The Corn Tortilla: Mexican Food with a History

Most people are familiar with the tortillas from the grocery store. But fresh corn tortillas – now, those are something truly special.

To discover where corn tortillas started, head back through the eons to Mesoamerica in 2000 B.C.E., where the Maya began building their intricate society.

Corn was a staple of their culture. They planted it, nurtured it, worshipped it, and ate it.

When the Aztecs, who called themselves Mexicas, came along in the 13th century, they saw the delicious benefits of corn and perfected the art of turning it into different foods.

By the time the Spanish conquistadors reached Mexico, the Aztecs were making flat little discs of baked corn meal upon which to serve their savory cuisine.

The Spanish called these “tortillas,” which means “little cakes.”

How the Aztecs Made Corn Tortillas

If you were living in an Aztec community, you’d be able to see how they created their signature baked good.

In some places in rural Mexico, the process remains largely unchanged. Raw corn is soaked in lime and ash overnight to loosen the hull for boiling and skinning.

The lime soaking helps make some of corn’s indigestible proteins bioavailable, making it more nutritious.

The corn is then ground into a rough meal by being crushed between a metate – a stone slab on three legs – and a stone roller.

The meal is moistened with water and could be seasoned with a variety of spices – salt, chili, honey, tomatoes, and chia.

This mixture is rolled into a ball, pressed, and placed on a comal, a foot-wide clay griddle set directly over a fire.

After a quick heating on both sides, the tortillas (tlaxcalli in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs), are ready to eat.

Tortillas were carefully portioned out each day, with a three-year-old getting half a tortilla, a five-year-old allowed a whole one, and adults receiving two per day.

How You Can Make Corn Tortillas

You don’t have to have a metate to make your own delicious corn tortillas right in your own kitchen. Typical fare in a Mexican restaurant, corn tortillas are fun to prepare at home.

With masa harina, a corn product processed with lime to release the nutrients, making authentic corn tortillas can be easy and satisfying.

You must use masa harina. If you substitute it with corn meal, your tortillas won’t come out right.


2 cups masa harina

1 1/2 cups hot water, and more as needed

1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt


  • Mix your salt and masa harina in a large bowl.
  • Pour the water into the masa and use your hand to mix into a ball. It should be the consistency of Play-Doh. If it’s too dry, add water in small amounts until the consistence is right.
  • Let the dough rest for an hour in the bowl, covered with a cloth.
  • Use medium-high heat to preheat a modern comal, a griddle, or frying pan.
  • Roll a golf-ball sized piece of dough into a ball, then place between two sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper and flatten, using a tortilla press or rolling pin.
  • Gently remove the flattened dough and cook on hot surface for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until it has a few brown marks.
  • Flip the tortilla and cook on the other side for the same amount of time. If the tortilla puffs in the middle, that’s fine.
  • Place cooked tortillas between cloth napkins or in a tortilla warmer to keep warm.

That’s all there is to it. Corn tortillas are one of the simplest Mexican staples to make and eat at home or share with friends.

Experience Authentic Mexican Food at Benito’s

At Benito’s, our head chef has spent decades serving up fresh, authentic Mexican food to our customers. To have an authentic Mexican meal, come into Benito’s today! Make sure to check out our menu to see all of the Mexican meals we have to offer.