How we tested
Corn tortillas are a staple in Latin America, and as the Latino population in the United States grows, sales are booming in this country. Sales hit $2 billion in the States this year—up a whopping 35 percent from last year, according to IRi, a Chicago-based market research firm. While we love homemade corn tortillas, we usually rely on the convenience of store-bought. Good corn tortillas should be soft and pliable, with a fresh, light corn flavor. That’s not what we found when last we evaluated national products—not even close. If popularity is surging, though, is it too much to hope that quality has also improved?
This time, as we surveyed the market, we found it dominated by Mexico-based Gruma Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of corn tortillas. Gruma makes the majority of the tortillas sold in the States, including Mission and Guerrero, the two top-selling brands. Three of the seven products we tasted are made by Gruma.
We compared the tortillas in two blind taste tests, first assessing them warmed in an oven and served plain, and then pitting the top four products against one another in enchiladas. Commercial corn tortillas are made from specially treated corn flour, water, salt, binders, and preservatives. They can be yellow or white, depending on the variety of corn used; if a brand offered both, we tasted both. We asked tasters to judge both taste and texture.
When all the results were tallied, we had a winner—it’s the first time that the test kitchen has been able to recommend a supermarket corn tortilla—and we found three others that we can recommend with reservations. (Clearly, tortilla quality has improved.)
Tasters faulted many of the tortillas for being either too sweet or bland. The sugar content, which ranged from 0 to 2.7 grams per serving, was from corn flour, added dextrose, or a combination. (Serving sizes ranged among products from one to three tortillas. To put them on an even playing field, we set an across-the-board serving size of 52 grams, and we based all our calculations on that.) Our winner had a hint of sweetness from its light, fresh corn flavor but no added sugar. Several products with added sugar were too sweet. Yet our last-place product had no added sugar; why did it tank? Tasters described it as “boring” and “flavorless.”
So we checked sodium levels. Our winner had the most by far, with 120.5 milligrams per serving, while the product in second to last place had just 9 milligrams per serving; the other five ranged from 11 to 50 milligrams per serving. Yes, the winning product has 2 1/2 to 13 times more salt than any other in our lineup. That sounds like a lot, but this amount of salt per serving is on par with the amount in an average slice of supermarket bread. And no one found our winning tortillas too salty. Actually, they were quite flavorful, which makes sense because salt is a flavor booster.
Texture is where supermarket corn tortillas can really go wrong; they’re often crumbly and dry, and they break as you try to bend them around a filling. There’s a reason for this: Corn is low in protein, which is needed to build strong, cohesive dough, and high in starch—particularly amylose (approximately 25% of total weight of starch), a form of starch that readily crystallizes, causing tortillas to stale. Manufacturers battle staleness with gums and stabilizers that tenderize and bond the corn flour, but this doesn’t always work. So how did our winning product remain soft?
Our winner took a radical route to the top of the tasting. First, it has two to three times as much protein—6.3 grams per serving versus 2 to 3 grams in the other products. Our winner is the only product to add wheat gluten, which contains 75 percent protein, compared with 6.9 percent protein in corn flour. This extra protein binds with the water and makes the dough more cohesive and elastic, which in turn creates a softer, stronger tortilla. (This also means that unlike most corn tortillas, our winner is not gluten-free.) So what’s the key to good texture in a supermarket corn tortilla? It’s wheat.
Our winner—by far the most expensive product in our lineup at 37 cents per tortilla—rated highest with tasters on every criteria. These tortillas even had toasty brown griddle marks that contributed a pleasing nutty flavor and a homemade look. (The same company makes our lowest-ranking product, too.) For those who need gluten-free corn tortillas, our second-place finisher, while lacking our winner’s firm structure, is still a good option.