How to grind maize for tortillas on a metate (simple grindstone)

My comrade-in-culinary-arms, Ken Albala asked for hints on grinding maize for tortillas on a metate.

First, for those of you who don’t know what a tortilla is, it is the basic flatbread of Mexico. It is made from maize. I spent a bit of time looking for a good youtube video of grinding and found nothing that I thought was good. And at the moment I can’t find my photos though I’ll post them when I can.

Second, you can’t use just any old maize. It has to be made with a white (or sometimes red or blue) starchy maize that is grown on farms of all sizes in Mexico. The maize grown in the US is by and large unsuitable for tortillas. So if you live outside Mexico, you need to first get hold of Mexican-style maize.

Third, you have to treat the maize before you grind it. If you grind it as is, you will get good old corn meal. And if you try to make that into tortillas, it won’t hang together and it certainly won’t roll up in a nice flexible way.

So you take your maize, put it in some kind of pot, cover it with water, and throw in a handful of “cal” or lime. You can beg any building site for a plastic bag full or you can buy your own sack. This is not of course strictly traditional. But if you are outside Mexico your chances of getting the traditional tequisite are not high. And everyone in my area uses lime. People do this by eye, varying the quantity slightly depending on whether they are going to make tortillas or tamales. But for starters, the measurements that Diana Kennedy givesare one tablespoon of cal to 2 pounds of maize. Then you heat the pot to boiling, remove it from the fire, and leave it overnight to cool.

Next morning you pour off the water and rub the skins off the corn kernels, rinsing until they are clean. Then you put your maize in a plastic bucket (oh the joy of plastic in poor rural areas). Most people in Mexico would now go off to the local mill and have it ground into masa, fine for tortillas, coarser for tamales (steamed maize dumplings). But you are going to keep your nixtamal (as the maize is now called) to grind. But you are going to grind it yourself.

Fourth, you need a metate or simple grindstone. It should be of medium size, that is just over a foot wide and about eighteen inches long. The bigger ones are for chocolate, the smaller ones for spices. But this size is ideal for the pass needed for turning maize into masa.

Most metates are made of volcanic rock, basalt or andesite. No need to worry about the geology of this. What is important is that these rocks are both hard and have pores. You need hard so bits don’t come off too easily when you are grinding. You need pores because as you grind down the surface stays uneven, meaning you don’t have to have the metate picada (pecked) to restore an uneven surface so often. Diana Kennedy recommends smooth stone. After talking to a number of metate makers and grinders, I have to say that I believe the more porous stone is better.

If you buy your metate second hand watch out. Normally they are sold if the mano (the grinder) has broken which, amazingly, it does. Then the vendor adds a new mano. This often does not fit the metate well and you have to work twice as hard. So it’s perhaps better to buy new. And here watch out too. At La Merced, the main market in Mexico City, they sell metates made of concrete. Not good news. Check it’s real stone. And I have reason to believe that those made with traditional metal picks are much better than those made with electric drills because there is less likelihood that bits of stone break off and get into the digestive system. But I need to do a bit more work on this. Once you’ve picked out a metate, begin by using an electric drill fitted with a metal brush to remove bits of stone, not traditional but effective. Then go to the old-established custom of grinding rice until it comes clean.

Now your grindstone and grinder (mano or hand as it is called in Spanish), the brush to clean the metate, bucket of nixtamal, bowl of water, bowl to hold the masa, and a towel to cushion your knees.

Fifth. Grinding itself. Take a heaping handful of nixtamal and put it an inch or two from the high end of the metate. Take the mano in both hands, holding it near the ends, thumbs pointing back toward you. Now push down on the mano moving the maize forward in a shearing action, giving the mano a little twist upward at the end of the stroke. No rolling. The maize will have moved down the metate a little. Lift the mano, and start the process over. After a few strokes (ha! this is hard work as the weight of your body is doing the work), the maize, now white and streaky, will be close to the lower end of the metate. With the fingers of the right hand, pull the mass together and move it back to the upper end of the metate. End of pass one.

(This is actually pineapple, a breeze to grind, but it is a place holder until I find my masa grinding photos).

To make masa fine enough for tortillas, you will need five passes, maybe more if you are a novice. If as you grind, the maize-masa gets out of place use those backward facing thumbs to corral it back. You will now have enough masa for one or two tortillas.

So forget that you are getting dizzy, feeling slightly sick, and that every muscle is quivering. Think that you will never ever have to go to the gym again if you keep this up. Think about the joys of modern civilization. Think you’re glad you weren’t born a Mexican woman in the past.

