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What is Masa Harina?

Masa harina translates to "dough flour" and is used as a staple ingredient in many Latin American dishes. This specialty flour is the dried form of fresh masa dough, which is made from ground field corn treated through a process called nixtamalization. Making fresh masa dough is a labor of love that requires many steps, which is why masa harina can be very helpful. Masa harina cuts down on preparation time and can be used in place of fresh masa to make traditional Hispanic foods like corn tortillas, tamales, and empanadas. Keep reading to learn about masa harina and how to make fresh masa dough.

If you want to skip ahead to the recipes, click below:

What is Masa?

Masa is a fresh dough made from ground field corn, or maize. To make masa harina flour, you first start with masa dough. The freshly made dough is dried and ground into instant flour, which can be reconstituted back into dough by adding water. Unlike many types of flours that are made directly from dried grains, masa harina corn flour is made from prepared dough. The masa dough is made first, then dried and ground into masa harina flour, and finally turned back into dough to be used in recipes.

Fresh Masa vs Instant Masa

“Harina

Fresh masa is dough made from freshly ground corn, and instant masa dough is made by adding water to masa harina flour. Not many people have time to go through all the steps required to make fresh masa dough, so purchasing masa harina flour saves time and allows anyone to make fresh corn tortillas.

If you own a restaurant, it's convenient to keep shelf-stable masa harina on hand for your recipes. But if your claim to fame is traditional corn tortillas, try using fresh masa dough for the most authentic Mexican-inspired dishes. It’s a long process but yields delicious results. Before making your masa dough, you’ll need to understand the process of nixtamalization.

What is Nixtamalization?

Nixtamalization (nix-tuh-mal-uh-zay-shun) is an ancient process used to treat field corn kernels with lime water to give them a distinctive flavor and make them easier to digest. This method is the key to making masa dough, masa harina flour, and another corn product called hominy. Corn kernels that are treated through nixtamalization are called nixtamal (nix-tuh-mal).

Cornmeal vs Masa

Cornmeal and corn flour are made from ground corn, and masa harina is made from nixtamalized ground corn. The process of nixtamalization gives masa harina a savory flavor that you won't find with cornmeal. You can use cornmeal to make cornbread or pancakes, but stick with masa harina to make tortillas and tamales, otherwise they won't have the signature toasted corn flavor you expect.

How to Make Nixtamal

To make nixtamal, you first begin with a batch of dried field corn kernels. Field corn is different from the sweet corn you commonly find in grocery stores. The kernels of field corn are larger and more fibrous than sweet corn and must go through nixtamalization before they can be eaten or turned into masa. Look for the field corn variety called dent corn, which you can buy in bulk from grain distributors.

The second important component you’ll need to make nixtamal is called calcium hydroxide. This compound is also called pickling lime, slaked lime, or cal lime. The lime in this instance doesn’t refer to the citrus fruit, but to the mineral, limestone. Calcium hydroxide is added to water to make an alkaline solution used in food processing. You can find food grade calcium hydroxide or pickling lime at specialty stores.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound dried field corn kernels
  • 1 tablespoon calcium hydroxide
  • 6 cups water, plus extra as needed

Directions

  1. Rinse corn kernels to remove any dirt or particles
  2. Add kernels to a large pot
  3. Add water
  4. Add the calcium hydroxide and stir
  5. Corn kernels will brighten in color as you stir
  6. Heat pot over high heat and bring to a boil
  7. Reduce heat and simmer corn for about 40 minutes, checking kernels periodically
  8. Kernels are ready when kernel skins start to separate and corn is tender enough to bite but still has a firm core. Do not overcook.
  9. Remove the pot from the heat and let corn soak for 8-10 hours
  10. Using clean hands, reach into pot and rub kernels to remove any leftover skins
  11. Drain corn well and rinse with running water, making sure to remove any skins that were missed

You now have authentic nixtamal corn that can be ground to make masa dough. Nixtamal can be stored in the refrigerator for three days or frozen for up to 3 months.

How to Make Masa Dough

“Dough

Once you've made nixtamal corn, you're one step closer to making masa dough for delicious, authentic corn tortillas. You'll need a high-powered food processor that can run continuously for several minutes to grind the nixtamal. Follow these steps:

Ingredients

  • 2 cups nixtamal corn
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

  1. Add nixtamal to your food processor
  2. Add water and salt
  3. Process the corn, stopping to wipe down sides as needed
  4. If the mixture gets too dry, add a teaspoon of water at a time
  5. Process the corn for 5-10 minutes until finely ground (stop here if making masa harina)
  6. A dough should begin to form from the ground corn
  7. Knead dough for several minutes until smooth and shape into a ball

You can either use the wet dough immediately, freeze it for up to 3 months, or dry it to make masa harina.

How to Make Masa Harina

If you want to make your own masa harina flour to keep on hand, follow the same steps above but stop before kneading the dough. Instead, once the corn is finely ground, you’ll need to dry it using a dehydrator. Follow these steps:

Directions

  1. Spread out ground corn onto dehydrator tray
  2. Use a dehydrator sheet to keep the mixture from falling through the tray
  3. Set temperature to 100 degrees and dry for about 6 hours
  4. Place the dried masa in a high-powered blender or food processor one last time
  5. Process until fine and smooth, working in batches if neccessary
  6. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months

If you make your own masa harina, you can pull out the flour whenever you want and make corn tortillas without having to go through the process of nixtamalization or grinding corn. It's not only a big time-saver, homemade masa harina is also considered more flavorful than store-bought masa harina flour.

How to Make Corn Tortillas

“Tortillas

You can make corn tortillas with fresh masa dough, homemade masa harina, or store-bought masa harina. If you’re working with fresh dough, it may be a little wet and hard to shape. Let it sit out to dry or add masa harina flour to the dough, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it becomes dry enough to handle. Skip to step 8 if you have already made your dough.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups masa harina or 1.5 lb. masa dough
  • 1 1/2 cup hot water (if using masa harina flour)

Directions

  1. If using masa harina flour, mix the flour and hot water in large bowl
  2. Knead the mixture for about 3 to 5 minutes or until dough forms
  3. You may need to add more water or flour to reach the right consistency
  4. If dough is too sticky, add more flour
  5. If dough is too dry, add a tablespoon of water
  6. When the dough has the consistency of smooth playdough, form into a ball, and wrap with plastic wrap
  7. Let sit for 1 hour
  8. Heat a cast iron pan or tortilla grill to high heat
  9. Divide masa dough into 16-18 pieces (about 1.5 oz. each)
  10. Roll each piece into a ball about the size of a golf ball
  11. Use a tortilla press to flatten one ball into a circle about 5” across
  12. Cook the tortilla 30 seconds on each side or until it becomes toasted and air pockets begin to form
  13. Continue this process, flattening one tortilla at a time and adding to the pan
  14. Serve corn tortillas immediately or keep warm in a tortilla server


If you have the time on your hands, making your own masa harina flour or masa dough can be extremely rewarding. Try using your new corn tortillas in our recipe for Grilled Tuna Tacos and you'll find that fresh tortillas have a toasty aroma and savory flavor that vastly overshadows pre-made tortillas. Just like homemade bread, corn tortillas made from masa dough are a special treat that anyone can make with a little time and effort.

Posted in: Kitchen & Cooking Tips | By Michale Ferguson
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