Fresh vs. Pre-made?
When it comes to tortillas, restaurant operators must weigh their options realistically.
Demetrio Marquez—or better known as “Chef D”—fondly recalls his childhood years spending time at his paternal grandparents’ home. He’d wake up at 5:30 in the morning to the sounds of his grandmother furiously patting tortilla dough and the aroma of them grilling in the skillet. And when he’d stay at his maternal grandparents’ home, his grandmother would replace water with buttermilk in her recipe, puffing up the tortillas, making them resemble pita bread.
“She couldn’t get three or four of them made without us there with a spoonful of butter ready to get at them,” reminisces Marquez, a corporate chef for Reinhart Foodservice’s New Orleans division.
For those memories alone, Marquez still prefers fresh, house-made tortillas over pre-made ones, however, when it comes to practicality, restaurant operators must weigh their options realistically.
“For production purposes, there’s no way someone can stand there and make scratch tortillas for multi-unit or chain restaurants,” says Marquez. “That’s why [chefs] kind of lean toward pre-made tortillas that you have to finish out on a flattop. They’re almost as good, but you just cannot compare them to homemade.”
He considers tortillas more than just a tasty vessel to carry ingredients. “Most Latin Americans use them as a utensil, too,” he adds. “They’ve gone a step further and [are now] doing the spinach wraps, tomato wraps, garlic, so a lot of flavored tortillas are making the scene for delis who offer them as an alternative for customers who want to cut back on the carbs. [They’re] a little bit lighter and thinner.”
For Jeff Merry, executive corporate chef for Reinhart Foodservice’s Boston division, whether an operator serves fresh or pre-made tortillas depends on the restaurant model.
“If I’m trying to introduce tacos as a secondary item on my menu, for instance, a mid-tier bar and grill serving chicken wings and burgers and I just wanted to add a layer to my menu, I would use an already prepared tortilla,” he says. “If I have a taqueria, however, I would want them to be as authentic as possible.”
Tortillas, Merry continues, contain the simple ingredients of cornmeal, water and salt (for corn tortillas) or flour, water and lard (for flour tortillas). It’s the skill put into making them that takes them to the next level.
“One of the things I like about them is how much fun you can have adding your own twists,” he adds. “I’ve seen recipes where they’re using wine infused in the water to not only give it color, but to impart a different flavor.
“When it comes to recipes, it’s important to understand the basic science behind the recipe … what is the chemical reaction that’s going on to create what’s going on. But then it’s kind of cool to test the limits to see what happens when you use one liquid as opposed to another.”
While he’s a fan of house-made tortillas, Kevin Nash, chef for Reinhart Foodservice’s Eastern Pennsylvania division, says their freshness doesn’t last very long.
“With all the natural ingredients, you don’t have a long shelf life with it,” he says. “Once that two hours is up, you cannot do much with it.
He’s also a realist in terms of cranking out that many during busy service.
“You have to look at it like pasta. If you have four people in the kitchen and you have 200 covers, it would be difficult to make your own pasta every day. That’s along the same line with tortillas.”