What is Masa?

Dried corn from the field is used to create dough.

Masa is the backbone of Latin American cuisine. It is produced by soaking dry field corn in a lime solution and grinding it into a fine paste. This paste is used in foods like tortillas, tamales, and sweet fried foods. Variations have been produced across Latin America for tens of thousands of years, and food continues to be produced by modern-day inhabitants. Making masa is relatively easy at home, and using it fresh will dramatically change the flavor of home-cooked Latin American foods.

Tortillas are usually made with masa.

When the masa is made, the hard outer husk of the corn kernels is removed, making the corn easier to digest. The process also releases important dietary minerals and nutrients, making the final food product more nutritious to eat. The development of this food in Latin American cultures ensured that native peoples had access to a balanced and healthy diet.

Fresh masa is usually available at specialty stores in Latin America. Many of these stores also sell masa harina, a dehydrated version that can be rehydrated and used fresh. Many cooks believe that fresh pasta has superior flavor and texture, but dry pasta works just fine. Especially when someone is learning to cook Latin American food, this version can be a useful shortcut.

To make masa, dried corn from the field is rinsed while a lime mixture is brought to a boil in a non-corrosive pot. The type of lime used is calcium hydroxide or slaked lime. Latin Americans sometimes just call it “cal”. The dried corn is added to the lime mixture and boiled for five to 15 minutes, depending on how the batter will be used. Then the mixture is removed from the heat and left to soak for two to 24 hours.

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After soaking, the corn mixture is carefully rinsed under cold running water to remove all the lime. Leftover lemon will make the mixture go rancid, resulting in a sour smell and an unpleasant taste. At this stage, the mixture is known as nixmatal. Nixmatal is ground manually or with an electric grinder. For things like tortillas, it should be ground very fine, while tamales are made with a looser grain. After grinding, the dough is ready to use. It can also be dried and re-ground.

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