Tortilla or Not Tortilla, That is the Question (Or, The Secret to Making Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips at Home)

Introduction

The folks over at ScienceFare.org (a favorite food blog I read regularly) recently published two articles about those amazingly light yet amazingly crunch tortilla chips you seem to be able to get at Mexican restaurants but nowhere else. In their first article, they theorized that spraying atomized water from a spray bottle on store-bought tortillas and then frying them would produce a restaurant-quality tortilla chip. In their second article, they made flour tortillas from scratch (using a recipe from Matthew Kayahara’s blog) and compared the differences in frying the raw flour tortilla dough vs. cooking the dough (to make an actual tortilla) and then frying the result. Unfortunately, neither experiment seemed to yield the tasty goodness they were searching for.

As an avid reader of ScienceFare.org and a new fan of kayahara.ca, I figured I’d get in the ring and make this a tortilla three-way….

The Backstory

Those of you who know me, know I’m a Cinco de Mayo zealot. In my house, Cinco de Mayo is always celebrated with good homemade Mexican food and, in the past few years, some Mexican food experiments. This year, however, I ended up with an experiment gone wrong. In fact, I had no intention on admitting my food defeat in such a public forum until I saw that Kevin Miklasz  over at ScienceFare.org and I were in the same boat. You see, sometime in April my wife and I went to Dos Caminos in Manhattan and enjoyed a Mexican dinner that yielded significant leftovers. The following weekend I was frying up a batch of fish and chips and tossed the leftover restaurant tortillas in the deep fryer. The result, surprisingly, were restaurant-style chips from my own kitchen!


Frying the Flour Tortillas on Cinco de Mayo
Photo Credit: Kris Arnold

Fast-forward a few weeks when I have a half dozen folks at my house for Cinco de Mayo. Within what seemed like the first five minutes of my guests arriving, the first (and only) bag of tortilla chips I had bought were gone. This wasn’t just a “we’ve eaten all the whole chips and left the broken ones” situation. It was a “not a crumb to be found” emergency. I guess my guacamole-making abilities have surpassed my guacamole-making confidence level.

So what is one to do? Well, my deep fryer happened to be all fired up ready for a batch of plantains. And tortillas are to my fridge as a six pack of beer is to the fridge in a frat house. So I tossed some of those puppies (the tortillas, not the beer) into the fryer and proclaimed victory. Victory, that is, until they came out of the fryer. Within 3 minutes, the once-perfect flour tortillas became a dismal embarrassment to the Mexican culture and the U.S factory that made them. They were both underdone and overdone at the same time. They were flaky like a piecrust and tasted like one too. I love my fryer, and, until that moment, held a firm belief that it’s impossible to make an ingredient taste worse by frying it. But something had gone horribly wrong. On to Plan B—sending one of the guests to the corner store before it closes to pick up some respectable tortilla chips.

So how could I go from leftovers-turned-tasty-chips to mid-party embarrassment at the blink of an eye? My theory: it’s all about the tortilla. My guess was that my local Mexican restaurant makes them fresh while my local grocer’s tortillas undergo a manufacturing process that make them unsuitable for frying. And what better way to prove (or debunk) a theory than to perform a controlled experiment.

 

The Experiment


The selection of tortillas about to be fried.

I scoured the shelves of two local supermarkets and one local Mexican specialty store for both flour and corn tortillas of varying brands and varying level of authenticity in their packaging. I also haggled with my local Mexican restaurant (Little Mexican Café in New Rochelle) to supply me with some house-made chips to act as the control and a few raw tortillas.

The tasting panel consisted of 4 tasters:

  1. Me
  2. My wife, Laura
  3. My sister, Bethany
  4. My sister, Abby, who, for the record, was involuntarily roped into the experiment

The first taste test consisted of 7 items:

  1. The control house-made chips from Little Mexican Café
  2. Tortillas from the Little Mexican Café
  3. Mission brand yellow corn tortillas
  4. Mex America brand white corn tortillas
  5. La Escondida brand white corn tortillas
  6. Baja flour tortillas
  7. Trader Joe’s organic white corn tortilla chips

In an effort to keep the experiment controlled, I first tried frying each tortilla for about the same length of time. I quickly found that the optimal cooking time for each brand was wildly different. So I refried a few of my initial samples and took them out just before they were a golden brown. It’s interesting to note that once removed and allowed to drain, the chips kept cooking for about 30-60 seconds. So if I removed the chips when they looked perfectly done, they ended up being overdone by the time they were served.


