Flour Vs. Corn Tortillas: Which Do You Use (And When)?

Tortillas hold a special place in my heart, because, well, tacos. And burritos. And nachos, enchiladas, tostadas, and just so many good, tasty Mexican things. But there are two main kinds of tortillas, and they both have very different histories and culinary lives.

Corn Tortillas

Legend has it that the first tortilla was made for a king by a peasant. While that may or may not be true, there's evidence that puts corn tortillas in the hands of Aztecs as far back as 10,000 B.C.E. Corn was a staple of their diet, and while the original tortillas were little more than cornmeal and water, the Aztecs eventually figured out that they could hull the corn kernels more easily by soaking them with lime (not the citrus fruit, the alkaline stuff you get from heating limestone), and that's still what a traditional fresh corn tortilla is made from today.

A good corn tortilla has a lot of flavors and a lot of texture — not a texture in the sense that it's lumpy or hard or inconsistent, but in the sense that it has a specific toothsome consistency. These tend to be on the smaller side, as a corn tortilla that was too big would likely break apart.

Tacos: If you're making simple tacos, corn tortillas are the way to go, as a good corn tortilla helps bolster the other ingredients and is part of the overall flavor profile itself. If you're in California or eating California-style tacos, you're probably eating them on a corn tortilla. Oh, and if you're in Mexico, you almost certainly will be eating your tacos on corn tortillas (outside of a few areas in northern Mexico). A simple taco that you'd get off a cart in California or Mexico is going to be meat, onions and cilantro, and hot sauce or hot chiles of some sort. That's pretty much it.

Burritos: Nope. They don't make corn tortillas big enough for burritos, sorry.

Tostadas: The classic tostada, which is a flat-fried tortilla topped with some goodies, is made on a corn tortilla, not flour.

Fajitas: You wouldn't really use corn tortillas for fajitas, because they usually come with meat, peppers and onions, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, et cetera. If you tried to fit all those things into a corn tortilla, it would fall apart.

Chips: Yup. Look at every brand of tortilla chip at the store, and see if any are made with flour tortillas. Insider tip: If you fry up chips at home with fresh-made corn tortillas, you will have the best chips you've ever had.

Taquitos: Taquitos are made with corn tortillas, always, otherwise it's a flauta. While making taquitos, I suggest undercooking your meat just slightly before it goes into the taquitos. If you pan-fry them (my top pick), make sure you put the taquitos into the pan seam-side down so they don't come apart. If you're deep frying, this is where a couple of well-placed toothpicks can work wonders.

Quesadillas: Hmm, I guess, if you're in a pinch... but really, no. A good quesadilla is not going to be made on a corn tortilla, not even in Mexico.

Enchiladas: Always use corn for enchiladas. They can stand up to being soaked in sauce and baked without completely falling apart and thus are the clear option. The best way to make sure your corn tortillas don't fall apart while you're rolling enchiladas (a broken tortilla will come apart more easily in the oven) is to briefly soak them in some of your enchilada sauce first.

Flour Tortillas

Flour tortillas were thought to have originally been invented by Spanish Jewish folks who had been exiled to New Spain (Panama, basically) during the Inquisition, who considered maize to be non-kosher. They used wheat brought with them from Europe.

One of the main differences between corn tortillas and flour tortillas, besides the base ingredient, is that flour tortillas require a dose of lard or vegetable shortening in order for the dough to bind together, lest you end up with a weird cracker. Flour tortillas are softer than corn but don't have the same level of flavor. Flour tortillas can stretch and bend better, though, so they can come in some pretty huge sizes compared to corn tortillas (due to their aforementioned flexibility, they won't break as a corn tortilla would at that size).

Tacos: If you're building a truly epic taco with all the goods, you're gonna want to use a flour tortilla to keep hold of all that stuff. In places like Texas, where Tex-Mex is king, you're likely to find flour tortillas used for pretty much any taco.

Burritos: A real burrito can only be built with flour tortillas since corn tortillas don't really come in a big enough size. The key to making good burritos, despite what you might think, is not to overfill them; you need to have enough of a tortilla border on all sides to seal that bad boy up once you roll it. Does the thought of not having enough stuff in your burrito make you sad? Don't worry, you can buy flour tortillas big enough that it really won't matter; some of those mega tortillas can make a big burrito without overfilling.

Tostadas: The tostada bowl (not a classic tostada) is going to use a flour tortilla since they're big enough to turn into bowls and fry. These tend not to be austere with toppings/fillings, and so having the big bowl is necessary. The best way to make one of these is to think of it as a burrito, without the limitations of having to be rolled. That's right, this is just an overstuffed burrito with a fried shell.

Fajitas: Definitely want to use flour tortillas here. With all the fillings you get for these, the flour tortillas stand up a little better and won't fall apart to expose your shirt to guacamole and beans. Just make sure you use flour tortillas in the smaller size, as they better facilitate the fajita-eating experience. If I ordered fajitas and was then presented with one giant tortilla, not only would I be confused, but I would be disappointed. Fajitas are not a roll-your-own-burrito adventure; they're more of a miniature personal taco bar.

Chips: Nope. Nope nope nope. It's not worth it. It's a waste of tortillas and oil and time. They don't look the same, feel the same, or taste the same, and corn tortillas-turned-chips win over flour tortillas for all of those parameters.

Flautas: See above about taquitos. These are basically the same thing (a tortilla tightly rolled with a usually-meat-based filling, then fried) but made with flour tortillas, and oftentimes bigger than taquitos. The reason flour tortillas don't work great for chips is actually the reason they do work here: The end result is a little soft, a little crunchy, and very flaky. The same taquito tips apply here, though you'll need a few more toothpicks if you're deep frying.

Quesadillas: Quesadillas are another flour tortillas-only dish. First, they're big enough to make a satisfying flat cheesy thing. Second, when done right, you get that same soft but crispy flakiness that you might find in a flauta. I suggest using a griddle or cast-iron skillet, with a bit of butter on each side to facilitate the aforementioned flakiness.

Enchiladas: Flour tortillas don't really stand up to being soaked in sauce. When the sauce is limited to one side or the other, it can have trouble penetrating all the way through, which is why tacos with a ton of stuff do well with flour tortillas. But when you soak a flour tortilla in the sauce, well, that's going to turn into a mess, and enchiladas made with flour tortillas have no structural integrity.