Nixtamalization is the process of adding an alkali solution to dried corn kernels in order to transform them into nixtamal, a product that is more workable, tasty, and nutritious than it would be otherwise. Nixtamalization is native to Mexico, where corn is one of the staple foods. The exact history of nixtamalization is unknown, but it has been used by native Mesoamericans for millennia. In fact, nixtamal is derived from two words in the indigenous Mexican language, Náhuatl: nextli, meaning ashes, and tamale, meaning corn dough.
- Place of Origin: Mesoamerica
- Main Ingredients: field corn and calcium hydroxide
- Common Uses: tortillas, tamales, pozole, grits
- Other Names: hominy
What Is Nixtamalization?
Nixtamalization starts with the raw ingredients: just dried corn kernels and calcium hydroxide, also known as lime, or by its colloquial name in Mexico, cal. The dried corn kernels are boiled in a water and lime solution and then soaked for 8-12 hours in the same liquid. At this stage, the kernels are now referred to as nixtamal and are quite different from before. This is because lime is highly alkaline, so it causes functional, chemical, and nutritional changes in the raw corn kernels. Nixtamalization breaks down the hard cell walls of corn and releases the pectin inside. This allows the masa to effectively bind so that when handled and cooked, it doesn’t crack. The corn also puffs up in size and intensifies in color, flavor, and aroma. Finally, nixtamalization also improves the nutritional profile of corn, providing resistant starch (and improving gut health), calcium, niacin, and B3 content.
How to Cook with Nixtamal
If you want to try your hand at preparing freshly nixtamalized corn at home, be ready for both the journey and investment; it requires equipment and significant labor. But if you’re simply looking to enjoy nixtamal and not prepare it from scratch, look for hominy, which is what nixtamal is called in the States. Hominy is typically found dried or canned and can readily be used in recipes. Grits made with stone-ground hominy is a great option for a smoother, porridge-like dish because, unlike cornmeal or polenta, the corn has been nixtamalized so it will still deliver that nutty, wholesome flavor.
Fresh Masa vs. Masa Harina
Both fresh masa and masa harina are made from nixtamalized corn, but the former is a fresh corn dough while the latter is dried and ground nixtamal, used as flour (harina means "flour" in Spanish). The most common brand of masa harina is Maseca, which is a veritable giant both in Mexico and in the U.S. Masa harina dominates the market and is much easier to source and cheaper to buy than fresh masa. This is a source of frustration among those who want to keep alive the traditional masa-making methods.
Where to Buy
Hominy and all its iterations can likely be found in specialty food stores, online, in Latin American markets, and in grocery stores in diverse communities. Through persistent research and word of mouth you may also be able to source fresh masa manufacturers in your area. And startups like Masienda sell both masa harina and the heirloom corn and equipment to prepare nixtamal the traditional way yourself.
Nixtamalized corn is used in over 300 dishes in authentic Mexican cuisine, where it's tossed whole into the popular soup, pozole, ground course and formed into tamales, pressed into tortillas, and more. Below are a few ideas to inspire you.
Mariscal-Moreno RM, de Dios Figueroa Cárdenas J, Santiago-Ramos D, Rayas-Duarte P, Veles-Medina JJ, Martínez-Flores HE. Nixtamalization process affects resistant starch formation and glycemic index of tamales. J Food Sci. 2017;82(5):1110-1115.
Suri DJ, Tanumihardjo SA. Effects of different processing methods on the micronutrient and phytochemical contents of maize: from a to z. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 2016;15(5):912-926.