Masa harina is a staple ingredient in Mexican and Central American cuisine used to make tortillas, tamales, pupusas, gorditas and more. But what exactly is this finely ground corn flour?
Here’s a complete guide to masa harina including how it’s made, where to buy it, and recipes for cooking with it.
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Key Takeaways on Masa Harina:
Masa harina is a flour made from corn that has been nixtamalized, or treated with lime.
It has a sweet, nutty corn flavor and is used to make tortillas, tamales, sopes, pupusas and more.
Types include white, yellow and blue masa harina which varies in flavor and color.
Masa can be purchased at Latin grocery stores, major supermarkets, or made from scratch.
It differs from regular cornmeal by being treated with lime through nixtamalization.
What is Masa Harina?
Masa harina, also called masa de harina or simply masa, is a flour made from dried corn that has been cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution.
This cooking and soaking process using slaked lime is called nixtamalization. It was originally developed in Mesoamerica where corn is a staple grain.
Nixtamalizing the corn softens the kernels and makes the nutrients like niacin more bioavailable. The corn is then dried and ground into a fine, sandy flour known as masa harina.
Masa has a unique sweet and earthy corn taste. It is used to make staples in Mexican cuisine like tortillas, tamales, sopes and more. When combined with water, the masa becomes pliable enough to shape into flatbreads or dumplings.
Types of Masa Harina
There are a few varieties of masa harina that differ in color and flavor:
White masa – This is the most common type made from white corn. It has a neutral taste and light tan color.
Yellow masa – Made from yellow corn, this imparts a richer corn flavor and pale yellow hue.
Blue masa – Blue corn masa has an earthier, nuttier taste and bluish-gray color.
Red masa – Pinkish-red masa from red corn has a slightly sweet taste.
The variety used depends on the dish being made. Tamales and empanadas are often made with yellow masa while tortillas use white or blue masa.
For the most authentic flavor, choose an heirloom masa variety like Tlaxcala or one specific to the dish’s region.
Where to Buy Masa Harina
Masa harina can be purchased at:
Latin American markets
Large supermarkets (with Latin or international foods)
Maseca is the most popular commercial brand of masa harina. Bob’s Red Mill also makes high quality masa.
For fresh masa, visit a local tortilleria that makes their own. Look for buzz words like “nixtamalized” or “stone ground” for the most traditional masa.
When buying, opt for masa harina made from just corn treated with lime and water. Avoid varieties with added preservatives, wheat flour or other ingredients.
Properly stored in an airtight container, masa harina keeps for 4-6 months at room temperature. It can also be refrigerated or frozen for even longer freshness.
What Dishes Use Masa Harina?
Here are some of the most common ways masa harina is used in Mexican cooking:
Masa is mixed with water to form pliable dough for making corn tortillas. It can also be used to make thicker tortillas like sopes and gorditas.
Both the masa dough and corn husk wrappers used to make tamales start with masa harina. It’s mixed with lard or another fat to get the right consistency.
This warm corn beverage is made by whisking masa harina into milk, water or a combo of both and simmering until thickened.
The well-known Salvadoran stuffed flatbread is made from a simple masa dough. It gets filled with cheese, beans, meat or other fillings.
Corn empanadas use masa harina to make the dough crust which is folded over savory fillings before frying or baking.
To make the classic sauce for chilaquiles, tomatillos or tomato, garlic and onion are simmered with masa to thicken the mixture.
Masa also sees use in tamal de cazuela, picaditas, buñuelos and many more dishes. Combined with water, it can thicken sauces and soups or bind veggie patties.
Masa Harina vs Cornmeal – How They Differ
Since they’re both made from corn, masa harina is often confused with cornmeal. But the two are quite different:
Origins – Cornmeal is Native American while masa harina comes from Mesoamerica.
Processing – Cornmeal is simply dried, ground corn. Masa is nixtamalized corn.
Texture – Masa is much finer ground than most cornmeal. It has a soft, powdery texture.
Flavor – Masa has a sweet, nutty taste from the lime soaking. Cornmeal is more neutral.
Uses – While they can overlap, masa is essential for Latin cuisine. Cornmeal is more common in American dishes.
Due to the nixtamalization process, masa harina has some distinct advantages over regular cornmeal. It has more available nutrients, a richer corn flavor, and makes better tortillas and tamales.
How to Store Masa Harina
To maximize freshness, store masa harina:
In an airtight container at room temperature
In a cool, dry place away from light
Refrigerated for up to 6 months
Frozen for 8-12 months
If masa gets clumpy, sift it before using to remove lumps. Stale masa can also be refreshed by blending with a bit of water.
Properly stored, unopened masa harina will last 4-6 months past the sell-by date. If it smells unpleasant or tastes sour, it has spoiled and should be discarded.
Recipes Using Masa Harina
Here are some delicious ways to use masa harina:
2 cups masa harina
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups warm water
Knead dough and divide into 16 balls. Roll into tortillas and cook on a hot griddle or pan.
2 cups masa
1/4 cup lard or shortening
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups chicken or beef broth
Spread small balls of dough into corn husks. Fill with shredded meat and steam for 1 hour.
Atole de Zarzamorra
1 cup masa harina
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Gradually whisk into 4 cups milk, water or almond milk. Cook 10 minutes until thickened.
2 cups masa harina
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups warm water
Fill rounds of dough with bean-cheese mixture and cook in a pan until golden brown.
With its unique taste and texture, masa harina is an indispensable staple in Latin American cuisine. Try using masa to make your own tortillas, tamales, sopes, atole and more for authentic corn flavor.