We’re living in an age where people are more interested than ever in learning about the food they’re consuming—how it affects the environment, what it does to their bodies, and where it comes from. Is the bread in your pantry mostly flour and water, or is it full of chemicals you can’t pronounce? And when people become interested in this kind of thing, their journey tends to end up full circle: Conversations about low-intervention wine usually conclude with a Certified Natural Wine Genius™ (aka your friend Mike who’s essentially a pretentious lush) pointing out that minimal intervention is always how wine was made, at least before late capitalism; chats about good produce are often marked with someone commenting that organic farming is how food is “supposed to be.” [Keanu voice] Whoa.
This type of thinking has actually led to more and more companies becoming seriously dedicated to ethically sourced, high quality products, like Masienda, which has radically changed the way many people think about (and cook with) masa. And though founder Jorge Gaviria has written a phenomenal (like, legit genius level) book about the history and science of masa (aka dough made from corn), the ethos of Masienda is actually pretty simple: It buys dope heirloom corn directly from farmers and turns it into masa so you can
recreate your fave Taco Bell dishes make incredibly good food.
If you want to understand that process, just read Gaviria’s book and you’ll gain an academic understanding of how nixtamalization works. But if you’re here because you want to know how to take your home cooking to the next level, you’re in the right place. Recently, Masienda partnered with artisan cookware brand Made In to create a carbon steel comal—a killer tool that will launch you into the zone of perfect tortillas, huaraches, tlayudas, and more. Professional chefs and home cooks from L.A. to New York are using Masienda’s premium white, yellow, blue, and red masa. I tried the collaboration comal, and have been feasting on the most amazing tortillas I’ve ever made. To find out what Masienda’s doing differently with corn, why its comal is so good, and what really goes into a perfect tortilla, I tracked down Gaviria so he could explain it himself. TL;DR: upgrading your comal and the masa you use will make you a better cook (and probably a better person).
VICE: Hi, Jorge! To start, can you tell me a bit about how and when you started Masienda?
I was working in New York in restaurants. I worked for Danny Meyer at a restaurant called Maialino and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and both are farm-to-table centric. To make Masienda, the idea I had and ran with was thinking that a lot of the foods I grew up eating—all of them, actually—were not really represented in that kind of thoughtful farm-to-table ethos. French cuisine, New American cuisine, Japanese cuisine—all of these had something to contribute to that conversation. And when it came to my Latin heritage, I didn’t see masa, which is something that defines a lot of Latin experiences and ties a lot of cultures together throughout Latin America. I didn’t see that kind of thoughtful approach, and also had never really asked a lot of questions about where any of that came from.
As I started to take a closer look at the cultures that influenced me growing up, I wanted to create a brand that spoke to that opportunity and met consumers where they’d evolved to over the years. And that’s really a consciousness about where food comes from, who makes it, how it is prepared—getting a closer relationship with that value chain. It was actually a pretty basic idea, like, “I’m going to start a tortilleria that’s going to be the Tartine for tortillas. We’re going to do it in Brooklyn, it’s going to be amazing.”
Let’s back up a little to what you grew up with, the existing landscape then. Now, people can buy Masienda at Whole Foods and elsewhere, not to mention that a lot of really great restaurants are using it. Before you came on the scene, what was the masa game like? What could people expect when they went to the grocery store?
If your retailer, your grocer, had masa on the shelves at all, which it hasn’t always, especially in non-Latin markets, typically you would find Maseca, which has been around since 1949. They were really the first ones to develop that convenient approach to masa-making. Masa is quite a labor-intensive process. You have to cook raw corn, which was hard to get before Masienda started, unless you were buying a whole truckload of it off the commodity market. You had to cook the corn for, like, two hours, then let it rest for 12 hours, then grind it with a volcanic stone. It was a really complicated process if you didn’t have the means or the equipment or the inclination. Maseca basically made that whole process where you just take masa—they dehydrated it—and you add water to it. It really dominated the market forever, the whole modern era, because it’s convenient, it’s foolproof, and it tasted [pauses] good enough.
On that note, using your products has improved my tortilla game immensely.
I’m glad to hear it.
