You don’t need to order from your favorite Mexican place to get browned, lightly charred, perfectly crisp tortillas.
Tortillas are a true staple of Mexican cuisine. A good tortilla is paramount to a hearty and delicious dish, whether that’s Mexican tacos, taquitos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, or Tex-Mex chimichangas.
Traditionally, tortillas are made from masa, a maize dough from ground corn soaked in lime juice. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see tortillas from wheat flour, especially on the shelves of U.S. grocery stores.
Before they’re eaten, tortillas should be warmed and browned. Doing so gets rid of their raw-flour flavor, brings out a natural, more intense smell and taste of corn, and gives them a charred, crispy texture.
But warming and browning a tortilla can be a tricky business. You don’t want to overdo it and have it come out burnt and crusty to the extent that it breaks apart when you try to fold it.
I guess that’s why you and I will be talking about the best (and the worst) ways to warm a tortilla today. As someone who’s not from Mexico but who wholeheartedly enjoys the philosophy, methods, and foods of Mexican cuisine, I will give you my best advice on the topic.
The traditional way to warm tortillas is in the dry heat of a cast iron skillet, preheated over medium-high. An alternative, more decadent way is to shallow-fry them in melted butter over medium-low heat.
Both of these ways, the details of which I am about to get into below, yield delicious results. And, as you can imagine, each has its ups and downs.
So let’s get into it.
Dry-Warm the Tortillas
The best way to warm a tortilla is in the dry heat of a preheated, well-seasoned carbon steel pan or cast iron skillet. Don’t use any butter or cooking oil—you’re not frying the tortilla, you’re warming it—just heat.
Why carbon steel or cast iron?
Because, unlike a copper or stainless steel frying pan, the tortilla won’t stick to the cooking surface of a well-seasoned carbon steel or cast iron skillet, even when you don’t add any butter or fat.
Also, because dry heat can damage your non-stick pan (when it starts to smell like plastic, you know you’re there, and you need to get a replacement for it right away).
Reach for that thick-walled, heavy-bottomed skillet in your kitchen cabinets and preheat it for 4-5 minutes over medium-high heat. Once it’s hot enough, which you can easily tell by holding your palm close to the cooking surface, warm the tortillas for 15-30 seconds on each side.
When the tortilla fills the air in your kitchen with the rich, toasty smell of hot bread and gets a good, leopard-like browning and charring on one side, flip it to the other till you get the same result, then take it off the heat. You can use a set of tongs or a fish flipper; either’s fine.
When you do this, you’ll probably be warming multiple tortillas at a time. To keep those that are ready from getting wet and soggy on the bottom, allow them to breathe and don’t rest them on a flat surface. Instead, lay them on a sheet pan with a wire rack (or roll them neatly in a large bowl).
Shallow-Fry the Tortillas in Butter
A less orthodox but incredibly delicious way to warm tortillas is by shallow-frying them in a lump of hot, melted butter.
The butter imparts the tortillas with a lush aroma and decadent flavor that they don’t have on their own, turning them into an incredibly rich—yet noticeably fatty—vessel for taco toppings.
This, ever since I experimented with it, has become our family’s favorite way to warm tortillas. And, since you’re using a generous amount of butter instead of dry heat, it works with every kind of cookware.
The key to getting this tortilla-warming method right, you see, is to use low to medium-low heat. It takes much longer than medium-high, dry heat, that’s for sure.
But low to medium-low heat is your only option as, otherwise, the butter in your pan will burn. How low, exactly? The maximum setting on my induction cooktop is 9. Usually, I do this on setting 3 to 3½.
If, at any point in time, you see the butter smoking (a sign that it has reached its smoke point), turn the heat down slightly.
Here’s how it goes:
Add a lump of unsalted butter into the pan, then set the heat on your stove to medium-low. Wait until the butter has melted, then toss the tortilla into the pan and let it cook for a good 2-3 minutes per side.
When you see the tortilla getting golden brown around the edges, you know it’s time to turn. You’re using gentle heat, but don’t wander off: left in the pan for too long, the tortillas can easily get overly crisp and start to burn.
You’ll probably need to add another lump of butter to your skillet every few tortillas. They tend to soak it up pretty quickly, which is also where that decadence I’ve been talking about comes from.
Is the tortilla too big to fit your pan?
With your chef’s knife, cut the tortilla up into four, tortilla chip-like triangles. Then warm the triangles one at a time in your pan.
The Worst Ways to Warm a Tortilla
The jury’s out whether warming tortillas in your wall oven or microwave oven is worse. In any case, neither method is one that you want to use.
The convection fan in your wall oven will dry the tortillas out. And, let’s be honest among ourselves here, nobody like their tortilla to fall apart into crumbles when it’s supposed to fold (unless we’re talking about hard taco shells).
Your microwave oven, on the other hand, is a fantastic appliance for warming water, soups, stews, and liquidy foods in general. But, when it comes to tortillas (and any other sorts of bread), it just won’t do. Tortillas warmed in the microwave won’t brown, and they’ll come out overly rubbery.