Masa harina is a staple ingredient called for in a variety of Mexican recipes. This instantly-binding corn flour is used for making the dough, referred to as masa or masa dough, for tortillas, tamales, and pupusas, and gorditas. It is simple to use and comes in yellow, white, and blue varieties, which can all make the same tasty things. Masa harina is sometimes called corn dough or masa flour, and because it is made of corn, this flour is gluten-free.
- Also Known as: corn dough or masa flour
- Varieties: white, yellow, blue
- Made of: ground corn
What Is Masa Harina?
Masa harina is a pre-made corn dough that is sold dehydrated and bagged for easy home use. It's made by taking dried flint corn kernels (which are harder than corn on the cob) and soaking them in calcium hydroxide (also known as slaked lime) or another alkali. This process is known as nixtamalization, which has been documented back to 1500 B.C. The process frees up vitamin B3 for use and prepares the corn for becoming the optimal dough for tortillas.
After nixtamalization, the food goes through a find-grade grinder to further refine it, which is when it becomes corn dough. Once the corn dough dehydrates, it becomes masa harina, or masa dough. It's more like flour than cornmeal, and is 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 holds its shape, making it easy to use the dough to steam, fry, or bake.
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.
Masa harina comes in three varieties: white, blue, and yellow, which are a result of the color of the corn. White is the most common type with yellow coming in second; blue masa harina is the least popular variation. They can all be used in the same way, but the white does have a slightly sweeter flavor than the other two.
Masa Harina Uses
Although the most common use for masa harina is making corn tortillas and tamales, there are other recipes that call for this ingredient, such as the soup dumplings chochoyotes. To use masa harina, water needs to be added to moisten the corn flour to create a dough. This dough can then be patted thin for tortillas, and is left thicker when making pupusas and gorditas so they can be sliced and stuffed with savory ingredients. The dough for tamales calls for more water, making for a moister texture. This mixture can then be patted around cooked pork, chicken, vegetables, and/or cheese, and then wrapped in a corn husk for easy steaming.
Masa harina is also an ingredient in atole, a Mexican drink that is made of thick corn spiced with cinnamon, vanilla, and sometimes chocolate. People traditionally drink it 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 brings out the nutty, tangy nuances of the corn and makes the corn flour more palatable. Because of masa harina's neutral taste, spices and other ingredients like beer, ground chile peppers, and paprika are added to enhance the eating experience.
Masa Harina Recipes
Masa harina can be used in any food that calls for pliable corn dough, whether it be the tamale, tortilla, or the tlacoyo, a fat corn cake stuffed with beans, cheese, ground meat, and other ingredients. Make sure when you are including this ingredient in recipes you're using masa harina and not basic corn meal, as it won't give you the same results.
Where to Buy Masa Harina
Although this ingredient isn't well known in American markets, it's actually easy to find thanks to the large Mexican population living in the United States. It is sold at most grocery stores, especially Latino markets, and in areas where there's a solid Mexican population. Look for the most popular brand, Maseca, which you can find in azul (blue corn), traditional white corn, and amarillo, the yellow maíz option.
Other companies sell this product too, namely Quaker and Bob's Red Mills, the latter offering organic golden masa harina. You won't often find this product sold in bulk bins, but it may be available as such in Latino grocery stores and specialty shops.
Masa harina should be kept in a cool and dry place; since it's an instant dough, if it gets wet or moisture gets into the grains, the flour will bind. Place the unopened bag in the pantry or cupboard along with other flour and grains. Once opened, keep the corn flour in the fridge.