I’ve always found making tortillas at home to be a satisfying project. To make them, you start with masa, made from dried field corn that has been nixtamalized by cooking the kernels in an alkaline solution of water and calcium hydroxide or wood ash. The nixtamalized corn can then be ground into fresh masa (dough), or dehydrated for masa harina (dough flour), a convenient, shelf-stable ingredient.

Recently, rehydrating masa harina with warm water and kneading the mixture reminded me of the tactile feel of Play-Doh, which inspired me to think about all the brilliant colors I played with as a kid and how they might transform the masa I was preparing.

Adding vibrant hues to masa isn’t new: It has a long history among Indigenous people, as Andrea Aliseda illuminates in her story about the Indigenous tradition of colored masa. Ceremonial tortillas served as a way to maintain religious tradition during the Spanish conquest when Indigenous people were being converted to Christianity. Though seemingly whimsical, these designs serve as a cultural homage to Mexican tradition, embodying the craft of cooking and respect for ingredients while honoring both the past and the tortilla’s lucky recipient. Modern cooks are now adopting this tradition and making vibrantly colored tortillas, artfully adorned with geometric patterns, abstract marbling, and even flowers.

To dye my masa, I looked in my spice cabinet for the most pigmented spices: smoked paprika, turmeric, and even black charcoal powder. I didn’t have an endgame, so I started mixing the doughs together with hopeful abandon. I ended up with a galaxy tie-dye looking tortilla. I shared those on Instagram, to which my friend replied, “Something about the black and rouge ones are giving me Donald Sultan vibes.” I immediately searched and found the artist’s iconic poppy paintings. With a simple Google search, my obsession with flower corn tortillas began.

If you’d also like to try making colored tortillas and designs at home, here are some instructions.

Bowls of colored masa, including black, orange, yellow, and plain Holly Haines
I start with dough in several different colors and make designs from there.

How to color your masa

Add colorful dry ingredients: An easy way to color dough is with highly pigmented dried spices like smoked paprika and turmeric. Other dry ingredients like charcoal powder, purple yam powder, and beetroot powder can also be added to the masa harina. The amount you add to the masa harina will depend on how saturated you’d like the color. I find 4 to 8 teaspoons per 2 1/2 cups (231g) of masa is enough to impart color and a bit of flavor, without being overpowering, depending on the spice. Start with the lower amount and increase gradually from there.

The base recipe doesn’t change much with the addition of the coloring ingredients, but some dry spices and powders may require more warm water added to the dough. If you’re unsure of whether the dough is hydrated enough, use one of my favorite Pati Jinich tips: Press a ball of masa in a tortilla press and check the edges for cracks. Cracks are a sign that the dough needs more water; knead in a teaspoon more at a time and press again until you have smooth edges.

Add colorful liquids: Coloring the warm water added to the masa harina is another way to add pigment. For pink dough, use a tea made of flor de jamaica (hibiscus flowers) steeped in hot water to rehydrate masa harina: Steep about 1/2 cup of flor de jamaica in 2 cups (454g) hot water for 10 minutes, strain out the flowers and measure 1 2/3 cups (378g) of tea, reserving remaining tea in case your dough needs more hydration. Add to 2 1/2 cups (231g) masa harina and proceed with the base recipe for pink dough.

Chilies can also add color and a punch of flavor, as demonstrated in this Tacos Rojos (Red Tacos) recipe. For smoky, light orange-tinted dough, I like to purée 2 canned chipotle chilies in adobo with 2 cups (454g) of water. Measure out 1 2/3 cups (378g) of the chipotle water, reserving the remaining liquid in case your dough needs more hydration. Combine with 2 1/2 cups (231g) masa harina.

How to make yellow, black, or orange masa

This method makes a quarter batch of the base tortilla recipe. I like to make multiple colored doughs, which I use to create multi-colored tortilla designs (more on that below!). As a result, I find smaller batches easier to work with and less wasteful.

  • 2/3 cup (60g) masa harina
  • turmeric, activated charcoal powder (see note), or smoked paprika
  • pinch salt       
  • 6 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (95g) warm water

To add color, mix dry spices or powders with the masa harina before adding warm water.

