Not far from where I live in Queens is a place by the name of Tortilleria Nixtamal that grinds their own corn and makes their own tortillas and tamales. It is part factory, part restaurant and all kinds of delicious. They were kind enough to let Charlyne and I come in (at 7:00 a.m.) to watch (and videotape!!!) the process. Come see how it's done...
Being from Texas, I grew up on tortillas and tamales made from fresh masa (dough) which, up until 2008, was unavailable anywhere in New York City. That's when Shauna Page and Fernando Ruiz had machines shipped from Mexico and opened up Tortilleria Nixtamal in hopes of bringing traditionally prepared masa, tortillas and tamales to the area.
Dried masa is available in most every grocery store in the baking aisle but simply does not have the delicious corn flavor of fresh masa. The process of both is the same but the dried masa has a few added steps, and ingredients (which eliminate much of the flavor but make it last longer), added in.
Essentially everything that you will see below happens to the tortillas in your grocery store except that preservatives are added to allow for longer shelf life and the dough is dried into a powder and then reconstituted when needed. This allows for large scale production and long distance distribution/sale.
On to the process!
The corn is cooked for two hours at 200° with a small amount of calcium hydroxide (also known as lime...like limestone, not fruit!). This vital process is called nixtamalization (hence Tortilleria Nixtamal) and has been practiced since the days of the Aztecs. The lime will soften the tough skin of the corn kernel so it can be removed and will make grinding the corn easier. The lime also improves the flavor of the corn and increases the availability of nutrients, such as niacin and essential amino acids, making them easier for our bodies to absorb. The cooked corn is then cooled in it's cooking liquid for 8 to 12 hours to prevent the dough from being too gummy. From here the corn is transferred into a washer where it is rinsed with water to remove the hull of the corn as it travels into the hopper of the grinder.
The tricky part of grinding is getting the right amount of water in the mix as well as getting the right distance between the two grinding stones. Too much water will leave you with masa that is too sticky, too little and the stones will start to burn. The consistency of the masa has to be checked and then slight adjustments have to be made to the pressure applied to the stones and amount of water added until the dough is just right. The pressure applied to the stones also determines the coarseness of the grind. A finer grind is used for corn tortillas while a coarser grind makes the dough for tamales.
After the corn is ground it is transferred to a mixer which also helps to give the dough an even consistency. Tortilleria Nixtamal does not add preservatives or dry their masa but, it would be at this point in the process where preservatives would be added to most commercially prepared masa and then dried. Time to make tortillas!
The masa is fed from the funnel, cut by metal plates and flattened. The thickness of the tortilla is determined by adjusting a knob and lever on the side of the funnel (which you will see Pepe doing in the video). The machine is a 2-part conveyor. The first part of the journey is on a heated belt which cooks the tortilla and the second part is a wire mesh belt. And then . . . warm, fresh corn tortillas. Eating a freshly made tortilla is a transcendent experience. It's really satisfying. The smell is dreamy. Actually, the smell throughout the whole process is pretty dreamy.
We videotaped the process and I hope that you enjoy it. We really had a great time watching this whole process. Thank you to Shauna and Pepe for allowing us to get in the way of their morning routine. If you live in New York City or a state bordering New York, go eat at Tortilleria Nixtamal. Nothing compares.
Keep an eye out for a blog post on how to make tamales. I am going back soon for some of the tamale masa and will show you how it is done.
Please excuse my first foray into videotaping. Perhaps next go round I will figure out how to include some tunes with the video.
Oh, and here is build-your-own-breakfast-taco at work about an hour after the tortillas were made.