What Is A Torta?
Discover the origins of this beloved Mexican sandwich and how to make it at home.
By Carlos Olaechea for Food Network Kitchen
Carlos is a contributing writer at Food Network.
For many Spanish speakers, a torta is a cake. However, in Mexico a torta is a very popular type of sandwich that has made its way north of the border to the United States. Said to have originated in Puebla, Mexico, this sandwich is a holdover from the days in which the French occupied the area. However, this hearty, boldly flavored sandwich has become an entirely Mexican creation that is filling and features a symphony of flavors and textures. Learn all about this exuberant Mexican sandwich, its history and how to make it at home with our detailed guide. We even include some of our favorite recipes to get you started.
What Is a Torta?
Torta is a Spanish word (among several) for cake. Throughout the Hispanic word, including former Spanish colonies like the Philippines, the term torta has come to mean many different types of foods. In many parts of Spain, for instance, a torta refers to a type of flatbread. In the Philippines, it refers to an eggplant omelet. In fact, the word tortilla, which derives from torta and roughly translates to “small cake” is used to describe omelette-like egg preparations in Spain in addition to similar types of egg dishes throughout the Spanish speaking world. The only exception is in Mexico and parts of Central America, where the word tortilla refers to a type of flatbread made from nixtamalized corn, wheat flour or other types of grains.
Mexico also has a different meaning for the word torta. There, a torta is a specific type of sandwich that is said to have originated in Puebla but has become popular throughout the country and anywhere with a large Mexican population. The area around Puebla was host to French military forces for quite some time. In fact, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla in which Mexican forces beat the French and regained control of the area. Because of the French presence in the region, Poblanos (people from Puebla) adopted French-style breads, especially the baguette. This type of bread is said to be the influence for the types of breads used in traditional torta preparations. This is the type of torta we’ll be talking about here.
A Mexican torta resembles a sandwich in almost every way: a crusty roll is sliced in half and filled with a variety of meats and other ingredients. However, what goes inside a torta is uniquely Mexican and includes a variety of bold and spicy sauces and garnishes that are found in many other types of Mexican dishes.
What Is a Torta Made Of?
Mexican-style tortas are made of one of several types of breads that are said to have been inspired by French baguettes. Most of the time, they are filled with meat and loaded up with veggies, sauces and other garnishes. However, Mexican torta shops in Mexico and the U.S. are always innovating with new types of tortas and breaking with traditions, sometimes adding non-traditional ingredients or even stuffing tortas with tortilla dishes, as in the tortope - a chicken sope (similar to a tostada but on a thicker tortilla) inside a torta. Below are some of the main elements of a torta.
The Right Bread for Tortas
The bread used to make a torta can have different names depending on where in Mexico the cook is from (or what is available at your nearest Mexican market or bakery). Bolillo rolls are one of the most popular types of rolls. These can also go by the names birote or pan francés (literally French bread) in different parts of Mexico. Many food historians believe that this type of bread is a direct descendant of the French baguette but made much smaller and a little softer. It’s in the shape of a roll and often has one or more creases on the top. The exterior is ever so slightly crunchy and the inside is pillowy soft.
The other type of bread is also a roll but flatter, slightly larger and oblong compared to the bolillo roll. This type of bread is called a telera. Many of these breads are available at Mexican groceries and bakeries in the United States. Some Latino markets may also carry them.
However, a good crusty water roll can also do the trick. Portuguese rolls are a great alternative, if they’re available where you live. French bread, like the kind used to make New Orleans po’ boys, are also great (if not a little long). Kaiser rolls will work in a flash, too. Ciabatta or baguettes are typically too tough and chewy for tortas, making them difficult to eat without the filling falling out.
As mentioned above, tortas can be filled with just about anything. The simplest tortas can include just a slice of ham or even some sliced avocado. One of the most popular types of tortas, however, features milanesa, a breaded and fried steak or chicken cutlet. The richness of the fried meat is a perfect vehicle for the myriad of garnishes that are typically added.
Many times, especially in the U.S., traditional taco fillings can also double as torta fillings. As such, anything from carne asada and carnitas to al pastor pork and chorizo can go into a torta. If planning a party, you can even have a taco bar and a torta bar for those who want to switch it up.
In addition to meat, more elaborate tortas can also include a fried egg, cheese and/or a smear of refried beans. The cheese used in a torta can range from tangy Monterrey Jack and gouda to mild and stringy Oaxaca cheese. Some more modern types of tortas can also include frankfurters and even globally-inspired ingredients. You can seriously let your imagination run wild with a torta!
