In its industrial form, a tortilla is basically an edible plate. There's little substance or flavor to it. Jorge Gaviria says that is not the way it is meant to be. Gaviria is the CEO of Masienda, a company that supports people who grow native varieties of corn in Mexico and uses traditional methods to make tortillas in the US. Francis Lam talked with Gaviria about what makes the difference between a good a tortilla and a great tortilla. Also see The Splendid Table’s related story, “Don’t be afraid of making tortillas at home,” and chef Alex Stupak's recipe for Corn Tortillas.

Francis Lam: I have to ask you a question, Jorge. I'm sure you know this guy, I know this guy, everyone knows this guy – the guy who, every time you have a pizza, says, “You know, the crust is the best part of the pizza.” Why is it that no one says the tortilla is the best part of the taco?

Jorge Gaviria: Fortunately, I think that's changing. And we have a lot of people to thank for that, a lot of chefs who have been doing hard work to elevate the merits of the humble tortilla. This is what's so fascinating about a tortilla: it's everywhere. This is a 12-billion dollar industry in the US; that’s a lot of tortillas! But nobody really understands where they come from. Or I should say, a majority of folks in the U.S. don't understand the history of it. Honestly, it’s an O.G. superfood that has been around for thousands of years and catalyzed an entire civilization to existence. And yet, to your point, it's kind of an afterthought. It's seen as a throw away piece, even though it's the foundation to the entire dish.

The tortilla is this ongoing challenge. It is at odds with industrial agriculture and industrial food. We have significantly changed what a tortilla looks like in the last 50 years to the point where we almost don't recognize it anymore.

Francis Lam with Jorge Gaviria Photo: Sally Swift

FL: What do you mean?

JG: Tortillas have a long history in the world, and a deeper significance than I think most folks will ever understand. The original tortilla comes from corn that requires this alchemy process called nixtamalization, which is a mineralization process. It is the process of an essentially indigestible piece of corn – field corn – sitting in an alkaline bath for a number of hours – in our case about 12 to 14. This is what imparts all of the natural nutrition that's found in each corn kernel. It also breaks down the pericarp or the skin of the corn kernel. The kind of thing that gets stuck in your teeth after you eat popcorn; that’s what it's taking off. That not only makes it more digestible, it makes it easier to mill and also renders it nutritious in the process.

FL: It chemically changes so it unlocks the nutrients which, otherwise, our bodies can't process.

JG: Exactly.

FL: I understand when you grind it, that's basically your dough. Water, corn and the lime used to nixtamalize it, ground into a dough – that’s masa. And tortillas are made from that masa.

JG: The best tortillas are made from that kind of masa.

FL: What is the difference between the best tortillas and the less-than-best tortillas?

JG: This is part of what I find so fascinating about the industry. We've found all sorts of shortcuts to that long nixtamalization process. We found shortcuts to the milling process in order to make this quick, convenient, and as cheap as possible – which there is real merit to; value is an important thing. But, it's come at the expense of the natural nutrition in the traditional process of nixtamalization and making a tortilla from scratch.

It’s also come at the expense of flavor. Sourcing makes a big difference because you can't taste run-of-the-mill yellow commodity corn. You ideally want something that has more character, something that's bred for food – not ethanol or cattle feed. Basically, we're sharing a lot of these same varieties, and using and re-appropriating it for food. Even though it's not really designed for food. It's designed for high-yield, high-starch industrial products.

Of course, I generalize here. There are always exceptions, but by and large, that's what we're talking about. At the end of the day, we want to focus on the pleasure that you get from something that tastes good and nourishes you. I knew there was something missing from tortillas in the US, so I went to Oaxaca to do research. In full transparency, my mom was born in Mexico, but I come from a predominantly Cuban family. My main starch was rice. I fell in love with tortillas in that first experience when I got to Oaxaca and realized the capacity of nourishment that I was missing.

It’s grounded in two things. The first is sourcing, and understanding that not all corn is created equal. When you're paring back a recipe for a tortilla to its essence – which is corn, water, and lime – each of those ingredients needs to be spot-on for it to taste good. The second piece to it is going back to the recipe itself, this process of nixtamalization, and stone milling. There's really no science to it. Of course, there's a lot of science chemically, but from a perspective of a recipe, this is something that's an elusive art. The thing that differentiates an okay tortilla from a great tortilla is the attention to detail to those two factors, both the sourcing and the actual production of a tortilla from scratch.

Selection of tortillas sampled in-studio by Francis Lam and Jorge Gaviria Photos: Sally Swift

FL: You brought in some different tortillas and a little electric comal, so let's taste some.

