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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

How to Cook Fresh Masa Tortillas

Side view of homemade fresh masa corn tortillas

Several years ago I had the chance to do a walking tour of the Mission District in San Francisco with Rick Bayless. It is one of the coolest things I’ve done and I learned a ton about Mexican cuisine. (Seriously, the Rick Bayless is like a college professor.) One of the topics he covered was tortillas. He took us to a tortilleria where they make their tortillas from fresh masa. These tortillas were like nothing I had every tasted before. Rick explained the difference between maseca and fresh masa and talked probably for 15-20 minutes just about tortillas. I’ve been meaning to act on what I learned since that day but only recently tracked down a fresh masa source in my neighborhood. Man, I wish I had done it sooner because these tortillas. And now that I have cooked them many times I am going to share the magic with you! Today you will learn how to cook fresh masa tortillas and as well as why they are so magical.

A Wee Bit of Masa History

I’ve done a lot of reading about masa, corn and tortillas over the last couple of months. The short story is that in ancient Mesoamerica, people processed corn using nixtamilization, where corn is soaked in an alkaline solution and then washed and hulled. This process makes corn a complete nutrient. Interestingly, when Europeans brought corn home they neglected to learn nixtamilization, which in turn made European diets less nutritious. Crazy, huh? Meanwhile in the Americas masa and corn tortillas were a nutritious staple in many people’s diets.

Side view of a bowl of fresh corn masa

Fast forward to the 1980s. Masa-based tortillas were still the norm in Mexico until a company called Maseca came along. Maseca created masa flour, basically a flour made from masa. It’s more efficient and shelf stable but does not taste nearly as good as fresh masa. In the beginning Maseca did not do well in Mexico because the taste just couldn’t compare, but in 1988 the new president of Mexico helped the company in significant ways and transformed the Mexican tortilla industry. Today it is more common for tortillas to be made from maseca, which is a crying shame. (Click here to read more about this culinary and economic transformation, it’s fascinating.)

Top view of a bowl of fresh masa

Photo of homemade fresh masa corn tortillas

Why Fresh Masa Is So Much Better for Tortillas

Okay, so back to Rick Bayless. The tortilleria we visited in San Francisco used masa and you could tasted the difference. I have a hard time describing fresh masa tortillas I will try. The difference comes through both in texture and taste. Fresh masa tortillas are more like a flatbread. But as soon as I say that I regret it because they are still like tortillas, but the texture is just so much better. And the flavor is unreal. The kids and I can eat them straight up with a bit of butter (and honey!) and be happy. But of course the tortillas want to be tacos and so we make them tacos! Rick explained that one of the reasons he opened Frontera Grill in Chicago was because there were tortilla makers in that city using fresh masa and he needed a ready source of masa-based tortillas for his restaurant. The tortillas were that important to him when starting his restaurant.

Homemade fresh masa tortilla with butter and honey

Top view of fresh masa tortillas, one with butter and honey

How to Cook Fresh Masa Tortillas

Rick converted me to fresh masa tortillas, but how in the world would I make them at home? You can make your own fresh masa from dried corn – the blog Mexican Please blog has a great recipe and tutorial. However this is a time-consuming process, one which I am not apt to go through on a regular basis. If you are lucky like me and live in range of many Mexican restaurants and tortillerias, chances are one of them makes and sells fresh masa. I searched the map then called places to find out if they sold fresh masa. My source here in North County San Diego is El Nopalito. They sell fresh masa for tortillas for about $1 a pound.

Side view of tacos using homemade tortillas made from fresh masa

If you want to make fresh masa tortillas, start digging around to see if you, too, can find a masa source. It is worth the effort to find masa! If you come up empty and feel like a fun food project, maybe give making masa from scratch a shot. But keep in mind I have never done that myself and can’t vouch for the results (although I’m sure it would be delicious)!

top view of tacos using fresh masa tortillas

Okay, so you have fresh masa in hand. Now what? In the recipe below I describe in detail the process for how to cook fresh masa tortillas. I’ve made them many times and finally have it down. I will write the instructions as detailed as I can but keep in mind there’s a bit of a learning curve and you just have to dive in and do it to get the hang of it. You’ll get the feel for how to form and cook the tortillas as you cook more of them. If you have questions, just drop them in the comments below! Happy tortilla cooking!

