May 20, 2022
Brooklyn’s Sobre Masa on the Art of Making Tortillas at Home

On the stainless steel countertop of Sobre Masa’s Williamsburg kitchen, a woman kneads a large lump of what appears to be pale blue clay. In a way, it is: a colourful, malleable mass. The difference is what it’s made of: some very special heirloom corn. In the right hands, this magical dough called masa can be shaped and pressed to form the basis of an unimaginable array of delicious Mexican dishes.

At Sobre Masa, that potential is realized to the highest degree as owners Zach Wangeman and Diana Montano draw on their roots and connections in Oaxaca to source some of the most unique corn varieties from small producers and then use them to make tortillas from scratch in Brooklyn to use. Shades of pink, blue, yellow, and white all find their place there, bringing with them a spectrum of colors and flavors that many don’t associate with tortillas. It only makes sense that Montano would be at the forefront of this journey. For her, corn was a way of life, not just a simple ingredient.

“The Zapotec are one of the oldest communities in Oaxaca,” she says. “We’ve always used corn – it’s the main ingredient in all our dishes. We use corn in drinks, in masa, in food. When you’re done husking all the corn, you’ll get to the olote (the Nahuatl word for corn on the cob). When it dries up, they burn that part of the corn with wood to make fire. Every part of the corn is used in my town and I remember helping to make these fires with my grandma as a kid or going to the molino with my mom where we ground our corn, the texture of the masa felt and then go home to start making tamales.”

Although Montano grew up closely involved with the nixtamalization process and the restaurant industry (her parents own a successful restaurant in Oaxaca), she ultimately pursued a medical career. She had just graduated from medical school when Wangeman asked her if she would like to help him set up Sobre Masa in New York. Friends since childhood, Montano made the decision to come and see what she could do to help him. That was two years ago. Since then, the pair have opened two locations, including a new Bushwick Tortilleria. They are now happily married too.

A plate of alamabre and tortillas at Sobre Masa

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purpose and product

Since taking the plunge, Montano and Wangeman have worked to change the narrative of what “Mexican food” means to New Yorkers. Wangeman tells us he hopes one day more people will realize that there’s endless variety to be found in Oaxaca’s hyperlocal cuisine alone.

Wangeman also shared that he doesn’t want to create the perfect tortilla — because it doesn’t exist.

“I think with a tortilla in particular it was very difficult because we first looked for the perfect tortilla recipe. It didn’t take long for me to realize there was no such thing as the perfect tortilla means so many different things to so many different people.”

“Oaxaca has very spicy cuisine, so the tortilla has a bit more bite and tends to be drier. In Mexico City, their tortillas have more calcium hydroxide because it’s a preservative, and when you’re out in the hot-pressed masa on the street without refrigeration, you need to add more of it to maintain shelf life. Now there is a whole generation that prefers this taste. So for us here, we know how the people of Oaxaca like their tortillas and how the people of Mexico City like their tortillas, but how do the people of New York like their tortillas? We are just discovering that.”

With that in mind, the duo’s current goal for Sobre Masa now goes beyond the limitations of “perfection” and instead aims squarely at the heart.

“All the dishes we prepare are actually made out of nostalgia. We do what we miss when eating.”

For a taste of their heirloom corn and the nostalgia that goes with it, visitors can head straight to the source in Bushwick. There they find a small industrial hall in which bag after bag of seeds are nixtamalized, ground, kneaded and finally pressed into tortillas. The space serves as a one-stop shop, with a dining room and bar at the back and a curated grocery store and cafe at the front.

For those who want to take it a step further, raw masa is available for purchase and ready for your home kitchen. Wangeman says there’s absolutely nothing better than a fresh tortilla, hot off the stove, and having tried it for ourselves, we can’t disagree.

At Sobre Masa, rows of fresh tortillas await assembly

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Prepare tortillas at home

Before you embark on your homemade tortilla journey, make sure you have the right tools. The most important tool is undoubtedly a tortilla press, which is available at most food service stores such as Sur la Table, Williams Sonoma, or Food52. You can even find one on Amazon for a cool $20.

Once you’ve secured your tortilla press, all you need is your masa, a cast iron skillet, and a hot stovetop. Masa is a batter made from nixtamalized cornmeal, also known as masa harina, and can be purchased from Sobre Masa for five dollars a pound. If you can’t make it to Sobre Masa, you can also buy Masa Harina from the grocery store and make your own dough. Make sure the product is labeled as cornmeal and not cornmeal or cornstarch (not the same thing!).

Whether you buy pre-made masa or make your own, knead it well to ensure the ingredients are well incorporated. Begin pushing pieces of dough away from the larger mass until they are the size of a golf ball. This amount of masa makes a tortilla that is about six inches tall. Wangeman emphasizes that this is an important step in the tortilla-making process because you’re introducing fresh oxygen to the dough as you roll the ball in your hands.

Open your tortilla press and line it with two small sheets of parchment paper. When you’re done rolling your masa ball, place it squarely in the middle of these two pieces of paper and press down firmly and evenly. Turn over and press again. Meanwhile, begin heating your cast iron over medium-high heat.

Turn the tortilla in your hand and gently place it on your hot cast iron. When things get hot, pay close attention because Wangeman says the first flip is the most important. You will notice that the tortilla will begin to change color and its corners will separate from the pan. This is your sign that the tortilla is ready to flip, and it only takes about 30 seconds to a minute to get to this stage.

Let the tortilla cook on the opposite side for the same amount of time before turning it a third and final time. If the conditions are right and the tortilla has been properly cooked, you will see that it will start to puff up after the last turning. The “puff” is an indication that steam has penetrated the tortilla and the inside is cooking. Once you start noticing a pleasant aroma and brown specks on the tortilla, it’s time to take the stove off and breathe it in. If you plan on making a large batch, you can use a tortilla wrapper or towel to keep the tortillas warm while you go about your business.

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