Monday, July 27, 2009

Perfect Gluten-free Tortillas


Rudy, a second generation Mexican, is one of my father's best friend . Rudy, his family and our family visited each other often. His four sons, one daughter, my brothers and I were like cousins. On the nights when our parents were enjoying drinks all seven of us kids (and sometimes other children from Rudy's extended family) ran about in the dark yard playing 'hide and seek' and 'frozen statue'.

The ultimate game and goal was to not get caught by Rudy. It wasn't that Rudy was playing the games with us, I'm not sure why he came outside, but he was there. He was the kind of parent that gave long lectures. When he was drinking he gave even longer lectures. After one of us was caught the others would snicker, feel a little sorry, and then would go on playing, running around Rudy and the poor soul that had to stand there listening to Rudy who spoke slowly and repeated himself. When I was the captured sole I felt like a kid who has to go to the bathroom. On the outside, I would be standing still, but on the inside I was dancing about, waiting to bolt, out of sight.

After I grew up and married, I realized that this close relationship with our Mexican-American friends left me with a sense of what was American food influenced by Mexico and real Mexican food. While at my mother-in-law's for dinner one evening I was surprised to find out that she bakes her Spanish rice in the oven, with meat and diced tomatoes. My mother, who learned at the side of Rudy's mother, cooks Spanish rice in a frying pan with a can of tomato juice. Although my mother-in-law's Spanish rice is very good. It's not the real deal to me.

Finding the real thing is the problem I have when I want a gluten-free recipe. I found very few gluten-free tortilla recipes online. The ones I found used ingredients that are not on my 'okay to eat' list and they tended to crack when you fold them burrito style.
So, I got down to basics and started with the white (bleached wheat) flour recipe my mom received from Rudy's mother.

Original from a 1st generation immigrant

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1tsp baking soda
1 tbs oil
½ – 1/3 cup water

No instruction on how to put it together was recorded.

I added guar gum and starches to the gluten-free flours, but after five experiments I just wasn't getting any closer to a gluten-free tortilla that acted like an old fashion tortilla. As I pondered the problem of the tortillas cracking I kept having homemade cornstarch play dough come to mind. Play dough stays pliable, but with cornstarch play dough this pliability doesn't happen until you cook it. At the time I had been reading Juice: the creative Fuel of World Class Inventors, by Evan I. Schwartz, this inspired me to go with my thoughts. I researched how play dough works.

This taught me some important things that helped. Starch has sugar and pectin. To release the usefulness of the pectin I needed to use hot water on the pectin for gelatinization to take place. This gelatinization will help make the dough pliable. Cream of tartar is used to stiffen liquids, in egg whites for meringue. In dough, cream of tartar makes it stronger, taking care of a minor problem I had with the dough of a tortilla falling apart when trying to lift it onto the griddle .

I added cream of tartar, unflavored gelatin and used hot water. A little kneading to make it congealed ball of dough. I was excited while doing this because I could see and feel that the hot water, gelatin, and cream of tartar had made a difference in making it pliable.

I conducted 3 more experiments. The recipe still wasn't working as I had wanted. The final breakthrough was apple cider vinegar, often used as a dough conditioner in gluten-free bread making. I now have a tortilla recipe that makes perfect gluten-free tortillas.

Perfect Gluten-free Tortillas
Makes 3 tortillas
¼ cup Tapioca
¼ cup bean flour or rice flour
¼ arrowroot
¼ millet
2 tsp Guar gum
1 tsp unflavored gelatin
1tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup of hot water more or less

Mix all dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Blend in the olive oil. Stir in the hot water and vinegar. Warm a griddle to 400° F. Knead the ball of dough until it is smooth and reminds you of play dough. Break dough into three balls. Keep the dough covered and warm. Roll one tortilla out and place it on the hot griddle, cooking it about one minute on each side. While it is cooking roll out the next one. When the first one tortilla is finished cooking place it between two dinner plates, with the top one upside down. While the second tortilla is cooking roll out the third. Keep working this way until all tortillas are between the plates. The plates allow the tortillas to steam and keep their moisture and keeping them pliable until ready to fill and fold. Reheat leftover tortillas between two plates in the microwave for a minute or less. Note: over-cooking will make the tortilla as hard as dried play dough.