Do you have a bag of masa harina in your pantry? If you do, you can make your own tortillas (it’s not hard: we’ll get into it below) but you can also make tamales, pupusas, sopes, and many other dishes. You can use it as a dredging flour for frying fish for fish tacos, it thickens enchilada sauce, and it makes a great empanada dough. It’s a versatile foodstuff.
If you don’t have masa harina around, you might think the cornmeal or corn flour is interchangeable. Nope. Like those, masa harina is made from corn. But it’s corn that has been nixtamalized, a centuries-old process that makes masa harina singular. In nixtamalization, corn kernels are slow-heated then steeped in limewater, which is water to which calcium hydroxide is added to make it alkaline. (Long ago, ashes served this purpose.) The process imparts an enormous amount of nutrition and flavor. It also makes the corn easier to digest, adds calcium, activates and balances the vitamin B3 and amino acids, which allows more of the corn’s protein to be used.
All of this is why masa harina makes a great home cooking staple. It is unfortunate that most tortillas made in the United States aren’t made from nixtamalized corn because it is so flavorful and delicious, not to mention its much-higher nutritional value. If, at your local taco spot, flour tortillas taste more or less like the corn tortillas to you, you’re not being offered the sadly less common but altogether better stuff. And it’s the rare supermarket that stocks it.
So, let’s make our own, along with the myriad other great things you can do with masa harina. We are buying ours from Masienda, a Los Angeles-based company that creates a fair market for small farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, where farmers have been cultivating traditional maize for centuries. Masienda purchases heirloom traditional maize and related products and exports them to the United States where it is sold to restaurants for their masa harina programs and to home cooks, too, thank goodness.
The highest-quality single-origin ingredients—which founder Jorge Gaviria believes is every bit as distinctive as the single-origin coffee beans many of us seek out and swear by—quite simply make great masa harina.
Let’s Talk Tortillas
Though you can make a great many things with masa harina, tortillas probably come to mind quickly. Why not? It isn’t hard to do and in fact, it’s fun to do. Not to mention, the flavor and crispy texture will make you permanently cross off bagged tortillas from your grocery list.
It starts with figuring out how many tortillas you want to make. One cup of masa harina will yield approximately 18 tortillas that each weigh one ounce before they are cooked.
Next, let’s get the masa harina to water ratio right: it’s 1:1.4 by weight. If you don’t have a scale, one packed cup of Chef Grade-Masa Flour requires approximately one scant cup of water by volume. Use warm water (around 100०F) to help bring out the flavor and help with binding.
Slowly add the water to the dry masa flour in a large bowl, stirring by hand or use a standup mixer with paddle extension. Knead until the water is evenly incorporated and no dry, powdery spots remain. If you like, add salt, spices and seasonings such as chili powder or onion powder to taste, incorporating evenly throughout. The dough should be quite wet to touch, but not tacky. (It’s tacky if it leaves bits of wet masa on your hand and fingers.)
Plan to make your tortillas while the dough is still wet, or if making them later, rehydrate with more water then let sit for a several minutes before using. And while we’re talking water, it’s a good idea to have a spray bottle/mister on hand (if your dough gets dry as you’re working), as well as two large circles of plastic, which you can cut out (and hold onto for future tortilla-making) from plastic produce or grocery bags or from a large resealable zipper storage bag.
All Press is Good Press
Tortillas are best when served warm, so we recommend getting everything that’s going inside the tortilla ready before you start.
Roll a golf ball-sized ball of masa and place it between the two plastic circles you made. Gently press it down with your hand. Still between the plastic, place the masa in a tortilla press and press it on one side, then flip the masa and press the other side. Peel the plastic away and set the tortilla aside. Repeat until all of the dough is gone.
Place the tortilla on a non-stick pan or griddle set to high heat. Cook for 20-30 seconds on each side. Now flip it back to the first side and press the edges slightly. This encourages the tortilla to puff up. Flip just one more time and cook for 15 more seconds, just to make sure the center is fully cooked.
No puff? Your tortilla will still be delicious. But if it’s puff you’re after, experiment with kneading the masa more, adding more water and/or cooking at a lower temperature.
No tortilla press? Use a rolling pin or large glass to roll out the dough when it’s between the pieces of plastic. You won’t have the same uniform edges that the tortilla press makes and you’ll have to make sure they are of similar thickness and size.