Hominy is a food made from kernels of corn which are soaked in an alkali solution of either lime (the mineral, not the fruit) or lye. The corrosive nature of the solution removes the hull and germ of the corn and causes the grain itself to puff up to about twice its normal size.
Hominy can be made with either white or yellow corn. Specifically, hominy is made from maize, which is also called field corn. This type of corn is used in making corn meal, corn flakes, and other grain products, as opposed to sweet corn, which is the well-known vegetable that can be eaten on the cob. Hominy is the essential ingredient in such staples as grits and corn tortillas.
Nixtamalization: An Ancient Process
The process of soaking the kernels is called nixtamalization, a word that is derived from the Nahuatl language spoken by the pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica who invented the process.
Nixtamalization produces a number of changes in the corn. One of the most significant is that it alters the structure of the proteins and carbohydrates in the corn, allowing the ground grain to stick together when combined with water. The resulting dough, or masa, is what tortillas are made of. Without nixtamalization, the ground corn would not form a dough, and thus tortillas (and tortilla chips, and tamales, and taquerias) would not exist.
Another benefit of nixtamalization is that it frees the niacin (vitamin B3) in the corn and allows it to be absorbed by human digestive tracts. Thus, nixtamalization unlocked a source of essential nutrients, which allowed the Mesoamerican civilization to thrive and cook with the masa.
Nixtamalization removes the husks of the corn, making it easier to grind. It combines to form new flavor compounds, which is is why grits often have a more complex taste than polenta.
While nixtamalization can be done at home, it can be quite time-consuming and does require lime, which is a caustic ingredient.
Uses for Hominy
The nixtamalized hominy can be dried and then ground and simmered to make grits (also called hominy grits). Alternately, the processed hominy can be cooked until soft and then used as a thickening agent in soups, stews, and casseroles. Posole is a traditional Mexican soup made with hominy.
The starch in the kernel of the corn swells and takes on a uniquely gelatinous texture, which despite the connotations of the word gelatinous, is quite pleasant in hominy. This is most prominent when the hominy is eaten whole, as opposed to ground up.
Hominy is available in dried and canned form. Drying hominy requires soaking the hominy grains for about eight hours and then simmering for an additional hour or two. Canned hominy has already been cooked and is ready to use, making it a good time saver, although the texture will be slightly different. When cooking with hominy, be sure to note if the recipe calls for dried or canned hominy since soaking dried hominy requires up to 12 hours.