You may have seen masa harina called for in a Mexican recipe, and wondered what it is or how to use it. Masa harina is an instantly-binding corn flour used to make dough for tortillas, tamales, pupusas, and gorditas. It's a staple ingredient that's simpler to use than you think. You may see this food in yellow, white, and blue, and it's sometimes called corn dough or masa flour. But no matter the color or name, they can all make the same tasty things.
What Is Masa Harina?
In short, masa harina is a pre-made corn dough that gets dehydrated and bagged for easy home use. It's made by taking dried flint corn kernels (it's harder and you can't just eat it like corn on the cob) and soaking them in calcium hydroxide (also known as slaked lime) or another alkali, a process known as nixtamalization. Nixtamalization has been documented back to 1500 B.C., and it's safe to say corn has been treated this way for at least as long. The process frees up the vitamin B3 for use in the corn and prepares the corn for becoming the optimal dough for tortillas.
After nixtamalization, the food goes through a find-grade grinder to further refine, and this is when it becomes corn dough. Once the corn dough dehydrates it becomes masa harina, or masa dough. It's more like a flour than cornmeal, and proves much finer in texture. It's because of these steps that when you add water to the masa harina it instantly becomes pliable and ready to work with. It sticks well and will stay in shape, which you can then steam, fry or bake.
Masa Harina Uses
Masa harina is a necessity in Mexican cooking and a staple for corn tortilla making and you can use it to make your own tortillas super thin to wrap things in or thick and sliceable.
This ingredient is necessary for making tamales by carefully patting the moistened masa harina around cooked pork, chicken, vegetables, and/or cheese, and then wrapping it in a corn husk for easy steaming. For pupusas and gorditas, the cakes are made a little thicker, so you can slice and stuff them with savory ingredients. You'll also see masa harina in atole, a Mexican drink of thick corn that's spiced with cinnamon, vanilla, and sometimes chocolate, which people traditionally drink around the Day of the Dead and Las Posadas festivities.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cooking masa harina by steaming, heating on the griddle or frying makes the food more palatable and brings out the nutty, tangy corn nuances. Adding spices or more salt to the moistened corn dough you make with masa harina will change the flavor as well. Try mixing the dried ingredient with beer, ground chile peppers, smoked salt or paprika to enhance your eating experience.
Masa Harina Recipes
Use masa harina in any food that calls for pliable corn dough, be that the tamal, the tortilla or the tlacoyo, a fat corn cake stuffed with beans, cheese, ground meat and other goodies. Make sure when you source this ingredient you're getting the real deal, basic corn meal won't give you the same results.
Where to Buy Masa Harina
Though this ingredient isn't well known in American markets, it's actually easy to find thanks to the large Mexican population living in the states. You will find this in just about any grocery store, especially Latino ones, and in areas where there's a solid Mexican population. Look for the most popular brand, Maseca, which you can find in azul, or blue corn; traditional white corn; and amarillo, the yellow maíz option.
Other companies sell this product too, namely Quaker and Bob's Red Mills, who does organic golden masa harina. You won't often find this product sold in bulk bins, but it may be available that way in Latino grocery stores and specialty shops.
Keep this product cool and dry. Since it's an instant dough if you get it wet or moisture gets in the grains will bind. Put an unopened bag of it in a pantry cupboard along with flour and grains, or keep your open bag in the fridge.
Nutrition and Benefits
One cup of masa harina yields about a quarter of your daily fiber needs, and it also offers vitamin B6, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. It's also a great food for those with gluten allergies since it does not contain gluten.
You won't find too many varieties of masa harina: white, blue, and yellow are the most widely available.
Masa Harina vs. Cornmeal
Masa harina is not the same as cornmeal. The former is made with nixtamalized corn, which breaks down the fibers so it can rehydrate with ease. Cornmeal, on the other hand, hasn't been treated and is simply finely ground kernels. While it tastes good, you can't mold it like you can masa harina, and it doesn't work well in making tortillas on its own. You can use cornmeal in lieu of masa harina, but to do so you have to blend it with flour.