When compared to other Latin American cuisines, the Mexican culinary ethos seems to be “more is more,” and this approach definitely applies to tortas. There really is no such thing as going overboard with a torta, and you don’t really need to worry about it becoming soggy because there is even a type of torta that is drowned in a sauce (more on that later). If you think about the types of garnishes that go on tacos or nachos, then you have an idea of what could go on a torta.
Veggies are certainly key to filling a torta. A combination of shredded lettuce or cabbage, diced tomatoes and chopped onions is often a must. Pickled jalapenos are also a favorite for those who like a bit of heat. Some slices of creamy avocado are always a welcome addition, regardless of the other fillings you choose to include, and freshly-made guacamole is naturally just as yummy in a torta. Pickled onions, chopped cilantro and even pineapple are popular additions. If you want a torta that is a little saucier, you can drizzle on your favorite salsas. For a bit of extra creaminess, you can also top everything with some Mexican crema or American-style sour cream before adding your top bun to your creation.
In Guadalajara, there is a unique regional style of torta called a torta ahogada, which literally translates to a drowned torta. This type of torta either gets dipped into a spicy red sauce or smothered in it, and is eaten with a knife and fork. It’s kind of like the Mexican answer to a French dip sandwich, but a lot zestier.
How to Make a Torta
A torta is just as easy to make as a sandwich. All you need to do is have your ingredients prepped beforehand to make assembly a breeze.
- Source your bread. A fresh bolillo or telera roll ideal, but any other type of crusty-but-not-too-crusty roll will work just fine. As well, you can find recipes online for Mexican-style torta rolls.
- Have all of your garnishes ready. Especially if you’re including hot meat or veggie fillings, you don’t want to have them get cold while you chop vegetables and make salsas. You can shred your own lettuce or cabbage or purchase a bag of coleslaw mix if you prefer. Transferring your crema or sour cream to a squeeze bottle will also make things easy. If you’re making a torta ahogada, have a saucepan with your sauce simmering.
- Slice through your roll lengthwise as you would with a hamburger bun. You can opt to toast each half of the bun first in an oven, toaster oven, toaster or on a comal or skillet. There’s no need to butter the bread unless that’s your thing. Keep in mind that your torta will include a lot of other rich fillings.
- Add the main fillings and the toppings. If you’re including refried beans in your torta, spread an even layer of that on the bottom half of your roll. Now add the main filling - whether it's meat, cheese, vegetables or all three. You can load up all the toppings you want on your torta. Start with cheese if you’re using it, add a mountain of shredded lettuce or cabbage, make it rain tomatoes and onions and finish with some slices of avocado. Squirt on a generous amount of crema or sour cream; add a sprinkle of cilantro and a few slices of jalapeno if you’re about that spicy life.
- If you didn't toast the bread, you can press it in a sandwich maker. If you didn’t toast your bread before adding your fillings and are having regrets about your decision, now is the time to rectify that. Many types of tortas are also pressed in a sandwich maker, much like a Cuban sandwich. A panini press or even a George Foreman grill can help you achieve the same results.
- If making a torta ahogada, now is the time to dunk your finished torta in the vat of savory red sauce. Or you can ladle a generous amount over your plated torta.
How to Serve a Torta
Tortas are a part of Mexico’s long roster of handheld foods, and because they’re easily portable and very filling, they’re mainstays at street fairs and sporting events. As such, you may not even need a plate to enjoy a simple torta. However, some of the more flamboyant tortas may require plating just to avoid all the fillings landing on your shirt. A torta can be a mammoth-sized sandwich, so it is often cut in half. Cutting a torta in half is also a great way to show off that multicolored layers hiding inside the roll.
Typically, all of the garnishes go inside a prepared torta before serving. However, many tortas may arrive with a few extras on the side for personalizing your torta experience. Many times, these include hot and spicy options that each diner may want to customize for him or herself. Slices of jalapeno (pickled or fresh) or hot sauces often come on the side. If you’re making a torta ahogada, you can always serve a side of extra red sauce for dipping or drizzling.
This Yucatan-inspired torta features a thick grilled steak marinated in herbs and orange juice.
You can make this classic torta with either beef, chicken or pork cutlets. The crispy fried cutlet gets a creamy and spicy accent from some homemade smokey chipotle mayo.
This Guadalajara-style "drowned torta" is filled with braised pork and refried beans and smothered in a spicy tomato broth.