A Thumbnail Guide to Maize (Corn)

Origin, Types, and Food Products

Corn is one of the most fundamental of Mexican ingredients and has been used as food in the area for about 10,000 years. photo (c) José Luis Ruiz / Getty Images

Where Corn Came From

Maize, or—as is it called in English-speaking North America, corn— is a domesticated strain of wild grass that does not grow in the wild. It must be tended to and cared for to survive.

There is much debate over which grass maize evolved from or who created the hybrid, but corn cobs have been found in archaeological excavations dating to 5000 BC. It certainly has been cultivated in what is now Mexico for almost 10,000 years. Native peoples considered maize as one of the all-important crops known as "the three sisters."

Learn about the domestication of maize


Types of Corn

Three main three types of corn are:

  • Sweet corn is so called because is it actually has more sugar and less starch than other varieties of maize. It is almost always eaten fresh, either on the cob or off, or preserved by canning or freezing.
  • Dent corn is also known as field corn; it can be yellow or white. White dent corn has a higher percentage of starch than the yellow variety, and is the best corn for making masa dough and hominy. It is also widely used in as livestock feed and in processed foods, plastics, and fuels.
  • Flint corn, also known as blue or red corn or Indian corn, is cultivated mainly in Central and South America. It has a hard exterior and is used for both human consumption and animal feed. Popcorn is sometimes considered a sub-set of flint corn.

Other types of corn also exist, including flour corn (a white corn that is especially soft and it is used for making corn flour for baked goods), and pod corn, which is an ornamental variety.


Food Products from Maize

Hominy (Pozole) and Masa 

The maize most used in Mexican cuisine is dent corn which has undergone the nixtamalición process: the kernels are removed from the cob and dried. The dried kernels are boiled in water that contains cal, or slaked lime. The kernels are often left to soak in the water for 1 hour to 24 hours, depending on its intended use.

This cooked and soaked corn is called nixtamal. The kernels are rinsed thoroughly and rubbed together to remove the skins.

For hominy, the little brown tips, or "hulls," are picked off; this allows the corn to expand greatly when cooked.

Ground nixtamal becomes masa, the corn dough that will eventually be made into tortillas, tamales, and other delicious items.

Masa Harina 

Masa harina or dough flour is made by making nixtamal and removing the hulls from the corn. The kernels are ground into masa, which is then dehydrated. The dried dough is ground again into a very fine flour that can be packaged and kept shelf stable for a long time.

Masa harina just needs to be mixed with water or another liquid to form back into a dough with which to make tortillas, tamales, etc.

Corn Starch

Corn starch is the very finely ground white powder made from grinding the starchy part of maize kernels. It is most often used in baked goods and as a thickener for some sauces and cream soups. The proper name for corn starch in Spanish is fécula de maíz, but colloquially it is most often called Royal, after a very popular brand name of this product.

Note: Corn starch is called corn flour in the United Kingdom.


Sweet corn that has been dried and ground to a coarse flour is known as cornmeal. If the hulls (skins) and germs (brown tips) are removed, the meal will have a long shelf life; if the hulls and germs remain in the meal, it is more nutritious, but it won´t keep as long. Cornmeal is used as a hot cereal or made into “grits” by adding boiling water to make a mush. It is also used to make cornbread. Learn more about cornmeal, grits, and polenta.

Corn Flour 
Corn flour is made by grinding up dried corn into a very fine flour. It is used in many of the same ways a wheat flour is used. (In the United Kingdom, the term corn flour is used to signify what is called corn starch in North America.)

Note: Cornmeal and corn flour are rarely used in authentic Mexican cuisine.

Learn more:

The Anatomy of Corn

How to Grow Corn in Your Garden

Corn Legends, Myths, and Folklore

Centeotl, the Aztec Deity of Maize

Itzamna, Founder God of Maize in Mayan Mythology

Edited by Robin Grose