Masa harina is a delicious and nutritious ingredient used extensively throughout Mexican cuisine. Find out what it is, how to use it, and everything in between — including some tasty plant-based recipe ideas!
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📖 What is masa harina?
If you've ever looked up how to make your own corn tortillas, you've probably already stumbled across masa harina.
In English, "masa harina" means "dough flour." More specifically, it's a special type of flour made from dried corn kernels that have undergone a process called nixtamalization (more on that below).
Of the five common types of corn, the varieties that are often used for masa harina are dent (there are literal dents in the kernels), flour, or flint corn. There are both commercial and heirloom varieties of each one.
So, now that we have the basics out of the way, let's get to the process of making masa harina!
How masa harina is made
- Grow corn and harvest it.
- Mix corn kernels in alkaline solution (usually calcium hydroxide).
- Boil the kernels for about an hour.
- Steep the kernels for about 6-12 hours.
- Rinse and wash the kernels, which are now nixtamalized (hominy).
- Grind hominy with a molinito to become dough (masa).
- Dry out masa to become masa harina.
- Reconstitue masa harina to make masa again for recipes.
Types of masa harina
Although the most common type of masa harina is blanco (white), you can also find azul (blue), amarillo (yellow), rosado (pink), etc. The differences in color indicate the variety of corn used in the process.
There are a wide array of masa harina vendors, ranging from small-batch to mass-produced. The distinction of quality may seem subtle, but much like wine or coffee, the production process has a huge impact on the overall flavor and texture.
One of the most iconic masa harina brands is Maseca. Although not organic, it's probably one of the easiest kinds to find in both grocery stores and online (especially outside of Mexico).
However, if you want to test out some exceptional quality products, check out Masienda! They work with local farming communities in Oaxaca to produce heirloom corn and masa harina.
Masa harina vs masa
You might find yourself confused as the words masa and masa harina are often used interchangeably. This is technically incorrect, and here's why:
- Masa = dough made after running nixtamilzed corn through a molinito.
- Masa harina = a dehydrated form of masa that we're talking about in this post.
Masa harina vs cornflour or cornmeal
While it seems reasonable to reach for cornflour or cornmeal as masa harina replacements, neither will work, unfortunately.
Both cornmeal and cornflour are made from dried and milled corn — the only difference being the grind size (cornmeal is more coarse). The important thing to remember is that neither undergo nixtamalization.
🍴 Flavor profile
On its own, masa harina has a rather sour, tangy, and unpleasant flavor. But once you cook it (on a pan, in a steamer, or in a fryer), the smooth, sweet, and nutty flavors that are characteristic of Mexican cuisine become prominent.
- Masa harina amarillo carries a strong corn flavor with a subtle sweetness. The tortillas formed by this variety are quite sturdy, so try using it for recipes that call for frying.
- Masa harina blanco tastes nutty, sweet, and delicate. Tortillas made from this masa harina have a softer texture and are great for tacos.
- Masa harina azul provides a sweeter, nuttier, and more rustic flavor than white or yellow masa harina. It's definitely our favorite (plus, it's so beautiful).
🍎 Health facts
Since masa harina is only made from corn kernels, it's a naturally gluten-free ingredient. Because of this, masa harina is great for those with gluten intolerances or celiac disease.
The bioavailability of nutrients is significantly higher due to the nixtamalization process. In particular, iron, zinc, vitamin A, and many B vitamins are widely available in masa harina.
🔪 How to use it
📋 Recipes with masa harina
With so many incredible Mexican recipes utilizing masa harina, we've included some of our favorite plant-based versions for you to try out:
You can keep your masa harina in the packaging it comes in, but the best option is to use a sealed glass container.
Store it in a cool, dry, and dark place for optimal flavor retention and moisture control. If kept in these conditions, it will last at least 6 months.
💰 Buying guide
If you're making Mexican food regularly, you'll want to have masa harina on hand. The following tips will help you get the most out of your purchase.
What to look for
First, you need to determine which flavor you're going for and what recipes you'll be making.
If you're unsure, you can't go wrong with a simple masa harina blanco.
Where to buy
Most large chain grocery stores sell masa harina in their international, Latin American food, or Mexican food aisle. If you're lucky to live in a city with a Mexican food market, you will certainly find it there.
With a rather unique flavor profile and specific characteristics, masa harina can only be substituted in certain circumstances.
- Ground corn tortillas. To achieve the same flavor, try blending corn tortillas into a powder. Although you may achieve a similar flavor, this method should really only be used for thickening recipes as the texture won't be the same.
- Cornstarch, cornflour, or cornmeal. If you're using masa harina as a thickening agent in soups, stews, or drinks, cornstarch, cornflour, or cornmeal will work. You just won't end up with the same flavors as masa harina.
- Wheat flour. Similar to cornflour or cornmeal, wheat flour can also be used to thicken certain dishes. Just keep in mind, this option is not gluten-free.
Yes, masa harina is gluten-free since it is only made of nixtamalized corn.
Yes, masa harina is a healthy ingredient used in recipes like corn tortillas. It's filled with many different vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.
No, masa harina is not the same as polenta. Polenta is a variety of cornmeal and, therefore, it does not go through the nixtamalization process like masa harina.