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Flour Tortillas

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2012

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*