Mexican flour tortillas

by Mauricio Santaolaya and Martina Mollenhauer
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The tortilla was the staple food of the ancient Aztecs. The true Mexican tortilla is descended from a flat loaf that has been made since 10,000 BC. Maize (corn) tortillas were first produced several thousand years ago. When the Spaniards arrived in North America they discovered that the Aztecs had made flat cakes from maize for centuries, calling them “tlaxcalli,” a native word that the Spanish settlers adapted into their own language as “tortilla.”

For centuries tortillas were made by hand. The tortilla was initially made from maize, but with the arrival of the Spanish and the production of wheat flour, tortillas began to be made from flour and are now generally known by the name wheat flour tortillas, or simply flour tortillas.

Importance of tortillas in the market

In 2014, Mexican wheat consumption was 7.8 million tonnes per year, while maize consumption was 15.9 million tonnes. In Mexico, most wheat flour – about 69% – is used for bread production, followed by pasta and flour tortillas, both at 10%, and biscuits at 8%. Within the wide diversity of products derived from wheat, one of the fastest growing segments in recent years has been wheat flour tortillas, with a value of 126,000 tonnes. Tortillas remain a staple food in Mexico and Central America, and they have gained popularity and market shares elsewhere, too. In the U.S., tortillas have developed from an “ethnic” product to a mainstream food. Tortillas are also popular in El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, Belize, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

Tortillas are mainly used as wraps for tacos filled with shredded meats, beans, vegetables and other items. But they are also filled with melted cheese to make quesadillas in some regions of northern Mexico (Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila). There is a clear preference for flour tortillas rather than maize tortillas with recipes such as burritos, which are popular in Mexico and the southern United States.

The flour tortilla is prepared from wheat flour, shortening, water and salt, although baking powder or yeast are also used in some recipes.

Tortillas are a single-layered, unleavened bread. They are consumed daily by the urban and rural inhabitants of northern Mexico. Its consumption is spreading, becoming popular in central Mexico, mainly as an urban food.

Qualities of a good tortilla

High-quality flour tortillas should be:

  • flexible to allow rolling or folding without cracking.
  • symmetrical.
  • uniform in size.
  • opaque, with toasted spots.
  • soft puffed.

 

They should have:

  • a large diameter (17-18 centimeters).
  • a shelf-life of more than two weeks.

Hot-pressed tortillas are slightly off-round, elastic, resistant to tearing, have a smooth surface and resist moisture absorption from fillings. They are consumed as gourmet table tortillas and soft tacos. Die-cut tortillas are perfect circles, have a lower moisture content and are less resistant to cracking. Most have a dusting of flour on the surface and are used in burritos, frozen Mexican foods and fried products.

Hand-stretched tortillas are irregular in shape, elastic and moderately resistant to tearing. These tortillas are mainly consumed as table tortillas, usually on the same day because of their brief shelf-life.

Commercially produced flour tortillas keep well for a week if refrigerated. The shelf-life can be improved by the use of additives in the formula.

In Mexico, flour tortillas are generally made from hard wheat flour, although whole wheat flour tortillas are gaining popularity. Most tortillas are 2 millimeters thick and have diameters that vary from 15 cm to 33 cm. Flour tortillas in Sonora (Gulf of California) have a much larger diameter, but the bigger ones are called water tortillas, as they do not contain shortening or additives (or only in very small quantities), or vegetable oil is used instead. This is the original name, although they are commonly called sobaqueras (holster). Some people call them bedsheets, with diameters of up to 70 cm.

Ingredients

The recipe for flour tortillas is simple, consisting of wheat flour, shortening, salt and water. Their preparation entails mixing all the ingredients into a dough and dividing the dough into 20- to 45-gram pieces.

Better quality tortillas are mainly prepared from hard wheat flour with a medium protein content. However, soft wheat flour may be suitable, particularly when the product is made at home. In industrial production, hard wheat is preferred.

Rheological tests on the dough had higher correlations with tortilla quality than chemical tests on the grain and flour. Resistance of the dough to extension correlated best with tortilla quality; flours with greater extensibility are preferable.

Shortening improves the machinability of the dough. It acts as a lubricant and interacts with proteins and starch during mixing, baking and cooling. It prolongs the shelf life and reduces staling. Shortening from 5%-15% is used for making wheat flour tortillas.

Most recipes contain 1.3% to 2% salt. It makes the dough less sticky because it strengthens and toughens the gluten. It is also responsible for the flavor and shelf life of the tortillas.

Leavening agents such as sodium bicarbonate and sodium aluminium sulphate are used at a level of 1% to 2% in wheat flour tortilla recipes. The tortillas then have a whiter appearance because of a change in texture, density and color. A pH from 5.5 to 6 is recommended in order to produce the optimum color and leavening action and improve the effectiveness of preservatives.

