The basis of any good taco is a good tortilla. We're not talking about those crunchy corn-chip things (they can stay on the supermarket shelf), but we're not talking about the most time-consuming traditional version either. A really good soft tortilla, any purist will tell you, is made from corn which has been boiled and steeped in a solution of lime (calcium hydroxide, that is, not the citrus) to loosen the skin, washed and then ground to form a dough known as masa. The liming process, known as nixtamalisation, changes the nutritive qualities of the corn and alters its flavour. Making tortillas this way, however, is more of a chore than most Mexican cooks are prepared to bother with, let alone Australian ones, so here we're going to deal with tortillas made from masa flour (also known as masa harina or harina de maíz), a white or yellow nixtamalised corn flour made by drying freshly made masa. (If you want to explore traditional tortilla-making in more detail, our go-to author is Diana Kennedy.)
Even with this simplified method, some initial outlay is required, and the flour, though available at some specialist shops, may need to be ordered ahead (Essential Ingredient stores often carry it; Melbourne's Casa Iberica is another standby). The one thing you can't really do without is a tortilla press. It's not much more than two pieces of metal with a hinge and a handle, and shouldn't set you back much more than $25. A comal, a flat, heavy iron griddle to cook the tortillas, is a plus, but we've also had excellent results using a Scanpan. Monterey and Fireworks Foods online stock both presses and flours and ship nation-wide.
It's very much worth doing, because it's dead easy, and because there's a world of difference between a freshly made tortilla and the sort you buy in shops. A fresh tortilla needs only some fried eggs, hot sauce, avocado, spring onion, chilli and lime to make a meal, but also provides the perfect vessel for barbecued seafood, thinly sliced steak, or slow-cooked pork, greens, or whatever else your stomach desires.
The keys to tortilla perfection are getting the consistency of your dough right, then letting it sit, cooking it right and, crucially, letting the tortillas steam, wrapped in a towel, in their own heat at the table.
If your dough is too dry, it will crack in the press; too wet or sticky, it'll be impossible to peel from the plastic or baking paper you've lined your press with. Some cooks use Ziploc bags, cut into squares, to line their presses; we prefer baking paper. If we're making tortillas for a crowd, we'll stack them on the sheets, peeling them only when they're ready to be cooked, but if you're only making a few, you can reuse the linings, peeling the tortillas off and either cooking them immediately or draping them over the edge of a bench or board. (It's much easier, incidentally, to peel the lining from the tortilla than the tortilla from the lining.)
The cooking is just as straightforward: bring your comal or pan to medium-high heat without any oil, gently slip in your tortillas one or two at a time, allow them to brown on one side, flip and brown the other side, flip and cook briefly on the first side again to finish, then transfer to a basket lined with a towel. Don't worry if they seem a little stiff straight from the pan; they'll soften in the towel. The important thing is not to let them get cold. Reheating tortillas doesn't really work, but the cuisine of Mexico has as many recipes for leftover tortillas as Europe's cookbooks have for stale bread, whether it's cutting them into chips to fry, slipping them into sopa de tortilla, or putting them to a hundred other good uses.