The chips used in the first taste test. The control is in the bowl while the homemade varieties are on the plate (items 2-6 from the list shown left to right). The store bought chips are not shown.

The tasting panel was given the six samples of chips in the same order and a glass of water. The tasters knew which chips were the control and which were the Trader Joe’s brand but did not know the difference between the different homemade varieties

Tasting Notes:

  • Of the homemade chips, 3 of the 4 tasters preferred the Mission yellow corn tortillas and the fourth taster preferred the Mex America brand white corn tortilla. That being said, the supermarket-bought corn tortillas were all very similar in taste and mouth feel.
  • The chips I made from the restaurant tortillas has a great crunch but were overly dry. I believe the dryness might be because I had them leftover from 3-4 days prior. The crunch, I’m guessing, was because they were the thinnest tortillas of the samples we used.
  • The flour-based chip was completely rejected as a tortilla chip. It was described as “fried pastry dough” and noted that it “would be good with cinnamon and sugar.”
  • Though a bit stale, the restaurant-made control chips were still my favorite, however the rest of the panel liked the homemade chips the best.
  • The Trader Joe’s brand chips were absolutely horrible. I suppose I might consider eating them if I wasn’t presented with six other varieties. But in comparison to everything else on the table, they were nearly inedible and I think I may never be able to eat store-bought chips again.

The second test was a taste-off between the two favorites from the last round, the Mex America white corn tortillas and the Mission yellow corn tortillas. The purpose of this test was to try to see if there really is a significant difference between two corn varieties. The results were split 50/50 with half of the tasters preferring the yellow corn chips and half preferring the white corn chips. Interestingly, I was the only taster who switched my preference from the first test to the second.


The chips (at the top) cooked much more evenly when sprayed with water just before going into the fryer.

The third and final experiment was a recreation of the water test the folks at ScienceFare.org performed. Using a spray bottle filled with water, I sprayed one yellow corn tortilla and fried it. Then I fried a dry yellow corn tortilla and served both sets to the tasting panel. In this case, I did not tell the tasting panel the difference between the two sets. As Kevin Miklasz at ScienceFare.org had found, the wet chips cooked much more evenly than the dry chips (see photo) and were preferred by the whole tasting panel.

At last, it was time to let the tasting panel dig into the guacamole and enjoy a few homemade margaritas. Within minutes, the chips, except for those darned flour-tortilla ones, vanished.

The Conclusion

There are quite a few things that we learned from this experiment that will come in handy the next time we make tortilla chips at home:

  1. It’s the chip that counts. That is, flour tortillas just won’t do for homemade tortilla chips. Your favorite (or the cheapest) corn tortillas are definitely the way to go. If you’re a flour tortilla purist, I’m sure there’s some alternate universe where you can easily make flour tortilla chips in your fryer. But my two experiments using store-bought flour tortillas failed miserably.
  2. Wet chips make for an even fry. Spraying the chips with water just before they go in the fryer helps them cook more evenly. As an aside, I wonder if a lower oil temperature might also slow the cooking process and produce more consistent doneness, but that’s a different experiment for a different time.
  3. Take them out before they’re done. Once removed from the fryer, the chips keep cooking as the hot oil drains off. Take the chips out the fryer just as they start to turn a light golden; they’ll turn that perfect golden yellow while they cool.
  4. The thinner the better. In my opinion, it seems that thinner tortillas make for a crunchier chip that is more like those you get in a restaurant.
  5. Once you fry your own tortilla chips at home, you may never want to eat another store bought chip again. In fact, if you’re thrifty like me, you’ll quickly notice that, at about a buck and a half for a bag of tortillas, homemade chips are much cheaper per serving than those store-bought national brands.

Happy frying!


The tasting panel after filling up on chips and about to dig into the guacamole.