The traditional method for making corn tortillas (tlaxcalli is the Indian word and tortilla is the Spanish word) was to flatten balls of fresh dough between your hands. A skilled tortilla maker can pat the dough back and forth and create a perfectly round, thin, corn cake (tortilla). Another method was to flatten the dough on a banana leaf, turning the leaf with one hand and patting with the other to form a nice round tortilla. The "modern" way to make tortillas is with a press, or to buy them from the local tortilla factory.
There is a great little Mexican cafe in Santa Barbara, California that Julia Child used to frequent called La Super Rica Taqueria. There is a woman there that makes all the corn tortillas for each order, all by hand, no press. It's worth the trip just to watch her (and the food is fabulous and fresh too). Seating is outdoors in a covered patio area.
Rick Bayless, author of "Authentic Mexican" as well as star chef recommends using a traditional cast iron tortilla press for making fresh tortillas. Small rounds of masa are inserted between the two plates and with one simple press... a fresh tortilla is made!
The primary advantage of the cast iron press is "leverage" and weight and makes your pressing job a little easier. If you are making lots of tortillas frequently then this may be a good way to go. The down side is the press is heavy to lift and move around (about 6 - 8 pounds).
Typically the tortilla press ranges in size from 6" up to 8". The traditional versions are still made in Mexico and South America although products are being made in China now as well. Most of the Chinese made products are aluminum or plastic so we suggest you steer clear of those.
The wooden press is pretty with an overall larger footprint than the cast iron versions. Wooden presses are still commonly used in Mexico. Even when we travel to outdoor Mexican markets in the U.S. we still see them in use for making fresh corn tortillas and also for making epanadas. Our version as shown above is made from solid blocks of hard mesquite wood. Many common presses are made of pine but that is a very soft wood and they just don't hold up for long periods of time. The better press as shown above is made of mesquite or oak, both of which are much heavier hard woods. With an 8" x 8" platform it will make a very generous sized tortilla.
The downside to the wood press is that they are commonly more crude than the one shown above. The bolts and hinges are normally steel and are prone to rust. This does not affect the usefulness of the press but just the aesthetics. Also this press is pretty big and bulky and takes up a lot of storage space.
Another good quality (but very hard to find) is the "encino wood" tortilla press. Slightly smaller and more compact than our larger mesquite version but still features an ample 8" platform. Encino wood is a hard white oak native to Mexico. The overall dimensions are 11" long x 8 1/4" wide. The actual tortilla making surface is about 8"" square. (Currently out of stock)
The other more common wooden press is made out of natural soft pine and is the type of press frequently found in small Mexican grocery stores. The wood is almost white in color and unfinished and very light weight. Pine will eventually warp and become unusable so we don't suggest that type of press. You are much better off with a cast iron product than a light-weight wood press.
Bottom line, if you feel you need or want this type of press, only purchase a hardwood product (mesquite or oak).
It was only a matter of time....There have been several versions of the electric tortilla press available in the last several years. A new version has hit the market that is worth consideration. Although we are proponents of the "traditional powered by humans version" we think that this electric press has some virtues.
To use this gadget you plug it in, place a ball of dough between the plates, press, bake, all in one step. Beyond use for making tortillas you can make other nutritious flatbreads like pita, Roti, Foccacia, Gryo and Moo Shoo pancakes. The press plates are 10" in diameter and are made of heavy weight die cast aluminum for even heat distribution. The press can sit on it's end for compact storage. Buy the Best Revel CTM-660 8" Tortilla Maker/Flat Bread Maker