Process for forming tortillas from fresh masa

Fresh masa corn tortillas cooking in the pan

How to Cook Fresh Masa Tortillas
Serves: 12-16
  • 1 pound fresh masa (make sure the masa is for tortillas and NOT tamales)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (if masa is unsalted)
  1. When working with the fresh masa, make sure it is kept covered or in a plastic bag the whole time so that it doesn't dry out while you are cooking.
  2. Form balls about 2 tablespoons in size, pressing the ball together well and rolling it between your hands to smooth the outside of the ball. I use my medium Pampered Chef scoop to measure out the balls. I also make the dough balls as I cook them, but if you want to form all the balls at once, just make sure you are storing them covered until they are ready to cook.
  3. Cut a quart-sized ziploc bag down the two side seams to form a long, rectangular piece of plastic. I use freezer bags because the thicker plastic holds up longer. I also wash the bag after each use and store it with my tortilla press.
  4. Place half of the plastic on the press, then place a masa dough ball in the center, then fold over the plastic to cover the dough. Gently but firmly press the ball into a tortilla shape. You want to get the tortilla as thin as you can but if you go too thin it will be hard to get off the plastic. It may take a few times to get the feel for it but don't fret, if you mess up just re-roll the ball and start over! If you do have a tortilla stick to the plastic, you may need to wipe the plastic down before trying again. My friend Mindy found it helpful to use a little spray oil on the plastic to prevent sticking, which could be helpful as you start working with the dough.
  5. If you don't have a tortilla press, you can use a glass casserole dish - just put the dough ball in the plastic then firmly press down on the dough. Glass is nice because you can see how thin the tortilla is getting as you press. Just be sure to press evenly down so the tortilla is the same thickness throughout.
  6. Preheat a large frying pan (I use non-stick, but a well-seasoned cast iron skillet should work, too) over medium-high heat. Let it preheat for a good five minutes before you start cooking the tortillas. On my stove medium-high works, but your stove may be a little different. You want the pan quite hot and you'll get a feel for it after you try it the first few times.
  7. Once the pan is hot, place your formed tortilla in the pan and let it cook for about 30 seconds then flip it over. If it is sticking to the pan that means it needs to cook a little longer. I like to do this first flip as early as possible so that the top uncooked side doesn't get too dried out before it finally gets a chance to start cooking on the griddle. After the first flip, let the tortilla cook for a minute or two, flip it back to the original side and cook for another minute or two. The tortilla will looked "cooked" when it's done - non-gummy, dry and potentially browned in spots. It's okay if the tortilla puffs up with air! I use a pancake flipper to flip the tortillas.
  8. Serve immediately. If you can't serve immediately, store in a tortilla warmer. As they sit they will get less crispy and a bit gummy, the best way to reheat is right on the pan. I generally make the tortillas as everyone is eating, but my family is also fine with tortillas that have been sitting in the tortilla warmer for a few minutes. I can cook 3 tortillas at a time on my 12-inch pan, so the cooking goes quickly.





  1. 1

    My kids refused to eat corn tortillas until I started making them with maseca. They taste so much better and my kids enjoy cooking them (they are generally more open to trying food they help make).
    Prior to this post, I didn’t know fresh masa was a thing. I found a large bag for under $2 at my local Mexican grocery store and I will never go back! They were over-the-top delicious and it makes tortilla making that much quicker to have the dough ready to go. I did find that the dough was sticking to the baggie in my tortilla press, so I had to occasionally hit it with cooking spray.

    • Great tip on the dough sticking – I added it to the recipe itself.

      I am SOOOO HAPPY you already gave these a try and are converted! Yay for fresh masa!

  2. 2

    Also want to say that while buying fresh masa requires a trip to a special market, it is well worth the effort. I was able to grab lots of fresh produce and other dinner ingredients for much cheaper than my local Safeway.

  3. 3
    Larry Love

    Do I need a press, or can I roll them with a rolling pin?

    • hi larry! I think you could flatten with your hands or roll with rolling pin, just still use the plastic bag. the masa is quite sticky, the bag is the key! but I think you can do it fine without a press. lmk how it goes!

  4. 4
    Mary Gonzalez

    I had left over mass for tamales I made. I refrigerated it then pulled it out next day to warm. I sprayed a cast iron skillet then tried to make balls but masa stuck to my hands. I tried again and put a ball between wax paper and rolled it placed on skillet it stuck again.
    What am I doing wrong?

  5. Hi Mary!

    So glad you commented because I have and answer!

    Masa for tamales is different than masa for tortillas. For tamales the add Liquid/lard to the masa and then whip it. This is not done to masa for tortillas. I am not surprised it is sticking as there is a lot more moisture in tamale masa and it’s not meant for cooking into tortillas.

    Wherever you buy your tamale masa would probably also sell masa for tortillas as well.

    hope that is helpful!

  6. 6
    Mary Gonzalez

    Well that answered my question about sticky masa meant tamales and not tortillas. I’ll just make more tamales

  7. 7

    We want to make tortillas, but hadn’t read this before buying “Goldmine organic blue masa” it says on it that it is made from whole corn that has been cooked in lime water, it says use it to make tortillas, tamales, and much more, wondering if I’m really missing the real thing or if this is good?
    Thank you

  8. 8
    MaryAnne Chancey

    We just bought blue corn nixtamalized meal also and made tortillas – DEE-LISH!! Will Never go back to store bought. We make about a dozen at a time and use the for roll-ups with scrambled eggs lol.

  9. 9

    Sorry I am a few years later to the tortilla party. Just had a restaurant open in my rural NM town that makes fresh masa every day for their corn tortillas…..OMG what a difference! I am hooked on them now. But I a curious, why can’t you use tamale masa for corn tortillas….just was wondering.

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