Why You Need to Heat Up Store-Bought Tortillas (And the Best Ways to Do It)
Even though I often end the workday exhausted and just want to wrap rotisserie chicken parts in a store-bought tortilla and shove it in my eating hole, I generally try and take a couple of minutes to warm up said tortillas before I begin my meal.
But if you're starving, do you really need to take the time? Do warm tortillas really make that much of a difference?
A warm corn tortilla releases all kinds of complex flavors, from savory to earthy. Harold McGee describes the taste of corn tortillas as being "… both meaty and flowery," and combining the sweetness of corn kernels with the earthy alkaline mineral taste of lime.
Plus, on a practical note, Eating Well points out that a heated tortilla is flexible and much less likely to crack in two when you're assembling tacos or burritos or biting into one.
So the next time you're about to throw together some leftovers and salsa into a corn tortilla, take a few moments and heat it up. That once-pedestrian meal will taste so much better once you get a little char on your tortilla.
This method is best when you only need a few tortillas for your meal. Take your favorite frying pan—cast iron or stainless steel are two good choices—and turn your flame to medium/medium-high. You won't need oil. Let the skillet get warm enough so that if you sprinkle a few drops of water on the surface, they'll sizzle.
Lay your tortillas down and let them heat for about thirty to forty-five seconds on each side, until their color deepens and their aroma becomes apparent. If you like a little char, let them sit longer, but be careful. If they're heated too long, they will lose their velvety, pliable character and crisp up and become more like tostada shells.
This method is also good when you require one or two tortillas. Skip the skillet and get out your tongs. Turn the flame to medium-low/medium (you don't want flames leaping above the stove element unless you want a ton of char).
Using your tongs, flip the tortilla over the open flame until it's as warm as you would like it. I personally love this method as the tortillas gain a lot of flavor, but it does take practice.
If you need tortillas for a large amount of people, the oven is the way to go. Preheat the oven to 350°F and assemble stacks of five or six tortillas. Wrap each stack in aluminum foil and place them on the center rack of your oven.
Heat for eight to ten minutes. You won't get a lot of color on these tortillas, but they will be lovely and warm.
This is definitely the easiest and quickest way to heat up tortillas for two or three people, but I do think using the microwave tends to heat them unevenly, leaving some parts of the tortilla crisp and other parts floppy or soggy.
To mitigate this, I recommend using Rick Bayless' method: lightly dampen a kitchen dishtowel by sprinkling it with a few tablespoons of water and wringing it out. Next, line a large microwave-safe dish with the towel and lay several tortillas flat on the surface. Cover it with the rest of the towel and then a lid or another plate if possible.
Depending on your microwave, you can follow Bayless' instructions and microwave the tortillas at half-power for a couple of minutes, or you can heat them for thirty-second increments, checking on the progress of the tortillas in between rounds.
Alternately, you can wrap a stack of tortillas (no more than five, depending on the strength of your microwave) and wrap them in a damp dish towel or paper towel. Microwave them in thirty-second bursts, checking to see which tortillas are warm and moving the center tortillas to the top and bottom as needed.
Over at Food52, commenter Sarah Larter discusses her mom's method of placing a wire rack over the pot of cooking taco fillings and laying the tortillas on the rack to steam through. This method not only conserves time, it saves you from using aluminum foil or dirtying a pan.
You can also wrap a stack of tortillas (no more than dozen) in a clean dishtowel, place in a steamer basket, and heat over boiling water for one minute. Remove from heat and let the tortillas stand for 15 minutes to become thoroughly heated.
You've gone and done the work of warming up your tortillas, now you should really keep 'em that way. Wrap your tortillas in a damp towel or aluminum foil and keep them in a slow cooker or an oven set on low. Keeping them double-wrapped in a layer of aluminum foil and then a dishtowel will keep them pretty warm even without a direct heat source.
Alas, life is not perfect, and when you're genuinely in a rush, you may not even have the couple of minutes it takes to perform this simple task. If that's the case, at least make sure you're buying the best-tasting corn tortillas out there. The Washington Post has several candidates ranked from best to worst, while Gourmet magazine had several strong opinions about which mass- market brands are winners or losers.