Not that I was very good to begin with. But I’d like to zero in on why that is. In the past I've used various masas from the store—in the words of your website, “the single behemoth masa harina company.” Your heirloom masa is not only ethically produced, but the tortillas I made with it have great consistency and flavor. Can you say a little bit more about what differentiates your masa?
The supply chains are built off the commodity system. Everyone is working with the same raw ingredients, so it’s not surprising to me that it all tastes the same. The first thing there is [to understand] that corn, like any plant, [has] a lot of diversity of species there.
Mexico is the birthplace of corn—it’s where all the genetic diversity is maintained to this day. We don’t just work with one raw ingredient or one type of corn; we try to work with a lot of different types that have different flavor profiles, textures, all that have actually been bred out of corn when you get to the commodity side in the U.S. They try to reduce the risk in agriculture by cultivating things that perform the same every time, and oftentimes, what you get as a result of that is the flavor is bred out of it in favor of yield. We go with a very flavor-forward sourcing approach, which is a little more expensive, for sure, but something that once you taste the difference, there’s a marked difference between the two. There’s also the production itself—we use the whole grain of the corn. A lot of manufacturers basically will take the germ out of it, which is where all the flavor is. When you use a whole grain, it actually makes for a much more durable tortilla that doesn’t break, it doesn’t fall apart, and it tastes really good.
You wrote a pretty successful cookbook recently about masa and working with it. What did you learn during that project, whether about cooking or farming, that you most want people to take away from it?
It was the culmination of about eight years of work at Masienda—the thesis of almost everything I've learned over this almost decade. I think the the biggest takeaway is this idea of active consumption and our connection to food. For me, I took this staple for granted my entire life until I started to just be a little more curious about it. And in the process of developing a basic curiosity about this food that I love so much, I developed a much deeper appreciation for it. COVID helped a lot of us get to know things like sourdough and tortillas a little better—things we didn’t have the luxury of buying on the shelf anymore, and that had this lasting effect of encouraging us all to connect a little more personally and deeply with things we love, including not just to the food itself, but also the cultures and the traditions and the people that are behind it.
What do you look for in a perfect tortilla?
This is totally subjective, and I’ll start with saying that whatever tortilla you make and you think is perfect is perfect. I’m not going to interfere with that. Things that I like to look for in a tortilla are that it has an elasticity to it, so that it doesn't break when you put proteins or sauces on top of it. I look for flavor, aroma. Does it add to the conversation, to the taste experience? A lot of mass market-available tortillas prior to Masienda just didn't. They're a foundation, but not a really thoughtful foundation, on which to build. How it smells and tastes without anything, just on its own, without even salt, is a good test of a good tortilla.
All these recipes I’ve tried have lime or lard or oil or salt, or, you know, there’s baking powder in some. Yours is truly just water and masa. Would you say that’s part of the design as well?
For sure, yeah. If you’re talking about store-bought tortillas or pre-made tortillas, what you see is that [many of them include a] really basic, alkaline lime agent, a lot of folks add a lot of it to dough so it has a longer shelf life, but as a result it just tastes really bad. It has a bitter flavor to it.
So about your comal itself, can you tell me about that piece of equipment, and what it was like working with Made In on that project?
If you’re in any kitchen in Mexico, or even in a Mexican-American household in the U.S., [the comal] lives on your stovetop. It is the center of the kitchen, it’s the hearth of the entire home. Our comal is the evolution of the cookware—typically, aluminum is something you’ll find across a lot of these Mexican-American households, and we really wanted to find something that was an overall higher quality experience in terms of how it retained its heat, what kinds of metals were used in the production process, what had non-stick properties.
Carbon steel is the chef’s chef metal type, really. The best chefs in the world use it; it’s one of the best-kept secrets of professional kitchens, because it’s lighter than cast iron, but retains heat just as well. It’s super durable, and creates a non-stick experience as well. We wanted to channel that. A lot of folks have made carbon steel over the years, but Made In, to me, was the one that was doing the best job of educating consumers, and also had the right supply chain to match it. The quality was unparalleled—it was a no-brainer to start working with them.
Buy the Masienda x Made In comal here.
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