A fact about Chipotle—which, along with Clickhole, is the only American institution that retains my trust—is that the company uses over 800,000 tortillas per day. (Numbers like that really put life in perspective, as well as the fact that, usually, only one of those tortillas is for me.)
The New York Times reports on the company’s attempt to make its tortilla ingredients simpler, as the company pushes to go completely GMO-free:
The ingredients in the tortillas now? Flour, water, whole-wheat flour, canola oil, salt, baking soda, wheat bran, fumaric acid, calcium propionate, sorbic acid and sodium metabisulfite.
And in the tortillas it is experimenting with, and has tested in a Chipotle in Burlington, Wash.? Just four: whole-wheat flour, water, oil and salt.
Anyone who has ever lived in a city where fresh-made tortillas were available at the grocery store on the regular (miss you, H.E.B. and Fiesta; sort of miss you, Houston) knows the vast difference between a commercial tortilla and a fresh one. I will not eat commercial tortillas at all, but in contrast, I will eat about 25 fresh tortillas before you finish your story at the dinner table. Fresh tortillas are exponentially more delicious, but just as difficult to scale up into the type of industrial production required by a national, Chipotle-size chain—particularly when the company is trying to avoid GMOs, which means commercial yeast and cornstarch are off-limits.
For that, Jonathan Bethony, the resident baker at the Bread Lab, went to work to develop a starter from flour and water, ultimately arriving at a sourdough that he believed would add the right flavor, make the tortilla dough smoother and give it a longer shelf life.
But using Mr. Bethony’s starter in an industrial setting posed some challenges. A starter needs consistent temperature to develop. It needs a quiet place to rest. And it needs time to ferment. None of those conditions exist in most industrial tortilla factories, where commercial dough balls fattened to 320 to 370 pounds with yeast or other leavening agents are extruded and pressed into as many as 1,500 tortillas, then baked and packaged.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that the Times buried the lede. Next time you get a delicious Chipotle burrito wrapped in a delicious GMO tortilla, please think about the place from whence your tortilla came. Each beautiful tort is one of 1,500 children from a 350-pound Dough Mom, released into the world, and then your stomach. It’s sort of like Charlotte’s Web.
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