Corn tortillas will last for about a week at room temperature and about a month to six weeks in the refrigerator. Depending on how one stores them, the food product provides probably one of the longest-lasting bread products available for the typical kitchen, making tortillas extremely useful in areas with limited electricity.
Every food product has a “best by” date, and corn tortillas sold in the market are no exception. However, the best by date is simply the manufacturer’s time for food to still be at peak freshness. Corn tortillas can be eaten at least a week after this point as well. Assuming the tortillas are stored in a refrigerator versus on a shelf.
The History of the Tortilla as a Stable Food
The tortilla has been around for a very long time, eaten for centuries well before the refrigerator came along. A derivative of the Spanish word, “torta,” tortilla became a common phrase for a flattened bread product that could be kept without cooling or preserving, a common situation among the poor in Spanish countries.
However, unlike common myths, the tortilla was not an import from Spain. The oldest corn tortillas were likely made some 10,000 years before the common era (i.e., 10,000 B.C.) in Mesoamerican. The food was well-known and documented as a bread staple among the Aztecs, which is where the Spaniards were first introduced to tortillas when they arrived exploring.
As an early food, tortillas were easy to make. Maize and then later corn were mashed into a meal-type paste with water using a grinding process, and the paste was laid on a flat hot surface for baking. The result was an edible tortilla that could be folded and stored as well to eat later. It was the perfect takeout food long before anyone understood how to preserve edible goods from spoiling. No surprise, tortillas were common and eaten by everyone, along with vegetables and other foods.
Tortillas were considered a Spanish or Central American food for many years, but soon their use and recipe spread globally.
Today, tortillas of all types represent one of the fastest-growing baked food in the U.S. Some might think it’s due to population changes, but the reality is that tortillas are being used in far more foods than just Mexican dishes and the like. The tortilla’s versatility makes it very useful for all types of dishes, especially those from other cultures that used flattened bread as an ingredient. Think you’ve never had a tortilla? Guess again. If you have a veggie or food wrap, you ate the food wrapped in a tortilla with another menu name.
Signs Corn Tortillas are Going Bad
All food eventually goes bad if not consumed. Food is an organic material, which breaks down over time, even when refrigerated. The first barrier to problems is preventing excess moisture. If tortillas are in environments with high humidity, they will begin to develop mold. When in the refrigerator, corn tortillas will signal that they are going bad with excessive drying out and odd taste. Again, this is part of the breakdown of the organic material.
Believe it or not, one of the best ways to figure out if corn tortillas should be thrown away or can provide another meal is your senses of smell and taste. Smell and taste are far better detectors than eyesight. Both will pick up odd or decaying senses better and faster than looking for mold with your eyes. While taste and smell are not perfect, most cooks have learned to trust their nose or tongue and throw out anything that has a sour taste or aftertaste or odd smell to it. However, what tends to throw things off are preservatives. With modern food processing, preservatives create a chemical delay effect, allowing processed food to last longer. While this offsets the organic material’s degeneration, it also creates a noticeable effect: drying out. So, the giveaway with factory-made tortillas tends to be they get stiff and rigid and lose moisture. In any situation where mold is spotted, throw out the whole package. Even if only one tortilla shows visible signs, all the tortillas in the same bag have already been covered and exposed to mold spores and are also well on their way to visible decay.
How to Lengthen the Shelf Life of Tortillas
Temperature is probably one of the most significant factors in delaying or hastening the spoiling of corn tortillas. Unrefrigerated tortillas should be kept in a cool and dry pantry and out of sunlight or away from heat sources. Clay jars were often used in early times as good storage resistance to room temperature if kept in cool, dark locations. The clay also soaked up moisture and kept the tortillas dry. The same logic applies to how to store flour tortillas as well.
Avoiding frequent and significant temperature change also helps quite a bit. When corn tortillas go from cold to hot and back to cold, they will create condensation on the surface with the air’s moisture. That, in turn, creates additional moisture for mold to propagate on the tortilla surface, especially if contained within a plastic bag.
Do you refrigerate tortillas?
Yes, it’s entirely possible and recommended. Refrigerators are the best locations as they generally keep the corn tortillas consistently cool, and the machinery pulls out moisture from inside, reducing the chance of rapid mold growth. That said, the tortillas should be in a plastic container or bag, or the moisture draw of the refrigerator will dry them out prematurely.
Pulling tortillas out of the fridge means they will be cold. However, reheating is a simple matter. Corn tortillas are already cooked and ready to eat out of the bag, just place them on a hot flat pan for a few seconds and then flip them over to the other side for solid temperature rise. It doesn’t take long, and the difference produces an added benefit to eating the tortilla with other warm food.