What Is a Corn Tortilla?

Marlene Garcia

A corn tortilla is a type of thin flatbread eaten as a staple in Mexico. The corn tortilla can be incorporated into many recipes, including enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas, and tostadas. It becomes a popular snack when cut into sections and fried to produce corn chips, often served with a spicy salsa. A corn tortilla serves as an eating utensil when a diner rips off a piece and uses it to pick up a mouthful of food.

Corn tortillas are used in many Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas.
Corn tortillas are used in many Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas.

This food provides important nutrients to native Mexican and Maya populations, especially those who live in poor communities. A corn tortilla provides a good source of fiber and calcium, but is low in calories. One study found many Mexicans obtain almost half their daily calories and protein from corn tortillas.

Tacos are one of the most common recipes that use tortillas.
Tacos are one of the most common recipes that use tortillas.

Corn is treated with lime before it becomes the dough, called masa, used to make corn tortillas. This alkaline treatment improves nutrient levels of lysine and calcium when compared to untreated corn. When tortillas are eaten with beans, rice, or potatoes, the levels of protein and lysine are enhanced in lime-treated corn.

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Corn tortillas are cut into strips and then fried to make tortilla chips, the perfect accompaniment to robust salsa.
Corn tortillas are cut into strips and then fried to make tortilla chips, the perfect accompaniment to robust salsa.

The corn, lime, and water process used in making corn tortillas represents the same method used for thousands of years, but hand grinding has been replaced by machine. Dry corn and lime are cooked in water for hours to soften the kernels. This mixture typically sits overnight before it is ground by machines using porous stones. Water is added periodically to obtain the dough’s proper consistency and to keep the stones cool. A second machine then kneads the mixture into stiff dough.

The flatbread of a corn tortilla is derived from corn, otherwise known as maize.
The flatbread of a corn tortilla is derived from corn, otherwise known as maize.

Most tortillas consumed in Mexico and other parts of the world are made by machine at large or small tortilla factories, called tortillarias. Corn tortilla dough is placed onto a conveyor belt, where it is flattened and cut to exact size. The tortillas then move into ovens that cook each side of the flatbread, a process that takes about a minute.

In virtually every Mexican village or town, at least one tortillaria opens early each morning. Women or children typically walk to the small factory to buy corn tortillas needed for each meal, ensuring they are always fresh. These warm tortillas are weighed because they are sold by the kilo, wrapped in brown paper, and often placed into a small plastic bag tied at its opening to keep heat inside.

Until the 1990s, corn and tortilla producers in Mexico received government subsidies to keep this dietary staple affordable. After deregulation, the price of corn tortillas rose and consumption declined. Long after subsidies ended, it was not uncommon to see people protesting in the streets when the price of corn tortillas increased.

Corn chips are often served with spicy salsa.
Corn chips are often served with spicy salsa.

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