press. The tortillas are then cooked on a hot, ungreased griddle. They should be speckled with brown, and puff up when turned, but remain soft and pliable—rather like an Indian chapati.