What do tortillas, tamales and pupusas all have in common? They are all prepared from a very distinctive type of corn dough known as the ‘masa.’ By the way, if you are wondering if masa and masa harina refer to the same thing, we must let you know that you are most likely mistaken! They are two different things but they are evidently related to one another.
If you are fascinated to know what these things are and how to make use of them to flaunt your culinary skills, make sure to stay with us and have a good read!
Masa and Masa Harina
To know what masa harina is, you need to know what masa is and vice versa. Masa is nothing but a dough made from corn that has been nixtamalized. In order to comprehend the definite meaning of this word, we need to go through the groundwork procedure of the masa.
This distinct procedure is used to make the masa, quite out-of-the-ordinary or eccentric. Dried field corns are cooked in an alkaline solution of calcium hydroxide which is more commonly known as slaked lime or limewater. Then they are left to soak in them for quite a couple of hours before being thoroughly rinsed with water to remove any stench or flavor of the slaked lime as much as possible.
This process is known as nixtamalization, where the hulls or outer shells of the corns detach themselves from the corn and help soften it. It is also said that the corn becomes more easily digestible due to the limewater. After the corn has been nixtamalized, it can also be called white hominy, which may be a well-acquainted term for quite a few of us.
The washed corns are then ground, from which we get the masa. This itself can be used as dough and is freshly available in most parts of the Central America and Mexico. Most often than not, this dough is dried further which turns it into the slightly sour flour that is used to make your usual tortillas.
Now, this flour slash powder that we just talked about is called masa harina. Think of it like the all-purpose flour that can be used to make cakes and all other varieties of desserts. Masa harina or masa flour is the most popular form that is widely available in stores and it is also the most preferred. Just add a little water to this flour and it will turn into masa dough straightaway!
The common mistake that most people make though is that they substitute masa harina for cornmeal. Remember, both have been manufactured differently and masa harina has a very unique flavor which is so unlike the cornmeal. So, we suggest if you are making something that involves masa or masa harina in the recipe, never substitute it with the cornmeal.
Another huge misconception that people seem to have is that corn flour and masa harina are interchangeable or pretty similar to one another. Well, we hate to disappoint you but they are most certainly not. You may be asking why, so here it is – corn flour is plain corn that is directly ground. On the other hand, masa harina is nixtamalized and then ground. So these two definitely do not serve up the same purpose.
Now that we have given you an idea of what this masa or masa harina is, it is now time to move on to our next topic – the types of masa harina that is available. Though there are several kinds available in the markets, the most used and easily available one is the white masa harina, which is made from the white corn that has a minute amount of sweetness to it.
The other kind that is made from yellow corn is different in the sense that (other than the obvious color difference) it is not sweet like the white masa harina. Nonetheless, they both will produce equally satisfying results in whatever way you choose to utilize them while cooking.
For those of you who are health conscious and like to be well informed about the food you eat, you may be pleased to know that masa harina has 365 calories per 100 grams, 1 calorie more in comparison to flour. Cornmeal, on the other hand, has 370 calories (you can see how it is different from masa harina) per 100 grams.
However, masa harina does have a higher fat content compared to flour with a healthy dose of carbohydrates, proteins and mineral salts like sodium and potassium. You are most likely to find vitamins A, B-6, C and D in masa harina along with calcium and iron. Also, masa harina is absolutely gluten-free!
By the way, for your information, masa harina is safe to be stored at the room temperature and coarse-ground masa (this type usually has a slightly different texture) can last for about 3 months or so in the refrigerator. On another note, you can also freeze masa but we should probably warn you about the fact that after you defrost masa, it may produce drier goods than it originally had before putting it inside the freezer.
To our advantage, Masa harina can be paired with any sort of spice to give it a distinct flavor. The most commonly used flavors would obviously be cinnamon, chili or sugar, which is widely available among other regular spices in the kitchen. Quite healthy if you may say so! And eerily similar to flour but we should probably let you know that both of these cannot be used as substitutes for another. This was just to make comparisons between the nutritional values and to provide you with a much clearer idea of what you’ll be dealing with while using this particular item in your kitchen.
