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Restaurants raise the bar on tortillas with Mexican corn, traditional methods

Tacos made with fresh tortillas at Oyamel
(Image credit: Oyamel)

Across the US, restaurants are investing in better ingredients and time-consuming traditional methods to elevate tortillas from an afterthought to an authentic, delicious part of the dining experience. Driven by the growing trend of ingredient transparency and consumers’ increasing knowledge of and demand for authentic Latin American cuisine, chefs are sourcing Mexican heritage corn bred for culinary applications and grinding it in-house to create fresh tortillas. Similar to the small but growing movement  of restaurants milling their own flour for breads and pastas, the process gives chefs total control over the finished product and sets restaurants apart from competitors that take a shortcut with pre-made tortillas.

Mexican corn makes all the difference

The process of creating superior tortillas begins with dried field corn, which is different than the sweet corn grown in the US. Finding a consistent supply of Mexican corn used to be difficult for restaurants, and its scarcity kept most restaurants from establishing a tortilla program. Today, one company is taking the guesswork out of finding the right corn by importing more than a dozen breeds of Mexican heritage corn from small farmers in Mexico.

“Mexico is the birthplace of corn…it has the longest evolutionary advantage compared to what we are used to in the US,” said Jorge Gavira, founder of Masienda.

Gavira started the company in 2014 after being inspired by a conversation he had with chef Enrique Olvera at the G9 Chefs Summit at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Olvera, whose restaurants include Pujol in Mexico and Cosme in New York City, is one of several top chefs helping raise the profile of Mexican heritage corn by making it a mainstay of his menu. Masienda supplies more than 150 restaurants and the support of chefs is helping drive demand for Mexican corn and support the country’s small farmers.

“Chefs have more cultural capital than ever before…[they] make a strong case for why this product is superior in every way,” Gavira said.

One such chef is Colin King of Oyamel in Washington, D.C., which has been sourcing corn from Masienda since March. “The end product offers a truly aromatic experience where a buttered popcorn flavor comes through, allowing the tortilla to become much more than just a vessel for the ingredients within, but to be represented as an integral part of the experience,” King said.

The method to the masa

Sourcing the right type of corn is just the beginning when it comes to making tortillas. Before grinding, the dried corn must be treated with a process called nixtamalization, which uses an alkaline solution to dissolve the thick outer shell around the kernel and unlock its nutrients.

The corn is left to soak for about 12 hours, King said. “Then we rinse the corn and season it with salt before grinding it to the desired consistency. The masa is then mixed with a little more water and then rolled into balls that are pressed, cooked and served. So the whole process from corn to tortillas can involve up to seven or eight people.”

Although the process is time-consuming, King said the end result is well worth the effort. “The flavor that results is truly amazing and the process allows us to be more in tune with the product we are using. There is something great about having a special product and being able to work with it,” he said. “Making the tortillas by hand also brings in the important human element of touching and working with the product. We press thousands of tortillas a day and each one is important and has been taken care of by the people on our team who are passionate about it.”

What’s next: colorful corn, beyond tortillas

Oyamel uses a breed of corn called White Olotillo, which Gavira said is Masienda’s best-selling variety due to its versatility. In addition to tortillas, Oyamel uses the corn in sopes, chalupas, gorditas, pescadillas, huaraches, totopos, tamales, and a variety of moles and sauces.

While Mexican heritage corn is most highly sought after for use in tortillas, its increasing popularity and availability are inspiring chefs to seek out different varieties for use in a range of applications from polenta to beer, Gavira said.

White and yellow breeds are most common, but Gavira said demand is growing for the more colorful varieties, such as blue, purple and red, and Masienda is working with farmers to build the supply of these breeds for the 2016-2017 harvest.

The company is also working on a line of value-added products that will make it easier for restaurants to offer products made with Mexican heritage corn. First to market will be a Masienda brand masa flour that will allow restaurants that don’t have the budget or space for soaking and grinding their own corn to take the first step to elevating their tortillas.

After the masa flour launches, Masienda plans to do for packaged food what it did for restaurants. The company is partnering with chef Rick Bayless on a line of co-branded tortilla chips that will launch exclusively at Whole Foods.


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