18 October, 2019, 19:08

Sonoran flour tortillas are special to Tucsonans. But why?

Flour, water, fat, salt, and a little nostalgia.

Imagine Tucson without tortillas.

Ouch. Now, imagine your friend was hosting a party catered by Tacos Apson with mountains of mesquite-grilled meat. But also imagine that they didn’t have beautiful local Sonoran flour tortillas; they wanted to save money with those pasty Mission brand tortillas from the nearby grocery chain.

If you can feel your blood pressure rising at the thought of that, you’re officially spoiled by living in Tucson. It’s easy to take Tucson’s fabulous flour tortillas for granted once you’re used to them.

Light easily shines through Sonoran flour tortillas, which are nearly as thin as rice paper. With no baking powder, they feature a texture flaky that melts on your tongue and requires the bare minimum amount of chewing. While delicate, there’s no other tortilla you’d want to wrap your burrito. Once you go Sonoran, other flour tortillas are boring.

Why flour?

Although Tucson taquerias typically offer corn tortillas as well, flour tortillas are the star here.

Spanish conquistadors introduced wheat to Mexico and the plant has thrived in Sonora for over 400 years. Now, the flour tortilla is a staple throughout northern Mexico; it is harder to find once you head south towards Mexico City, however.

Tortilla making at St. Mary's Mexican Food

Tortilla making at St. Mary’s Mexican Food (Credit: Brielle Farmer)

Arizona’s next door neighbor, New Mexico, features thicker, puffier flour tortillas. As a Tucsonan, you might try them and think, “this is flatbread, I want a tortilla!” However, their leavened tortillas make sense when they’re used to sop up Hatch chili stews. As a burrito, not as much.

What makes them unique?

The Sonoran flour tortilla doesn’t use yeast, baking powder, or any other leavener; it only uses flour, water, fat, and salt. The fat is where variation comes in: lard, vegetable shortening, or oil.

The lack of preservatives means the tortillas don’t last long on shelves, but that’s a plus; local tortillerias aplenty make piping-hot tortillas fresh every day.

Drive about five hours south to Hermosillo and the ubiquitous flour tortilla is also known as tortilla sobaquera. This name comes from the massive tortillas that reach the sobaquera, or armpit, during the tortilla-making process. However, the term can be considered pejorative; tortilla de agua, tortilla grande, and tortilla de harina are preferred.

While the flour tortilla is already heaven on its own when freshly made, spread on a thin layer of butter for another comforting classic. Whether you grew up doing so with your nana or not, it will hit you right in the feels.

Flour vs corn tortillas (and how to pair them with meat)

Thanks to modern refrigeration and transportation, we have easy access to both flour and corn tortillas. One is not better than the other, but they each pair better with particular food items. Regional preferences also vary.

We can thank the cattle ranching and mesquite wood abundant in northern Mexico for the carne asada popular in Tucson today. With that in mind, flour tortillas are often the choice for beef. Burros and burritos also need pliable flour tortillas.

Tortilla from Anita Street Market

Tortilla from Anita Street Market (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Americanized dishes also often favor the flour tortilla. Tortilla pizza? Flour. Taco salad? Fried flour tortilla bowl.

Small taquitos are usually made with corn, while larger flautas are often made with flour. Tortilla chips, enchiladas, and quesadillas can go either way.

For tacos, corn is most often the right choice, but flour tortillas work beautifully with grilled meats, chile colorado, and breakfast.

Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference.

Read our September 2018 article 12 local Mexican restaurants serving fresh house-made tortillas.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com.

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