A lot of people are confused by tortillas and whether or not they are bread. They contain the same ingredients, they have similar characteristics, yet they are so different in many ways.
So, what is the difference between tortillas and bread? The main difference between these two is the category they fall into. When people think of bread, they typically think of a large loaf of leavened bread and when they think of tortillas, they think of flatbreads (unleavened bread).
In this article, we will have a look at the differences between tortillas and other breads in many different aspects, mostly comparing the differences between leavened and unleavened bread.
What Are Tortillas?
Tortillas are thin, unleavened flatbreads made with either a corn-based or flour-base.
Corn-based tortillas were the first type to be made as far back as 10,000 B.C. These types of tortillas are made from maize (corn) that sometimes is found in different colors such as blue or black.
Flour tortillas are made from wheat flour, creating a much softer and flexible product. Commercially, there are tons of flour tortilla varieties ranging from gluten-free to beetroot tortillas.
What Is Bread?
Bread is one of the oldest foods to be made and has ever since been a staple in most homes. These are made with rising agents, mostly yeast, and always contain some form of flour and water.
Bread is very versatile and can vary in ingredients used, production methods and times, shapes used, baking methods and times, and their final uses. As you probably know, there are thousands of bread types out there, and most are very easy to make.
You also find healthier versions of the traditional carb-packed breads such as gluten-free loaves, seed breads, or even vegetable-based breads.
What’s the Difference?
Like we already mentioned, there are two main categories of bread: leavened and unleavened.
Leavened breads are those that contain rising agents that give the bread its shape and volume. Unleavened breads, like tortillas, matzah, and roti do not contain any rising agents, creating very thin flatbreads.
Thus, tortillas are a type of bread and we will look more closely at the difference between leavened bread (loaves) and unleavened bread (tortillas specifically).
Corn tortillas are made from hominy, a type of alkali-treated corn flour. Flour-based tortillas are made using wheat flour.
Flour tortillas are much more basic than leavened bread as they only require two ingredients – flour and water. You can and should add some seasoning (like fine salt) to add flavor to your flatbread, but it has no other function.
For flour tortillas, you can use many different types of flour to cater for dietary requirements.
To start any bread, you technically also only require two ingredients, flour and water, but the main difference to tortillas is that leavened bread requires a leavening agent.
Leavening agents include baking powder, baking soda, or yeast, to name a few.
Yeast is the most popular when it comes to making bread and is also found in many different forms. You can find dry yeast, activated yeast, fresh yeast and a yeast starter (used when making sourdough).
Which rising agent you use will also determine which type of leavened bread you are making.
Depending on the rising agent, other ingredients will be required to adjust the taste and color, control the leavening agent, and add any desired characteristics to the final product.
Other ingredients that are commonly used when making bread include milk, eggs, sugar, salt, butter, and oil.
Which ingredients are used and the ratios of each will affect the outcome and which bread you are ultimately making – and yes, this means there are thousands of possibilities.
Like with any food item today, there are tons of substitutions to make leavened bread healthier and to cater to certain dietary needs, as long as the substitutes have similar functions to the original to create a viable loaf.
No matter which type of bread you are making, leavened or unleavened, both are made into a dough by combining the ingredients required.
Leavened breads sometimes have specific times and a proper order for when ingredients are added, whereas tortillas involve simply combining wet and dry ingredients.
The dough is then kneaded until it becomes smooth and elastic.
Kneading dough is a crucial step as it helps create a strong and elastic gluten-structure that will help form a beautiful product that will hold its shape. There are very few bread doughs that don’t require kneading.
Here is where the process starts to differ drastically. When making tortillas, after kneading the dough there is no proofing (rising) time necessary because there isn’t any rising agent.
Any dough that contains a leavener should be allowed to rest and “proof” (rise and double in size). Some types of bread have multiple proofing stages and again, different methods also determine the type of bread you are making.
When making some leavened breads, there are many other factors to the production method that will affect the outcome. Some include the temperature of the atmosphere and the ingredients, the size of the dough, the quality of ingredients, and the equipment used.
To make tortillas, traditionally they are rolled into a smaller ball and pressed using a tortilla press. Today, it is very acceptable to roll out your dough balls with a rolling pin.
Tortillas are round, but sometimes they are made into squares or ovals for different purposes.
Leavened breads have much more complicated shaping methods. The shape and size of the bread will even determine what type of bread it is.
For example, baguettes are traditionally long, thin loaves. Sourdough is usually large oval loaves that have been scored on top but can also be found in circular shapes. Challah is a braided bread.
Leavened bread is also scored (by making incisions in the dough) to intentionally create a weak spot so the bread will expand in the oven without cracking. These incisions can also create visually appealing products and can represent certain cultures or traditions.
Tortillas vary in size but can be anywhere between 2.4 to over 24 inches (6 to over 30 cm) wide in diameter. The size depends on which region it is from and what it will be used for.
Tacos should have a convenient size that can be held in one hand, thus you will use tortillas between 6-7 inches (15-18 cm). Burritos should have tortillas that are large enough to stuff but still be able to fold closed, making a 10-12 inch (25-30 cm) tortilla perfect.
The size of bread can range from a dinner roll to a ciabatta. The type of bread will determine how big it traditionally should be; however, today we find that many people make smaller or larger versions of the same thing for a specific purpose.
Dinner rolls have to be small enough to hold, but large enough to have multiple bites, whereas a basic white loaf should be square and large enough to evenly cover with other ingredients.
Tortillas are cooked in a very hot griddle or frying pan – cast-iron works the best. The cooked tortilla should have an even, light color with darker spots where it cooked.
Tortillas cook between 10 seconds to 1 minute per side depending on the size and how hot the pans are. They are fully cooked when you press them and they do not feel doughy anymore.
Leavened breads have many different baking processes. Most breads are baked in traditional gas or electric ovens, but some are baked on an open fire, in a tandoori oven, or a traditional bread oven (like a pizza oven).
Breads bake at different temperatures for different times and in different ways. Each combination of these will affect the outcome and type of bread you are making.
Corn tortillas are used as a key ingredient in many dishes such as tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, and even sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup).
Wheat tortillas are mostly used for burritos and quesadillas due to their flexibility and again, depending on where you are.
These flatbreads are served as an accompaniment, like bread would be, to soups and stews.
Tortillas are also sometimes deep-fried or baked to a crisp to create tortilla chips. These chips are almost always salted and served with a variety of accompaniments to make nachos.
Breads have many different uses. They are mostly a vessel for other foods, such as jams, preserved, meats, soups, or fillings, but can also be consumed as is.
The type of bread you make will help you with its purpose.
Bunny chow is a traditional Indian-South African dish from Durban that is made using a loaf of fluffy white bread (square loaf) that is hollowed out and filled with curry. The bread is pulled from the loaf and dipped in the curry to eat.
But ciabatta bread has become one of the most popular sandwich and panini breads, and sourdough is used as often as a side or a piece of toast as it is in sandwiches.
As you can see, tortillas are a type of unleavened bread whereas breads mostly refer to leavened breads.
There are many differences between leavened and unleavened breads (and tortillas specifically) including the type of ingredients used, ratios of the ingredients, production methods, shaping process, sizes of the products, cooking methods, and ultimately, their uses.
We love bread, and between these two, it’s impossible to choose a favorite.