You might actually consider making gorditas which don’t require such a fine grind for your first go.

About half an hour should be enough to give you masa to make about ten tortillas, enough for one working person for one day (have to check these figures).

Use a tortilla press to make them (no one I’ve met has ever suggested that patting makes a better tortilla). I know, I know, this needs instructions too, but enough for one post. But if you make it to the end, rejoice in one of the most fragrant delicacies you will ever encounter, sheer toothsome deliciousness, food of the gods if ever there was one.

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16 thoughts on “How to grind maize for tortillas on a metate (simple grindstone)

  1. kyle

    i can’t wait to do this, this is how my grandma used to make them when she was growing up! and they used to make them by hand. where do you get the corn? i only can find very small amounts at the mexican markets here, i think they call it maiz perla. we have a metate, unfortunately no mano! so i have to get a new one, that will be hard to find too. i think i will use a hand grinder and do the last pass through the metate like my grandma did.

    Reply
  2. Kenzie

    My dad made this growing up, but I never was able to stay around long enough and watch. I am happy to know how to do it now! There are so many awesome markets here and I can’t wait to get all the goods and try it myself. Yum.
    -Kenzie
    Deep Fryers

    Reply
  3. J. McCurry

    In May 1997, I was in Chiquimula, Guatemala for a month. We were doing agricultural stuff up in the small aldeas higer up. There, the ladies would take the wet pre-nixtamalized corn over to the local mill, and come back with a bigger plastic bowl full of masa. When making the tortillas, they would take that masa and give it a few passes on the stone metate with the mano to make it more fine. Then they would pat out the tortillas.

    Later, I had a boyfriend from La Paz, Honduras. He told me that tortillas taste better when they taste of the hands that made them (ie, patted out!). I’m certainly no good at it -it is a skill to develop.

    The beans are certainly different there. We ate black beans three times a day, never felt any ‘gassy’ effects. Can’t do that with storebought beans here.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Julene (is that right), thanks so much for the comments on Guatemalan grinding. Clearly the final pass on the metate makes a different because they do that in Mexico too. But lucky you to see people still patting out tortillas. I don’t see much of that in Mexico.

      Reply
  4. Moonwynd Studio

    Wonderful. I ran in to one of these this afternoon at a little restaurant here in the heart of Mexico. The one there was the owner’s Great-grandmother’s. Now I know the name and much more about it: metate. Thank you! /mw

    Reply
  5. marilyn

    I have the niztamalization of my home grown corn down but I need the mano and metate.Do you have any suggestions as to where I can get a set? Thanks so much.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Marilyn, I think Craigslist or a flea market that caters to Mexican customers are probably your best bets. I hope that one or other operates where you live. Shipping metates is terribly expensive so they are hard to come by. Good luck.

      Reply
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  8. Tim

    I’m interested to know if many Mexicans use hand cranked grinders of the Victoria/Corona/Estrella style that I’ve always understood to be “masa grinders”. I use one to make masa for tortillas, and I assumed they were incredibly common tools in Central America. Not so? I also have to say that I’ve found it is possible to make tortillas without Mexican corn. I’ve made it with Northern Flint, Iroquois White Flour, Cateto Sulino (a South American Flint), and Coroico ( a Brazilian Flour corn). I’m pretty sure you can make tortillas with any corn other than sweet corn, although nixtamaliizing popcorn might be challenging given that it is selected for extremely thick pericarp.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Tim, what an interesting series of comments. Yes, Mexicans do use hand cranked grinders. I’ve seen them in quite humble houses out in the country. I’m not in Mexico any more so I can’t ask a selection of people to get a definitive answer to your question. Even given what I just said, I’m fairly certain many, perhaps most rural women don’t use them. And I believe those who do feel in it important to give the masa a final pass on the metate to get the consistency they want. I think a lot of people jumped straight from metate to local mill.

      And yes, it’s quite possible to make tortillas without Mexican corn. Mexican classifications don’t map neatly on to North American as I’m sure you know. White corn is strongly preferred or red or blue, though the people I talked to said the latter were not for reasons of taste. Yellow corn–often associated with American feed corn–is not liked. But this is all a very touchy and emotional issue.

      Reply
  9. Aaron

    A fun read, Rachel. Thanks! A bit too much work to grind the one dried ear of corn i have. (I was gonna prepare a treat for my new hen.) But still fun to read about.

    Reply

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