Now, you might wonder what masa harina could be used for other than tortillas and tamales. If you did not know this already, masa harina can also be used as a thickener while cooking. So feel free to use them in soups and any other dish that you may feel like.
A very famous drink called ‘atole’ can also be made from it and adding chocolate and sugar to it will give you atole de chocolate, ready to be served right up. You could obviously try your hand at preparing sopes and huaraches where masa harina is a staple ingredient.
Making Masa Harina and Masa Dough
If you have just now entered your kitchen and planning on making masa harina or even masa from scratch, you may want to know that this might not end up to be an easy task for you. Not many culinary experts have tried this and sometimes dealing with alkaline solutions like slaked lime can be very dangerous, especially while using it in the kitchen. More so, finding utensils that are unreactive with calcium hydroxide may require you to break a little sweat right there.
Some people claim that putting tortilla chips in a food processor and turning it into fine ground powder will give you masa harina but since this is quite an unknown technique, we will not encourage you to try it.
But lucky for you, we have found something that will appease your wish to make masa.
While at a store, picking out pre-made masa doughs or masa flour can be quite easy and hassle-free. There are many who like to test their culinary skills and this recipe will be just that for them.
Whether you plan to make this simply because it will make you happy or because neither the dough nor the flour is available in your nearby market, we ensure you that if you follow the steps correctly, nothing will obstruct you from achieving your goal!
The ingredients you will need are:
- 2 cups of white or yellow field corns of your preference
- 7-8 cups of water (you may need more)
- 1 tablespoon pickling lime or any other type of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) that is fit to be used for food purposes
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup water
As for the apparatuses, you will only need a food processor or fine-grade grinder.
Steps to follow for how to make your very own masa dough:
- Take a moderate sized pot (which should definitely be non-reactive with calcium hydroxide) and add water and corn kernels to it, mixed with slaked lime on medium heat. Let this simmer first and then cook till you see the hulls loosening and the corns becoming soft. The time may vary for each type of corn but it will probably just take about 45 minutes or so.
The corn kernels and the water itself at this moment will have starch-like quality to them. If the corn looks raw, then add extra water and cook further. In order to see if they are cooked properly, you can also try and eat a few kernels. This should not cost you more than 1 hour or so.
- Turn the heat off and let the pot sit to cool down and leave the corn to soak in the limewater overnight. Strain the water away in a sieve or colander and give the corns a good wash with cold water. As you do so, the hulls will come off with ease as you rub the corn with gentle hands. If you are worried about not being able to get rid of all the bran from the corn, do not panic! A little amount will definitely not hurt your masa dough.
- After this step, dump the corn with into a food processor or fine-grade grinder and start the machine on high power. If you plan to process the corn in separate batches, then add ¼ cup of water and ½ teaspoon of salt for every 2 cups of hydrated corns.
Depending on your corn type, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of water if it looks too dry to form a dough. Sometimes, you don’t even need measurements to do this – just add enough to ensure the blades can break down the corn into fine particles and have a dough-like consistency.
However, make sure it does not become too runny or paste-like. Now, each batch will take about 3-5 minutes depending on your processor but eventually, you will notice the corn combining to form a soft but firm dough.
If you have correctly followed the steps above, then congratulations! Your dough is ready. Feel creative to turn them into anything from tortillas to tamales, testing your skills as you go! Though it did take us quite a while to find the way to make perfect masa doughs, we hope you get it the very first time!
However, if you were out of luck and not so successful the first couple of times, keep on trying. It takes time to figure out the measurements and other things. More importantly, different people buy different products and yours may vary because of just that! So do not be disheartened and keep working at it till you get it right!
This dough, as mentioned earlier can be refrigerated but it is always preferable to use it as early as possible. The fresher the better! Do seal the top of whatever you store the dough in with cling wrap which will preserve it better.
So, that is how to make masa dough. We do hope you have fun making this because anything that you make by putting in so much effort will always taste great!
- What is Masa Harina? – howstuffworks