A few weeks ago I had fun making tortillas with Mark. Inspired—and armed with a bag of local coarse-ground masa harina from Sacred Sun Cooperative Farm in Kansas—I immediately invested in a tortilla press. And then boom, right on cue Sarah Curry asked question on Instagram about avoiding lard in tortillas. (Add your own questions and see more responses with #askbitt.)
This month I’ve now concocted tortillas three ways: with lard, with no fat, and with a good-quality liquid sunflower oil. And I’m happy to report all work fine, though the ones without fat were less pliable, more crumbly, less chewy. So the answer is yes: You can replace the lard with another fat—or nothing at all.
Mark’s got a detailed recipe in How to Bake Everything with a masa-water-fat ratio of 12:8:1. Since the upside of fat far outweighs its minimal caloric contribution, I say go for it. Lard leaves behind a luxurious flavor and subtle taste. But oil is fine, too, especially when you’re working with an excellent tasting ground corn; that will dominate.
About masa harina: There are good brands in supermarkets now, the kind that is ground relatively finely so all you need to do is add water and fat to form the dough (which is also called “masa”). Masa harina is different from cornmeal or corn flour in that it’s ground from kernels that have been soaked in a lime solution. The process makes the nutrients in corn easier for the body to absorb and gives tortillas that distinctive flavor. (The freshest tortillas and tamales start with the wet, soaked corn, known as nixtamal; but that’s another story.) You can make tortillas with a coarse grind of masa but if you’ve got a clean coffee mill or a strong blender or food processor I suggest you take it down a notch for a more elegant, less fragile result.
The dough isn’t too bad to roll by hand, though a press makes the job much easier and I bet you’ll make tortillas more often if you have one. Heavy cast iron minimizes the work further. Use parchment (or plastic) on top and bottom to ensure smooth removal. Then cook them on a hot, dry cast iron or steel griddle or skillet or over an open flame; just a minute or two per side. Wrapped in a towel they’ll stay warm while you get dinner on the table, or reheat them in the microwave—again wrapped in a towel or in a special vessel for the purpose. (And yes, you can also make flour tortillas the same way.) You may never buy tortillas again!