For yellow masa: Add 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

For black masa: Add 1 1/4 teaspoons activated charcoal powder (see note) 

For orange masa: Add 2 teaspoons smoked paprika

Combine the masa harina, salt, and mix-ins of your choice. Gradually add the warm water, stirring with your hands to make a cohesive dough.

Note: Activated charcoal powder, in quantities between 50 to 100 grams, can interfere with the absorption of some medications. There’s a small amount of charcoal (just a few grams) per serving for each tortilla, but please keep this in mind if that is a concern.

Multiple tortillas with different flower patterns Holly Haines
Once you have your colored masa, you can play around to your heart’s content.

How to make tortilla designs with colored masa

You can use your colored masa to make richly hued monochrome tortillas. Or take things a step further and combine different colors to make whimsical designs, like flowers (“flower” corn tortillas ... get it?).

I find 3 to 4 different colored doughs are good for experimenting with designs. I start with a full batch of the base tortilla recipe, with no add-ins for color. This serves as the “canvas” for designs. For the colored masa, I make quarter batches of the base recipe, each one colored separately.

For any design, begin with a ball of your base color dough, between 25 and 30 grams (about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons). Place the dough in plastic-lined tortilla press and gently press down about halfway, flattening the dough into a disc about 3" wide. Lift the press and the plastic lining, then begin adding the colored dough on top in the pattern of your choice. The design will eventually be pressed out and expanded, so take care to leave some space in between the colored dough elements so they remain distinct after being pressed. Place the plastic lining back over the design and press the tortilla until it’s 5" to 6" wide. Lift the press, carefully remove the plastic, and proceed with cooking the tortillas, per the base recipe.

Tortilla in tortilla press with orange flower design Holly Haines
Lay your design out on the base tortilla ...
Pressed tortilla with orange flower design Holly Haines
Then stamp in the tortilla press to complete the design.

For a flower design: Start with an 8 to 10-gram (about 1 1/2 teaspoons) ball of dough, in any color, then divide into 5 small balls between 1/4" and 1/2" in diameter for the petals. Pinch one end of the ball to a point, then flatten slightly to create a teardrop (or petal!) shape. Place the petal on top of the base dough, with the pointed end toward the center. Repeat with the remaining balls, pressing into petal shapes and placing in a circular pattern on the base dough. Add one more tiny ball, about 1/8" in diameter, in the center where the points of the petal meet, for the “pistil” of the flower. Place your tortilla design back into the press, between the plastic, and press down, flattening into a circle between 5" and 6".

Unpressed tortilla with colorful flower design Holly Haines
The start of a sunny yellow flower tortilla. 
Pressed tortillas with yellow flower pattern Holly Haines
The results after pressing.

For polka dots: Divide about 10 grams (about 1 1/2 teaspoons) of colored dough into 10 very small balls of dough; dot over the top of the 3" tortilla base and press again.

For a sunset scene: Start by rolling together 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon) of base dough with 15 grams of orange dough to create a slightly marbled or gradient effect, press halfway, then dot the center with a 5-gram ball (about 1 teaspoon) of yellow dough. Press again and lift to revel in your artwork.

That should get your creative tortilla design juices flowing. Simple designs tend to yield the best results, while attempts at more intricate designs can give a good laugh upon reveal.  

Celebrate your masa masterpiece by piling the tortillas with whatever filling you choose. If you’re not quite satisfied with your creation, just ball that dough up to make a tie-dye pattern instead, then press it again and add another design on top. Those tortillas end up looking the coolest, anyway.

For a recipe with the colors built right in, try Pati Jinich's Tacos Rojos (Red Tacos) with Queso Fresco and Salsa Verde. Or customize your colors and designs by starting with this Tortillas de Maíz (Corn Tortillas) recipe. 

Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne. 

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Tortillas de Maíz (Corn Tortillas)
Tortillas de Maíz (Corn Tortillas)
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1 hr 5 mins
sixteen 5" tortillas
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About Holly Haines

Holly Haines (@ItsHolly) started developing recipes in 2013 on her blog, "From My Impossibly Tiny Kitchen." Since then, she’s competed against professional chefs on national television, self-published her first cookbook, How to Eat Your Feelings, and shared countless recipes across social media. She...
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