A few weeks ago, I was in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. Specifically, I was standing on the back porch of a house that belonged to a wonderful woman named Norma. She invited a number of us from the writing retreat to come into her home. We first gathered around her table to roll out pie dough for empanadas. (I couldn’t eat but I could participate in this and wash my hands afterwards. I hadn’t touched gluten dough in seven years. It was quite astonishing.) We walked out into the dusty backyard to watch her load breads, emapanadas, and pizzas into the horno, an outdoor oven that has been on the pueblos since the 1400s. The large mouth of the horno swallowed loaf after loaf, the heat of the fire wafting toward us. We laughed together and felt welcomed.
In that outdoor kitchen, we gathered around her, our arms leaning on the wooden railings, watching her make the dough for whole-wheat tortillas. I took notes at first but then I put down the phone and took notes with my eyes. Her hands were so skilled, deft and not doubting. I watched her scoop Crisco into the flour, and I smiled. These days, we have so many strictures on food, what we can and cannot do, what is wrong in the eyes of many. Norma didn’t care. It has always been Crisco and it always will be. She gathered a piece of dough and rolled it into a ball, which grew smoother and smoother in her palms. She had done this hundreds, if not thousands, of times before.
A hot skillet on the gas burner beckoned. She lay down the disc of dough and let it sit, then flipped it with her fingers. Char marks, the hiss of steam releasing, the smell of it all coming together — this was a good tortilla.
I couldn’t eat one but I took notes in my mind. And these photographs.
Spending that afternoon with Norma nudged a few realizations to the front of my mind.
1. I love how food is such a constant source of conversation in our culture. But sometimes I think that the proliferation of food blogs and cooking competition shows and food magazines has led to a kind of glossiness that doesn’t match the experience of real cooking. Unintentionally, perhaps, so many sources blare out “THE BEST WAY TO MAKE IT” or “THE ONLY WAY TO MAKE IT” or “THE AUTHENTIC WAY TO MAKE IT” or “LOOK AT ME. I KNOW MORE THAN YOU.” Norma had no artifice to her. She simply made her tortillas, the way she has for dozens of years before this one. I couldn’t eat those tortillas but I enjoyed the experience almost more than any food experience I’ve had.
What if there wasn’t a best way, an only way, the authentic way, or the look at me? What if we all just cooked and offered up a plate for anyone who happened to visit?
2. For years I’ve been stymied by the idea of gluten-free flour tortillas because I thought they had to match those flat, stretchy monsters sold in grocery stores. I couldn’t seem to roll out anything as thin as those packaged ones that are intended to last for weeks. Watching Norma, I realized I’ve been doing it all wrong.
Her flour tortillas were more like flatbreads: warm, soft, a little thick. They bent but they weren’t intended to be wraps. They were lightly charred, steaming from the griddle, and meant to be eaten in the moment. This, I thought. This I can do in my own kitchen.
3. I want to hear more stories. I want to stand on more back porches and listen to people like Norma. After 7 years of writing this site, I’m a little tired of my own story. I want to hear other people’s stories more.
GLUTEN-FREE FLOUR TORTILLAS
Let me say this clearly: these are not grocery-store tortillas. They’re warm, soft flatbreads. They’re good with a little butter on top and dipped in soup. They’re a lovely morning holder for scrambled eggs. And if we have made carnitas and homemade salsa, I’m making these. However, if you’re looking for thin flat tortillas to make sandwich wraps? This isn’t the right recipe.
These are best the moment they are made, or just after. I’m guessing that most homemade tortillas are like this. They don’t last to the next day. To me, that makes them even better.
We used a flour mix we’ve been playing with here: equal parts sorghum flour, millet flour, sweet rice flour, and potato starch. Since Norma made whole-wheat tortillas, I wanted these to be at least 1/2 whole-grain flours. I love the taste: a little earthy, a little like whole wheat, even. You might want to play with different flours in your kitchen.
We hope you make them and enjoy your meal.
280 grams gluten-free flour mix (we used equal parts sorghum, millet, sweet rice flour, and potato starch)
1 tablespoon psyllium husk
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening (if you’re worried about Crisco, try this one )
1/2 cup to 1 cup warm water
Making the dough. Combine the flour mix, psyllium, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the vegetable shortening. Using your hands, work the shortening into the dough. Rub the flour and shortening between your thumb and first finger, picking up a new handful and continuing until the shortening is the size of peas and the flour sort of shaggy.
Add just a bit of water at first, mix the dough with your hands, and check the consistency. You want to add just enough warm water to make the dough cohere but be a bit sticky. (See the photo of Norma’s dough up there.) Let the dough rest for 30 minutes.
Making the tortillas. Cut the dough into 16 equal pieces. (You could make it 12 pieces for larger tortillas. It’s up to you.) Roll each ball of dough between your hands. Because you have let the dough rest, the psyllium will have made the dough stretchy enough to knead it a little. Make each piece into a round ball and set them aside.
Set a cast-iron skillet on high heat.
Here you have your choice. We have been using the tortilla press — with the ball of dough between 2 pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper — to flatten the balls of dough into tortillas. You could also roll out the balls of dough, as Norma did. We’d suggest putting each ball of dough between 2 pieces of parchment paper to avoid the dough sticking to the counter. You might want to flour the paper a bit as well.
When you have one ball of dough rolled out, put it directly onto the hot skillet. Let it sit for a minute, watching the tortilla pucker in places with the steam. When the edges look the first bit crisp, flip the tortilla, and cook the other side. You should have a warm, soft tortilla with a few char marks. Set it aside and repeat with the remaining balls of dough.
(If you find your dough to be still sticky after resting for 30 minutes, you have 2 choices. 1) Let it rest longer. 2) Lay the rolled-out dough down into the skillet with the top piece of parchment paper still on. After 30 seconds of cooking, you should be able to peel the parchment paper away and cook the tortilla.)
Eat the tortillas immediately.
Makes 12 to 16 tortillas.