JG: [laughs] This is actually a Mexican crepe maker. I brought three samples that I think this will help demonstrate what distinguishes a good tortilla from a great tortilla – or what polarizes a tortilla. I was very intentional about these examples.

The first is Guerrero, which is owned by GRUMA, the largest tortilla behemoth in the world. If you've ever had a tortilla in the United States, it's probably been made by these folks. I also brought a local option, which is made in Newburgh, NY. And, I brought a Masienda tortilla. What differentiates the Guerrero tortilla from the local tortilla is not much, except for the fact that one was made locally and one was probably made in a plant somewhere in the central United States.

FL: Jorge has these tortillas on this little griddle – dry, no oil – and he's twirling, twisting them, and flipping them on occasion. I'm watching because I'm curious about your method for reheating a tortilla. Also, because when I reheat tortillas at home, I do this dumb cook thing where I think I have to get color on it. Because things taste better when you get color on it, right? And then when I take it off, it's kind of hard.

JG: Truly, there is no right way to heat up a tortilla. It depends on taste. My wife, for example, when we first met, was obsessed with putting it on the stove. She needed that deep color like a sear, and almost burned it like a s’more marshmallow before she would eat it.

Personally, my favorite way of reheating a tortilla is to gauge how moist it is first. If you feel like it's on the drier side, adding a little bit of water on both sides is the secret that I found to reviving any tortilla that seems dead. I've got a small spray mister, and I give these tortillas a little spray. Because some of the moisture may have been lost in the distribution process – or between the tortilleria to the store – you want to rehydrate it. I do a little bit extra so it steams. As it's drying out on a really hot and dry pan, it'll sear, which gives you the best of both worlds. It'll lock in moisture in the center of the tortilla – which is nice so it's pliable – but it'll also give it the nuttiness on the outside from the sear.

When I'm evaluating what makes a good tortilla, the other important part to look at is the ingredient deck. This is the local company that I was mentioning. “Local” has a great connotation, but when you look at the ingredient deck, it loses all the romance. You're talking about corn masa flour, propionic acid, benzoic acid, guar gum, cellulose gum. These are tastes that most of us – myself included – have become so accustomed to. I used to expect a tortilla to have that bitter quality to it, both in the smell and the actual flavor. It wasn't until I retrained my palate that I understood this should taste a totally different way.

Then we're talking about the actual look of it. Color can be deceiving. On the white spectrum, if it's extremely white, it usually means that you've got a lot of acidic products in it that are actually bleaching it, believe it or not.

FL: I can actually smell the acid. I think it smells tart in this bag. This is one of the industrial ones.

JG: It's enough that when you open the bag you can smell that strong acidity; it’s an acrid smell. When you heat it up, you get the greatest sense of it because the vapors that are coming off are the pure extract of that tortilla. All of these are pretty much parcooked. Most tortillas are about 80 to 85 percent cooked. So, to your question about reheating, you always want to reheat a tortilla. A cold tortilla is not good.

Now, I'll give you the two Maseca options here.

FL: These are the industrial ones? I have to tell you, I'm smelling it, and it smells weirdly like a fresh-baked brownie. But, at the same time, I love a tortilla, and this smells and tastes like the tortillas I know.

JG: Right, it tastes like a tortilla, right? If we were none the wiser, this is great.

FL: Now I'm going to taste one of the Masienda tortillas, made from original corn.

JG: Absolutely. This a nixtamalized corn tortilla, and it’s taken about 20 hours to make from scratch. All of this corn is sourced from Oaxaca, Mexico, which is believed to be one of the birthplaces of corn. Like wine has terroir, anything that's growing in the ground has terroir; corn does too. Mexico has about 10,000 years on the United States, insofar as how long it's been growing corn, so it makes sense that it's going to taste better at that origin.

FL: I know you're leading the witness a bit here, but visually I can see more yellow color. It has a richer color. Smelling it off the griddle, I don't get any of that sourness. It smells like there’s someone grilling beautiful food off in the distance. If I was going to be super-picky about it, it almost tastes like a piece of grilled shrimp. It sounds so weird to say because it doesn't taste like shrimp, but it's evoking in me this idea of amazing grilled shrimp or some of that toasted shell flavor.

JG: I totally hear what you're saying. That natural sweetness that you find in shrimp, it's the same thing with this. We fell in love with this particular corn variety because its naturally high oil content. It has a lingering. When you really start to pay attention, you realize the flavor will be left in your mouth and on your palate for a lot longer because of the natural oils. Your mouth is literally being coated by oils that aren't present in commodity corn. So, it's not far off that you're talking about shrimp. There's a natural sweetness to it that's definitely present.

Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.