Great tamales are all about the masa. Masa for Tamales should be light, fluffy and full of flavor. I’ll show you everything you need to know about masa and which masa to use for your tamales, tortillas and other Mexican food favorites.
“What is masa?” Hands down, that is the question I am most frequently asked. Masa plays a big role in both Southwest food and Mexican food so everyone wants to know more about it. What is it? How do you make it? What’s “fresh” masa? Can’t you just use the dried kind? What’s the difference between dried and fresh? OK, I admit it, masa can be rather confusing. That’s why I decided to do a post dedicated entirely to masa. Sort of a “Masa 101” post or an “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Masa But Were Afraid to Ask” post. That way, I can show you the types of masa side by side and you can see the differences for yourself.
Masa is the dough made from corn that is the foundation of Latin American cooking. You will recognize it in the tamales and corn tortillas that are popular outside Latin America as well as lesser known dishes like arepas, pupusas and even empanadas and beverages. The uses for masa are just about endless.
So, what is in masa? Corn. Yep. Corn. That’s it. Masa is made from corn that has been teated by an ancient Mayan secret called “nixtamalization.” To make a really long story very short, nixtamalization is the process of removing the outer “hull” of the corn kernel by drying field corn (or “dent” corn) then, soaking and boiling the corn in an alkaline solution of water, lime (calcium hydroxide, not the citrus fruit) and wood ash. Different indigenous peoples found different combinations of materials to achieve “nixtamalization” depending on which region they lived in. Nixtamalization has been used from the Incas in Peru to the Huron people of North America. But, that’s another post for another day.
Back to the masa. In the process of nixtamaliation, both the outer hull and the internal cell walls of the corn are softened. These changes not only allow the hull to be easily removed and the corn to bind together in a “dough,” nixtamalization also allows the corn’s nutrients to be more easily absorbed by the body. Corn that has gone through nixtamalization is called “nixtamal.” You may also know it as “hominy.”
This is where the journey of masa begins. The processed corn can take two directons. It can be ground into “masa” and either used “as is” for corn tortillas, arepas and pupusas or it can be mixed with lard to make masa for tamales. In the other direction, the nixtamal can be dried again and ground into a fine corn flour called “masa harina” or corn flour.
Let’s start with “masa” which is my favorite. Fresh masa can be made at home but, as you can see, it is a rather long process. So, I buy mine at the local Latin market. At the market, you will find four types of fresh masa:
Nixtamal –(in the center of the first picture in this post) Nixtamal looks like large, pale corn kernels. You can purchase nixtamal to grind your own fresh masa or use it in soups, pozoles or even beverages.
Masa Sin Preparar or “Earth Without Preparing” (don’t you just love that translation?)-Masa Sin Preparar is plain, fresh masa. The nixtamal has been ground into a coarse masa (or dough) that is perfect for tamales but, it has no additional ingredients added. You can sometimes find it with salt. This is the type of masa I buy. Fresh, simple, ready for me to turn it into what ever I want. Read the label to be sure that there is nothing in the masa except corn, water and trace amounts of lime. NO lard. The texture should be like the spoonful on your left in the photo above, coarse and crumbly.
Masa Preparar or “earth prepared”-This is masa that has been mixed with lard and salt and is ready to make tamales. I use the word “ready” quite loosely. As you can see in the photo above, the masa preparar (on your right in the picture above) is a little creamier and smoother than the masa sin preparar but, it is usually too dense to use “as is” in tamales or similar dishes. The masa used for homemade tamales should be lighter and fluffier than most store bought masa and should resemble more of a frosting. If this prepared masa is all you can find, be sure to “lighten it up” by beating it with a mixer and testing it for consistency by dropping a small teaspoonful into a glass of water to see if it will float. If the masa does not float, whip in more lard and test again. Repeat this step until the masa is light and fluffy and floats in water.
Masa Para Tortillas or masa for tortillas-This masa is ground much finer that masa for tamales. The Latin market I shop at uses fresh ground nixtamal for this as well. But, even if your market uses the dried masa harina, It is worth purchasing when making tortillas because there is no guessing about how much water to how much dried corn flour to use. Plus, it has “rested” and is ready to use as soon as you get home.
- Tips For buying Fresh Masa:
- The masa should be identified on the package as “para tamales” or “para tortillas” make sure you check to make sure. If it is not identified on the label, be sure to ask.
- Sometimes the textures are so close that reading the label is the only way to tell which masa you have.
- The masa is sold in plastic bags so that you can see the texture but, it has been stacked on top of each other which packs it together. Be sure to “fluff” up both types of fresh masa BEFORE using.
Masa Harina or Dried Masa
Now for dried masa or “masa harina.” Masa harina is a fine ground flour made from dried nixtamal and is great for making corn tortillas and other “pastry type” doughs. It’s only resemblance to fresh masa is that it is made from nixtamal. Masa harina should be treated as a “flour.”
You can make tamales and similar recipes from masa harina but, be sure to follow the directions on the back of the package for making tamales. The ratio of lard to masa harina will vary from brand to brand.
Masa harina is the easiest masa to find and is carried by most regular grocery stores. You will usually find it on the Latin foods isle or where other specialty flours are kept. Maseca is the most common brand in my area.
One of the best uses for masa harina is making corn tortillas and other “pastry type” doughs like empanadas. It it can be used in baking corn breads and even some cakes. It can also be used to thicken soups and stews.
- Tips for making corn tortillas from masa harina:
- Add the recommended amount of water but reserve a few tablespoons. It may not need all of the water. The amount of water will vary depending on the humidity of the day and the freshness of the flour. The dough should have the consistency of sugar cookie dough. Add the remaining water if necessary.
- Allow the dough to sit and “rest” in order to absorb all of the water and loose some of the “flour-y” taste.
- Don’t forget the salt. Make a small “test” tortilla to cook and test for seasoning before you press out the batch of tortillas.
- The dough will keep for a day or two if you shape it into a log and turn it out onto a piece of plastic wrap. Roll it up in the plastic the way the same way you would for cookie dough.
So, there it is, masa in a nutshell or corn husk or something like that. I hope I have helped you get an understanding of masa and the differences between the types of masa… even into the process of making the masa. Please let me know if you have other questions or if you think I wasn’t quite clear on something. I love hearing from you and would be happy to help in anyway. In fact, this post was a result of your questions.
Here are links to a two of the masa recipes that we have on Everyday Southwest. Mom’s Traditional Mexican Tamales are made with fresh masa (masa sin preparar) and the Chipotle Sweet Potato Tamales are made with dried masa harina.
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