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Grain of the Month: Masa Harina PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist

May 2017

Masa is the Spanish word for dough and masa harina literally translates to “dough flour.” It could easily be considered the primary food in Mexican and Central American cuisine since it is used in preparing the dough for tortillas and tamales—part of the daily diet of Mexicans and Central Americans, and some South Americans too.

Masa harina is the dried and powdered form, before it is reconstituted with water to prepare the dough. Cornmeal cannot be substituted for masa harina, so know that is not an option if you want to make your own tortillas. Masa harina is quite different from cornmeal due to the special process used to prepare it. Masa harina is made from field corn (or maize), which is dried and then treated in a solution of water and lime.

The hulls of the corn are loosened when put into the limewater solution, which also softens the corn. For clarification, the limewater is not water combined with lime juice, but limewater—a diluted alkaline solution of calcium hydroxide and water—and it is this solution that gives tortillas their unique sour flavor. This whole process is often referred to as nixtamalization—a word that was new to me!

This process was developed thousands of years ago by people in Mesoamerica, or Central America and Mexico, and it continues to be used in the present day. Nixtamalization breaks down hemicellulose, a gooey, glue-like substance that, if left intact in the corn, will prevent niacin, an essential B vitamin, from being absorbed into our gastrointestinal system. The nixtamalization process also balances all the amino acids — the building blocks of protein.

This is crucial especially for cultures that rely on masa harina often served along with dried beans, as an important source of daily protein. Masa harina comes in two colors, white and yellow, though we only sell the yellow version at the Co-op.

There is a subtle difference in taste, but other than the color, that’s the only noticeable difference between the two. Try making your own tortillas with it. You don’t need to have a tortilla press to make them—you can roll them out and make all different sizes, heating them lightly on a skillet until golden brown on both sides.

For a variation in the flavor of your tortillas, add cinnamon and chili. Masa harina is also used to thicken soups and to make a sweet, hot Central American drink called atole.

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year by making your own homemade tortillas. And if you don’t use them all up, they can be frozen for later use.