Tortilla Chip


The Spaniards first brought the word tortilla (from torta, "cake") to Mexico; the Mexicans, in turn, used it to describe their flat corn and flour cakes. The bread staple of the Mexican diet, all tortillas were originally made from the pulp of ground corn, the native grain of the New World. When the Spanish brought wheat to the New World, white flour tortillas became prevalent. Corn tortillas, now mostly machine-made, still hold the highest nutritional value. Cut into wedges and deep fried, these flat cakes became tortilla chips. After tortilla products were first introduced in the United States by Latin Americans living in the southwestern states, the popularity of new food item spread rapidly. Tortilla chips can come in many different sizes and shapes, such as triangles, rounds, and rectangular strips. The seasonings of tortilla chips can vary greatly, and they can be eaten with a variety of salsas and toppings.

The basic method of tortilla and tortilla chip production has changed little since ancient times. Traditional tortilla preparation involves cooking the corn in pots over a fire, steeping (soaking) for 8 to 16 hours, pouring off the cooking liquor or nejayote, and washing the nixtamal (the end product of the cooking, steeping, and washing/draining process). The nixtamal is then ground into masa (dried and ground corn flour) with hand-operated grinders or metates (grinding stones). The masa is either hand-molded or molded using a tortilla press to form thin disks, which are then baked on a hot griddle called a comal.

One of the most important industrial advancements has been the production of dry masa flour, a shelf-stable product. This dry flour has become popular because it meets standards for certain applications, reduces requirements for energy, labor, floor space, processing time, and equipment, and is convenient and easy to use. When compared with fresh masa flour, however, foods made from dry masa flour tend to be less flavorful and the cost per unit is higher. Smaller manufacturers that supply local restaurants with tortilla chips usually use dry masa flour, while larger manufacturers use fresh masa flour that is produced on-site.

Raw Materials

Tortilla chips are made using yellow corn, white corn, flour, whole wheat, or blue cornmeal. Coarse masa is used in making corn tortilla chips. Masa consists of corn that has been soaked in a food-grade lime and water solution to break down the hulls; the kernels are then ground into flour. Frying oil, salt, and various seasonings complete the list of main ingredients. Other ingredients, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, gums, and acidulants, are used mainly in the United States to improve shelf life and to maintain certain properties of the product. The characteristics of the raw material determine the tortilla chips' quality, cooking parameters, and color.

The Manufacturing

Preparing the masa (dough)


Forming chips

Baking and cooling

Frying and seasoning

Cooling and packaging

Quality Control

The quality control aspect of tortilla chip production is essential so that the chips can reach the customer at their freshest. The major parameters controlled during tortilla chip production are: temperature and relative humidity of corn silos and storage rooms for ingredients and products; the cooking, quenching, steeping, baking, and frying times and temperatures; types of grinding stones and their adjustment during milling; moisture content of the corn, nixtamal, masa, and, finally, the tortilla chips; operating condition of the equipment (such as the cooker, sheeter, oven, fryer, cooling rack, packaging equipment, etc.); frying oil and product deterioration; and the sanitation of equipment and personnel.

The Future

The future trends for the corn and tortilla chip market are toward thinner, lighter, and smaller chips. Recently, tortilla chips made from white corn, whole wheat flour, and the blue cornmeal of the Southwest have become available and increasingly popular. Combinations of masa flour with wheat, legumes, and other flours will lead to interesting new products. New products fried with oils containing more unsaturated fatty acids or made from nutritionally improved corn will enhance the image of tortilla chips. Modified frying and new baking techniques that produce foods with a texture like that of fried foods will be used to make lower calorie snacks. The industry will move toward higher-speed production lines, more automation, better quality control, and higher labor and equipment efficiency.

It is estimated that the consumption of tortilla chips will continue to increase in the United States. Corn and tortilla chips are becoming popular in other areas of the world as well. Corn chip plants have been started in Australia, the People's Republic of China, India, Korea, and other countries. Experiencing a 50 percent increase in wholesale sales during the past five years, corn and tortilla snacks are rapidly moving into main-stream popularity. Future growth, however, depends on the industry's ability to keep pace with changing consumer demands.

Where To Learn More


Booth, R. Gordon. Snack Food. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Gleason, Carolyn J. Handbook of Mexican American Foods: Recipes, Nutritional Analysis, Diabetic Exchanges & Common Practices. Intercultural Development Research Association, 1982.

Matz, Samuel A. Snack Food Technology. Pan-Tech International, 1993.

Sparks, Pat and Barbara Swanson. Tortillas! St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1993.

Wise, Victoria and Susanna Hoffman. The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook. Workman Publishing, 1990, pp. 32-33.


de Lisser, Eleena. "Tortilla Chips Tempt Snackers With Changes," Wall Street Journal. May 6, 1993, p.B1.

"Thin Tortilla Chips," Fortune. October 19, 1992, p. 109.

Mack, Toni. "Tortilla Wizard," Forbes. July 20, 1992.

Serna-Saldivar, S. O., M. H. Gomez, and L. W. Rooney. "Technology, Chemistry, and Nutritional Value of Alkaline-Cooked Corn Products," Advances in Cereal Science & Technology. 1990, pp. 243-307.

Glenn G. Whiteside

Also read article about Tortilla Chip from Wikipedia

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