There’s a saying in Mexico that conveys just how deeply corn is valued: “Sin maíz, no hay país.” Without corn, there is no country. One of the most popular forms it takes, masa, dates back over 5,000 years when the Aztecs and Mayans discovered nixtamalization—treating corn in an alkaline solution, and then cooking, drying, and grinding the kernels down to a flour, also known as masa harina.
The process of creating this distinctive flour has since evolved, but what hasn’t changed is its prevalence in traditional Mexican and South American favorites like tortillas, tamales, pupusas, arepas, gorditas, tlacoyos, and more. At the heart of countless recipes, masa is a versatile ingredient that deserves some space in your pantry. Here’s why:
What is masa harina? The lowdown on this ingredient
Masa harina is flour made from treating corn in an alkaline solution, and then cooking, drying, and grinding the kernels. Soaking corn in lime (the mineral, not the fruit), gives masa its earthy flavor and breaks down the structure of the grain so it can be made into a dough. It also adds calcium to the mixture and makes its niacin—an essential B vitamin that helps convert food into energy, supports DNA repair, and aids a healthy nervous system—more digestible and easier to absorb.
Are cornmeal and masa harina the same?
Cornmeal and masa harina are both made from corn, but they’re processed differently and they’re usually used to cook different recipes. Cornmeal is ground dried corn and usually has a coarser consistency. It’s used to make polenta and pizza crust. Masa harina is ground more finely and is often used to make dough for tortillas and tamales.
Benefits of masa
Masa has several health benefits that make it worth incorporating into your meals, from potentially reducing your risk of heart disease to increasing your calcium intake—especially if you’re gluten-free:
It’s rich in niacin
Masa contains niacin, one of the eight B vitamins also known as B3. As with other B vitamins, it helps convert food into energy by helping enzymes. Research indicates that it can potentially treat high cholesterol by lowering LDL levels and increasing HDL levels. And studies show it can potentially lower your heart disease risk by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
It contains calcium
The corn in masa is soaked in food-grade calcium hydroxide to make hominy. It’s the lime water that’s used to treat the corn that adds calcium and releases niacin which increases the nutritional value of the corn. In addition to helping with the digestion and absorption of niacin, the calcium aids in vitamin D absorption. Many Americans do not consume enough calcium in their diet, which our body needs to build and maintain strong bones.
Masa harina is gluten-free, so it’s a great alternative for anyone who’s trying to avoid gluten, whether you have Celiac’s disease or a gluten sensitivity. As a bonus, masa harina’s magnesium and fiber content is higher than what’s found in refined white flour.
How to cook masa
Here are some tasty, easy ways to feature masa on your menu:
Tortillas are probably the most well-known use for corn masa flour—all you need to make them is masa harina, salt, and water. Portion the masa harina into round balls, press them between parchment paper or flatten in a tortilla press, and cook on the stovetop in a nonstick skillet.
For a tasty and nutritious spin on tacos, try a veggie version filled with smashed black beans and grilled summer veggies, topped with avocado and a crunchy shredded red cabbage slaw tossed with fresh jalapeños, cilantro, and lime juice.
Masa Cakes can be made with the same ingredients, though people often add baking powder and egg to the masa flour mixture for a fluffier texture. The dough can be cooked on a skillet or griddle and served at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
At Freshly, we like to make a lighter version of the traditionally fried masa cake by brushing a skillet with a little oil and baking them at 400°F on a parchment lined baking tray for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Masa cakes are also easy to dress up: add texture with a crunchy cabbage slaw dressed in a spicy lime dressing, top them with a dollop of greek yogurt, serve them with black beans, or enhance their flavor with a drizzle of honey for a touch of sweetness.
Tamales are a holiday tradition for many Latin American families, and are truly a labor of love. Here, masa is wrapped around various fillings and steamed in a corn husk.
For a healthier version, use a combination of broth and oil in place of lard, which is found in traditional recipes. Take some liberties with fillings, too, which can range from a combination of mushrooms and meat to fruit.
Masa cakes can be found in Freshly’s newest meal: Mexican-Style Shredded Beef