Tortillas have been a staple since Mayan and Aztec times, with generations passing down the knowledge and art of tortilla-making across cultures and food traditions. So when I was assigned to review tortilla presses, I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of selecting the right press, having only made a few tortillas in my life up until that point. I decided to reach out to an expert. After some tortilla research I found Lesley Téllez, a Mexican-American recipe developer, author, and all-around tortilla expert. With her advice and expertise I was able to pinpoint the most important factors that can make or break a tortilla press—leading to a new winner. Along the way, I picked up several tips for improving my corn tortilla skills at home.
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For corn tortillas, you can’t use just any old cornmeal. “For me, it starts with the masa,” said Téllez. “Start by having a well-made masa made from nixtamalized corn.” The masa Téllez recommends is a product made from freshly ground corn processed with pickling lime or another alkaline substance, which changes the texture and flavor of the corn, and helps it adhere to form a dough. “The best flavor comes from freshly ground dough; the second-best, since not everyone has access to a mill, or dough that's been ground in a mill, is a high quality masa harina like what Masienda (and other companies like Guelaguetza) sell.”
2. Proper Hydration is Key
Corn tortilla dough usually only contains masa harina and water, but the ratio of the two ingredients is key. “If the masa [dough] is too dry, the tortilla is going to turn out too dry once cooked,” said Téllez. An ideal tortilla “retains some of the stretchiness and the pliability, and has a bite to it, but it’s not papery or dry, and retains its moisture.” My favorite ATK corn tortilla recipe calls for three parts masa harina to about two parts water, but you may need to slightly adjust the ratio if your masa dough feels too crumbly after mixing.
3. Pick the Right Press
Téllez spoke at length about what makes a great press, and after testing seven presses across a few weeks, I concur. First, weight. “You want a heavy press that is going to allow you to get the thinness required for a good tortilla,” she said. That thinness “enables the consistent cooking of the tortilla all the way through and not just on the surface. In my experience, having a heavy press made out of cast iron or metal like steel is best.” These heavy presses are better because they do most of the work for you, without you having to exert too much force for a perfectly thin tortilla.
Next, size: Larger is better. “I like being able to decide what size I want, I don’t like a press where I feel like the tortilla size has been determined for me,” said Téllez. “Some of them are a little too small, and what if I want a bigger tortilla?” We recommend models with plates that are at least 8 inches wide, but 10 is even better. During testing I also found that presses with longer handles created more leverage and required less work, and that those with smoother surfaces created less friction between the handle and the top plate, allowing them to slide together easily for a streamlined pressing motion.
4. Line Your Press
“Make sure you line the press with something,” Téllez said. “I always use a piece of plastic from a grocery bag because that’s what I was taught in Mexico City.” Lining the press prevents tortilla dough from getting stuck and shredding apart when you try to remove it from the press, and creates less mess in general. Téllez recommended a thin plastic grocery bag, but we also had luck with a large zipper-lock bag.
5. Handle and Cook Your Tortilla Properly
Once you’ve pressed a tortilla, uncover it and turn the plastic over in your palm so that the tortilla is touching your hand, and then gently peel the plastic away and flip the tortilla from your palm onto your skillet or griddle. You can reuse the plastic bag whenever you make tortillas. Traditionally, tortillas are cooked on a comal, a smooth, flat, circular metal griddle, but you can just as easily use a nonstick or cast-iron skillet—just make sure it’s hot. And be sure to serve it soon after cooking!
“A tortilla that’s coming directly from the comal is going to be the best-tasting tortilla,” said Téllez, “because once they cool down they start to get really tough and they don’t taste as good.” To keep tortillas hot and fresh until serving, you can insulate them in a tortilla warmer or wrap them in a few clean dish towels.