If you love Mexican food, you know that a burrito is only as good as
But as any savvy chef knows, keeping a wheat-flour tortilla fresh and
tender, ready to accept a zesty filling of vegetables or meat, is not
easy. It's a race against the clock to beat underlying chemical forces
that cause the popular flat breads to become brittle and tasteless.
And as tortillas move into mainstream cuisine, more and more consumers
are reaching for the versatile, circular breads in their cupboardsonly
to find them past their prime. Aiming to please customers and curb losses,
the $5 billion tortilla industry is trying to produce tortillas that
will stay fresh for up to 25 days.
ARS cereal chemist George L.
Lookhart is conducting research that may someday put the brakes on stalinga
process not easily described, involving terms like "protein matrix,"
"starch granules," and "starch retrogradation."
He's trying to determine how and why staling happens, something that
scientists have been struggling to explain for more than 150 years.
"What we have accomplished," says Lookhart, "is being
able to predict whether a particular wheat flour will yield a good tortilla."
And what makes the perfect tortilla? One that is about 2 mm thick and
evenly opaque, with ample diameter and at least a 3-week shelf life.
Lookhart and his colleagues at the Hard Winter Wheat Quality Laboratory,
in Manhattan, Kansas, have developed a laboratory-scale method that
can predict whether a flour type will yield that ideal tortilla.
"With just a small amount of flour from early-generation wheat
plants," Lookhart says, "the test allows breeders to use small-scale,
lab-produced tortillas to compare and distinguish tortilla quality in
wheat breeding lines."
Wheat Wraps Get Stressed Out
In his laboratory, Lookhart submits strips of tortillas to various
stress tests. He uses a texture analyzer to examine the physical and
chemical changes that occur in 1- to 20-day-old tortillas.
"In one test, we basically stretch several strips from a single
tortilla across a plate. Then we measure the forceshow the strips
relax or at what level they break," he explains.
The results of such tests reveal how strong the gluten proteins in
a wheat flour are. With the right amount and quality of gluten, a wheat
tortilla can endure the stress of being rolled, and it won't crack.
"On the other hand, if the gluten is too strong, the tortilla
will have too much springshrinking in on itself and losing diameter
when the tortilla press is released from the dough," Lookhart says.
The new tortilla test could lead to development of wheat varieties
that have just the right gluten strength and protein makeup to be grown
exclusively for tortilla production.
And what about staling? "At the heart of the staling process,"
says Lookhart, "is moisture movement throughout the tortilla via
the protein matrix and starch molecules." Next, Lookhart plans
to examine the chemistry of the staling process in other grains, like
K. Peabody, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Quality and Utilization of Agricultural
Products, an ARS National Program (#306) described on the World Wide
Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
George L. Lookhart is
with the USDA-ARS Grain Marketing
and Production Research Center, 1515 College Ave., Manhattan, KS
66502; phone (785) 776-2736, fax (785) 537-5534.
"Long Live the Tortilla!" was published in the September
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.