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 tequesquite 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 gives are 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.