About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about the art of making tortillas. In that post, I commented on my naive misunderstanding of the beauty of the tortilla. It’s sad to think, but when I lived in Mexico, I never stopped to question where that silky, soft masa (corn dough) came from. Goodness! It is the backbone of Mexican cuisine, and I took it for granted. It wasn’t until I returned to the U.S. that I began my journey of research on fresh corn masa. And, what a journey it has been! After about two years of lots of trial and error, I can confidently produce beautiful, smooth masa in my own home. I still can’t believe it!
So, let’s talk about this. Corn would not exist if it weren’t for humans. Scientists believe that the ancient people of Mexico developed corn about 7,000-10,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. People of this region began to cultivate maize or corn, and it eventually became an important crop for these ancient civilizations. In fact, maize was not only an essential crop, but it was also a culturally significant symbol. The Mayan people believed that corn was a gift from the gods, and it was their sacred duty to cultivate it. According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, the gods mixed their own blood with corn flour to create mankind. As result, The Maya believed that they were children of the corn.
Around 1,500 BC, the people of Central America (most likely women) figured out that cooking dried corn in alkali water (water with lime/calcium hydroxide or wood ashes from their cooking fires) loosened the tough skins of the maize. As a result, they were able to easily grind the corn into a soft dough. This technique called nixtamalization not only made the corn easier to work with, but it also gave the corn increased nutrition by enhancing its protein and releasing a vital nutrient called B3. When Europeans adopted corn as a staple grain, they did not see the need for nixtamalization because their milling technology was very advanced. As a result, widespread malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies like Pellagra, ensued. The discovery of nixtamalization was truly a breakthrough technology.
In addition, ancient Americans developed milpas, or gardens that employ companion planting. Often referred to as the Three Sisters System, corn was planted together with beans and squash. Corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb up. In addition, beans help stabilize the corn plants and prevent them from falling over in the wind. Beans also add nitrogen to the soil, increasing the overall fertility of the ground, and squash vines act as mulch blocking out emerging weeds and maintaining ground moisture. When these foods are eaten together (especially when the corn is nixtamalized), they provide a complete protein.
Now comes the sad part of corn’s history. In 1988, the first genetically modified corn was produced. Why is this so bad? Genetic modification of our food has been linked to food allergies, organ damage, gastrointestinal problems, immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility. In addition, GMO crops provoke increased pesticide use, a decline in biodiversity, and a decrease in overall crop production. As of 2014, 89 percent of the U.S. corn crop is genetically modified. Corn is an open-pollinated crop, which means it is pollinated by the wind. Even if a corn crop is non-GMO, it can easily become contaminated by a neighboring field that contains GMO corn. As of right now, the U.S. FDA approves the production and sale of GMO corn, while 26 other countries have banned GMOs altogether. As of 2013, Mexico banned the production of GMO corn. It is important that you search for non-GMO corn.
This is why I source my corn through a company called Masienda. They sell Mexican landrace or native corn that is carefully grown by farmers in Mexico. When you buy non-GMO corn, you are supporting crop history and biodiversity, as well as rural farmers in Mexico (who have suffered greatly as a result of the NAFTA agreement).
In ancient times and even today, nixtamalized maize was ground on a metate, a stone table of sorts with a stone rolling pin. You can still buy metates today, but the preferred method of grinding masa is with a molino or mill that uses a large volcanic stone. Some people prefer to use hand mills to grind their nixtamal. I personally would like to get my hands on the molino that appears in this video. Unfortunately, I have neither a metate nor a large molino. While I do own a hand mill, I have found that this is not my favorite method nor the best for grinding the corn. After much experimentation, I have discovered that using a large food processor does a pretty nice job of grinding the nixtamal into masa. This is the method that I detail below. I think that you will have a lot of success with this method. Making fresh masa might seem tedious at first, but once you learn the process you will find that it is easy and somewhat relaxing. In addition, there is no comparison between real, fresh masa and that made with maseca (dried masa in a bag).
If you have any questions about this process, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below. I would be more than happy to talk to you about making masa. Good luck and let me know what you think!