Published September 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
We gathered four national brands of 6-inch flour tortillas and put them to the test, tasting them plain and with fajitas.
When conquistadores arrived in the New World late in the 1500s, corn was king and corn flatbreads, called tlaxcalli, were a dietary staple; the conquistadores renamed them tortillas, or “little cakes.” Then Spaniards brought wheat to the New World and flour tortillas became popular in northern Mexico, where the winter climate was particularly amenable to wheat crops. Flour tortillas are now a staple in the cuisine of northern Mexico and in Tex-Mex dishes, including our Skillet Chicken Fajitas.
Typically made with just five ingredients—flour, water, fat, salt, and (often) baking powder—homemade tortillas have a pliancy and clean flavor that manufacturers have yet to duplicate. But tortillas are big business in the United States—second only to traditional white sandwich bread in bread sales—and manufacturers are working to improve their products. Recently, artisan and “restaurant-style” tortillas were introduced, and some brands have revamped their flagship lines. We gathered four national brands of 6-inch flour tortillas and put them to the test, tasting them plain and with fajitas.
Tortillas function as both a fork and a plate, transporting food in an edible package. To do so without showering onions and peppers, tortillas should be strong yet tender and pliable enough to wrap without tearing. We were also looking for a clean and mildly wheaty flavor.
Tasters quickly picked up on the biggest difference among the four brands: thickness. The tortillas ranged from 1.13 to 2.57 millimeters thick; the thinner the tortilla the more we liked it. (“All I got was a mouthful of bread,” complained one taster about a thicker brand.) Our top two tortillas were “thin enough to let the flavor of the filling shine through.” The next most important criterion was flaky texture; our top brand earned accolades for featuring “three distinct layers—best by far.”
The higher the percentage of fat, the more we liked the tortilla. First, fat adds flavor (our winner, at 9 percent, was called “slightly rich” and “buttery”). Second, a higher percentage of fat helps produce a more tender yet flaky tortilla by reducing gluten development. Our least favorite brand had just 3 percent fat—65 percent less than our winner—and it came across as “gummy” and “bready.”
The flavor-enhancing power of salt was also important: Our winning brand had almost twice as much salt as the bottom-ranked brand. Finally, the winning tortillas were also the only product to add glycerin, which retains moisture, preventing the tortillas from becoming dried out and stale. Our winning tortillas were tender and flaky and didn’t detract from the flavor of the fajitas, yet they were strong enough that we could take a bite without making a mess.