Don't let a dry, dense flour tortilla ruin dinner.
Published June 1, 2018. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 20: Ground Beef Enchiladas and Steak Tacos
Sometimes we make tortillas from scratch, but more often we reach for packaged versions. We're not alone. Americans spent more than $6 billion on tortillas in 2015, according to retail sales data gathered by the Tortilla Industry Association, with the flour variety just barely outselling corn. It has been six years since we last reviewed flour tortillas, and we wondered if our favorite from Old El Paso was still the best. We focused on 6-inch tortillas, which we use for tacos and fajitas, and found six top-selling products priced from $1.99 to $2.72 per package (packages contained eight to 20 tortillas). We sampled them in a series of blind tastings. First, we gently warmed them and tasted them plain. To see how they held up to rich and juicy fillings, we used them as taco shells with Mexican pulled pork. Then, to see how they fared when cooked, we made mini cheese quesadillas.
For the most part, differences in flavor were minor. Most of the tortillas tasted “neutral” and “plain.” We didn't mind; their “mild” flavor allowed the quesadilla and taco fillings to shine. Given those similarities, our tasters focused on differences in the tortillas' texture.
We wanted a wrapper sturdy enough to hold cheesy, juicy fillings without tearing or falling apart. All our tortillas achieved that basic goal, but we didn't like ones that were too stiff. Lower-ranked tortillas were oddly slick and “smooth,” which tasters likened to “compressed supermarket white bread.” Others were described as “dense,” “thick,” and “not especially tender.” When we removed them from the package, we also noticed that some tended to stick together, so we had to carefully peel individual tortillas off the stack. We preferred tortillas that were sturdy but still “very tender” and “soft” and that could be easily removed from the packaging.
To confirm what our tasters had noticed, we measured the tortillas (using samples from two bags to get an average). Sure enough, our least favorite was among the thickest—2.18 millimeters—and the heaviest—36.78 grams. Higher-ranked tortillas were consistently thinner and lighter; the best were about 1.4 millimeters thick and 23.7 grams, and tasters described them as “airy” and “light.” We also noticed that these more “delicate” tortillas had “distinct layers” and became pleasantly “crisp” when we cooked them for quesadillas.
It's likely that all the tortillas were made in a similar fashion. According to Tortillas: Wheat Flour and Corn Products (2015; edited by L.W. Rooney and S.O. Serna-Saldívar), the four main phases of commercial production are not unlike the steps we ...
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Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.