Inside Chipotle’s search for a better tortilla

The latest piece of equipment at the Bread Lab, a heavenly smelling corner of the Washington State University campus here, is a tortilla press, a gift from Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The lab is working on a project for the restaurant chain that says it wants to improve the quality of mass-market food. The goal: create a tortilla that is as soft, pliant and tasty as something an abuelita may make in her kitchen, but one that can be produced on a vast scale. Each day, Chipotle uses more than 800,000 tortillas to wrap burritos and cradle tacos, and by the time it reconfigures its manufacturing facilities and distribution processes to produce the new tortilla, it will probably need more than a million.

The company is getting closer to figuring it out. 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.

“We aspire to make artisanal tortillas on an industrial scale,” said Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

The project began years ago, as Chipotle was working to eliminate genetically altered ingredients from the food it prepares. “Someone said, ‘Steve, we have to source new cornstarch for the tortillas’ ” — most cornstarch comes from genetically modified corn — “and my first thought was: ‘Really? Why is there cornstarch in tortillas?’ ” Mr. Ells said.

Flour tortillas are traditionally made from four or five simple ingredients. But mass-market tortillas, the kind used in the food-service business or purchased in the grocery store, have a lot of other ingredients to make them easier to produce by the millions and to give them a longer shelf life.

“Not only did we need to change ingredients, we needed to get most of them out,” Mr. Ells said. “We also would have to go back to the tortilla bakery and really change the whole way tortillas are made en masse.”

Chipotle wants to raise the nutrition in fast food, so its tortillas are made from whole wheat. Dr. Stephen Jones, a plant geneticist who is the director of the Bread Lab said: “The skilled baker can make the perfect anything with white flour. Whole wheat is more challenging.”

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