When to Use Corn vs. Flour Tortillas

These dual flatbreads are central to Mexican and Central American cuisine. Here’s everything you need to know about how they’re made, and when to use each in the kitchen.

<p>Zubin Schroff</p>

Zubin Schroff

At first glance, the difference between corn and flour tortillas is obvious: One’s made with corn, the other with flour. But these two flatbreads — which together are crucial to Mexican and Central American diets — are made differently and each boast rich, complex histories. Here’s everything to know about corn and flour tortillas — plus which you should use for tacos, burritos, and other dishes.

What are corn tortillas?

Corn tortillas are made with corn, or maize, that has been nixtamalized, a traditional method that consists of soaking and cooking the kernels in an alkaline bath of lime water, then draining, stone grinding, and kneading it into a dough called masa harina. This ancient process is still carried out today by hand and machine, with calcium hydroxide sometimes standing in for lime water. Doughs are flattened by hand or using a tortilla press, then cooked, yielding a sweet, gently nutty canvas for tacos (whether dry or salsa-drenched) or flautas. They’re also often used for frying into tostadas and chips. At home, corn tortillas can be made with purchased masa harina — try F&W Best New Chef Fermín Núñez’s corn tortilla recipe.

Related: How to Use a Tortilla Press to Make Tortillas, According to an Award-Winning Chef

The corn tortilla was purportedly developed around the same time maize was domesticated, though the origins are complicated. Scientists have long believed that maize’s story originated in pre-Columbian Mexico some 9,000 years ago, with the domestication of an ancient grass called teosinte. But in 2023, a team of geneticists threw a wrench in that theory, reporting in Science that maize has a second wild ancestor. In fact, up to a quarter of the genes in existing maize varieties come from a highland subspecies of teosinte, which hybridized with maize some 4,000 years after it was first domesticated.

<p>Greg DuPree</p>

Greg DuPree

What are flour tortillas?

Flour tortillas are typically made from a dough of refined wheat flour, water, shortening or lard, salt, baking soda (or baking powder in Texas), and other ingredients to help develop the gluten, which yields a softer and sturdier texture. They’re easy to make from scratch — the dough is kneaded, then rests before getting griddled for those distinctive brown spots.

Though they were popularized in northern Mexico during the Spanish conquest of the 1500s and 1600s with the arrival of wheat, the origins of flour tortillas are murky; scholars have alternately pointed to Jewish, Levantine, and Moorish influence. Importantly though, wheat crops fared better in the arid high desert of northern Mexico, and later, the U.S. Southwest, where flour tortillas have since become a staple. Today’s soft, larger flour tortillas are eaten all over the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, with recipes that vary by state —  thick and chewy in Texas; thin, pliable, and almost translucent in Arizona. They’re the preferred vessels for burritos (and indeed, a stubborn rumor posits that the burrito originated during the Mexican Revolution as a literal food blanket for transporting warm food.)

Flour tortillas have sometimes been derided as bleached-wheat products of colonization, as writer and historian Gustavo Arellano writes in a New Yorker piece praising this unsung tortilla hero. Although bland, industrial-scale versions exist, the real thing is a simple, buttery joy to eat — whether rolled into a Sonoran-style burrito or used to pinch stretchy chile con queso in the New Mexican borderlands.

Related: The Best Burritos in All 50 States

When to use corn vs. flour tortillas

As the older of the two, corn tortillas are far more widespread and versatile in their applications than flour tortillas. They’re used as vessels for all manner of taco fillings, from fried yuba to crispy pork to rajma; rolled around chicken for flautas; fried flat for chipotle shrimp or roasted pork tostadas; used to pinch thick moles; or cut and fried into crispy tortilla chips. It’s also worth noting that corn tortillas are gluten-free. Keep in mind that corn tortillas are flimsier and prone to breakage, particularly if they’re not hot off the press.

Sturdier, glutinous flour tortillas are well-suited to saucier, richer Tex-Mex adaptations like burritos and quesadillas, and as accompaniments to queso fundido, fajitas, and chili con carne. They’re also a nice blank canvas for tacos, and shine in sweet dishes like cinnamon-sugar dusted chips, which we strongly suspect would be happy with a scoop of helado.

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