Most wheat tortillas are manufactured industrially by weighing the ingredients and preparing the dough. After mixing, the dough is proofed for 5 minutes (32-35 degrees C, 70-75% RH); the dough is cut and shaped into balls of approximately 40-45 grams each, using a rounding machine.

These are allowed to relax for 10 to 15 minutes at 30-35 degrees C, 70-75% RH, then rolled or pressed into disks 12-15 cm in diameter with hot plates top and bottom at 200 degrees C (390 degrees F) and 1,100 PSI (76 bar /7.6 MPa) pressure. Since both thick and thin versions of this product are consumed, thickness ranges from 0.2 to 0.5 cm.

Baking takes place on a hot griddle or hot plate at approximately 200 degrees C. When the tortilla puffs (after 15-20 seconds, depending on its thickness) it is turned to bake the other side for 10-15 seconds. It is then cooled and packaged.

Recommendations for best results

The key quality attributes that lead to the desired functionality in tortillas are extensibility during pressing (diameter) and retention of flexibility over time (shelf stability). Moreover, tortillas that are white and opaque in appearance are preferred in some regions, while consumers in other regions prefer them to be translucent.

Flour-water interactions are the most important reaction within a dough system. If an insufficient amount of water is added to meet the hydration needs of all dough components, the gluten does not become fully hydrated and the elastic behavior of the dough does not develop fully. On the other hand, if too much water is added the viscous component of the dough is dominant and the dough shows decreased resistance to extension and increased extensibility. It also becomes sticky. The following is a list of the most common mistakes made in production, and how to avoid them:

Problem: Sticky dough.

Causes:

  • Prolonged mixing and resting.
  • High amylolytic activity.
  • High water temperature.
  • Low-fat formulation.

Solutions:

  • Reduce mixing and resting time.
  • Use flour with low enzymatic activity (high Falling number); reduce the addition of amylolytic enzymes (if any).
  • Check the water temperature routinely.
  • Add fat to the recipe; use glycerides or other emulsifiers e.g. Mulgaprime 90F, Mulgaprime SSL.

Problem: Poor machinability of the dough.

Causes:

  • Adding an inappropriate amount of water – more or less than required.
  • Weak wheat flour. Low gluten content, high tenacity.
  • Strong wheat flour. High gluten content.

Solutions:

  • Choose the best flour, with special emphasis on its rheological characteristics.
  • Use more water in the recipe.
  • Incorporate shortening or emulsifiers such as monoglycerides (e.g. Mulgaprime 90F) to improve dough machinability.
  • Weak flour: Incorporate oxidizing agents like ascorbic acid or azodicarbonamide or oxidizing enzymes to strengthen the dough (e.g. ELCO P, OXEM, Alphamalt Gloxy 13082).
  • Strong flour: Use reducing agents like cysteine, e.g. EMCEsoft P.
  • Change mixing and resting times.

 

Problem: Drying and staling of tortillas

Causes:

  • Dough too firm.
  • Low water retention.
  • Starch retrogradation.
  • Using thermosensitive amylolytic enzymes.

 

Solutions:

  • Add water and emulsifying agents to improve the softness of the dough, e.g. Mulgaprime SSL.
  • Use hydrocolloids like guar gum or gum arabic to facilitate water retention, e.g. EMCEgum.
  • Use moderately thermostable amylolytic enzymes, e.g. Alphamalt Fresh 95, Flexizyme.

 

Problem: Short shelf life (microbial); tortillas are decomposed rapidly by microorganisms.

Causes:

  • pH of the product 6.5 or higher.
  • High microbial numbers in the process environment.

Solutions:

  • Adjust the pH with acidifying agents and control the addition of leavening powder.
  • Check hygiene conditions and sanitation in the production area. Use air filters in particular for ventilation of the packaging area. Produce following GMP.
  • Add preservatives such as propionate, e.g. EMCEprop P.

 

Problem: The tortillas are not inflated.

Causes:

  • Insufficient mixing and resting time.
  • Too little leavening agent and/or yeast.
  • Strong wheat flour, high tenacity.

Solutions:

  • Increase mixing and resting time.
  • Add a larger proportion of leavening agents and/or yeast.
  • Use reducing agents that facilitate the extensibility of the dough, e.g. EMCEsoft.

Problem: Dark tortillas

Causes:

  • High pigmentation of the wheat. High content of phenols and phenol oxidase.

    Solutions:

  • Check for the use of different wheats.
  • Standardize processes and flour milling.
  • Use improvers to brighten the color of the tortillas.

Problem: Heterogeneous color of flour tortillas.

Causes:

  • Use of flour obtained from wheat of different quality.
  • Changes in the flour production process.

Solutions:

  • Check for the use of wheats with similar characteristics.
  • Standardize processes and flour milling.
  • Use improvers to standardize the color of the tortillas, e.g. Decolox.

If you have any questions, contact Martina Mollenhauer, product manager at Mühlenchemie. She can be contacted at mmollenhauer@muhlenchemie.

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