How to Make a Tortilla

As we enter the growing season I’m making tortillas with the remnants of last year’s crop. The corn is active with gorgojos and the dust of their munching. Most of them float to the surface to be skimmed off during cooking, the rest we accept as additional protein .

I begin to look forward to fresh corn at this time even though the seed is not yet in the ground, and to reflect on the marvel of this small hot air balloon of masa whose recipe I am honored to know by heart.

How to Make a Tortilla


20 kilos seed corn saved from last year’s crop

The least-invasive broad leaf herbicide available.  (In Morelos there are no organic alternatives available, if we did not use herbicide neither we nor our animals would not have corn, roughly half of our diet.  Because we plant 14 acres of grain, without the help of that initial spray we would do no other work but weeding which is not possible.)

Fertilizer, we use decomposed pig poop

1 acre of land for a family of two

A chuso (a handheld digging device used for planting seeds)



Rain (out of your control)

Ideally you have a grazing animal to clean the field before you start planting.

Using your chuso with a rhythmic motion walk down the field, strike the ground with your point and press open a small hole. Drop 3 to 5 seeds per hole, every three feet and tap closed with your foot. ( two days to plant one acre)

Three days later, spray herbicide.   (half a day)

Fertilize by hand, carrying your poop in a bucket lashed to your waist, when the corn is knee-high.  (half a day)

Fertilize again when the plant is ready to shoot its tassel.  (half a day)

Harvest the corn by hand; release livestock into the silage.  (2 days)

Clean the ears of husks, remove corn from ear.  (2 long days of work for two people)  This is miserable, itchy, painful labor .

Cook corn kernels in boiling water with cal (mineral lime).  Let sit for at least six hours.

Wash the nixtamal until the skins peel off.  Usually three scrubbings.

Grind in a molino; mix with water to make masa.

Mi Molino

Mi Molino

Press in a tortilla press or by hand and place on a hot comal.  Turn the first time as soon as you can get it to lift off the comal, about 10 seconds.

Turn again once the tortilla starts to brown.  Hopefully it will fill with air, ballooning into an accomplished tortilla, and be cooked through in about 30 seconds after the second turn.

Eat as soon as possible. The life of a corn tortilla is evanescent.

This is an example of what it means to be sustainable, poor, a purist.  There are a variety of reasons one might go to these lengths for a tortilla, but in the end they all lead to the same thing– a lot of work and ideally a superior product.

One of the greatest lessons Mexico has taught me; the value of work and the environmental impact of any product I make or buy.  It is like having a new sense.  Anything I can hold in my hands or see that is not naturally occurring I begin to tally:  What did it take to make it, who worked, who died , what natural resources were used and how, how did it get to me?  Is it worth it?

Intellectual understanding of these concepts cannot be compared to the physical knowing experienced as you bite into the steaming essence of your labor, your land, and your commitment to the earth.  The depth of this nourishment given and received is beyond the physical as you partake in your creation that required months to produce, for which you have sweat and bled (and you will bleed at least once) to place on the table of your loved ones.

If I could, I would give the world this gift of perception.

© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer

5 thoughts on “How to Make a Tortilla

  1. I totally agree with you, what a post, here (Texas) all my friends are trying to look for organic foods avoiding the gluten and many other things. I have to say hand made tortillas are the best, not like the ones they sell in stores in a bag. This post brought lots of memories, my mother has a molino, she used it to make tamales, back at her ranch you would seem them all over and outdoor oven, best food ever the taste is so different.

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