Nixtamal para Masa Fresca ~ Nixtamal for Fresh Corn Masa (Dough)

Masa Blanca y Azul (H)

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!

Nixtamal #1

(A) Weighing the corn (B) Placing the corn in a colander (C) Rinsing the corn (D) Placing the corn in a pot and covering with water (notice the floating kernels.)

Nixtamal #2

(E) Measuring out the lime/calcium hydroxide, called cal in Spanish (F) Adding water to the lime (F) Whisking together to form a uniform solution

Nixtamal #3

(H) Bringing the corn to a rolling boil (I) Getting ready to add the cal mixture (J) Adding the cal mixture (K) Corn immediately turns yellow

Nixtamal #4

(L) After the nixtamal has cooked for one hour (M) You can see it is somewhat slimy

Nixtamal #5

(N) Nixtamal after it sat overnight; you can once again see it is slimy. This slimy water is called nejayote. (O) Nixtamal drained in a colander (P) Rubbing the nixtamal between hands to remove the outer skin (Q) Cleaned nixtamal…so shiny and pretty

Nixtamal #6

(R) Putting nixtamal into food processor fitted with blade attachment (S) Let the food processor run for 7 minutes (T) Around 5-6 minutes the nixtamal will begin to form a ball of masa (U) The masa should be smooth and soft

Nixtamal #7

(V) Golf ball amount of masa on cut produce bag (W) Place other plastic on top and smash slightly with hand (X) Using a tortilla press, form a tortilla. Press once, rotate, press again (Y) Your tortilla should be pliable and easy to handle

Final Tortillas

(Z) Freshly made tortillas cooked on the comal

Nixtamal para Masa Fresca

Click here for printable recipe.  

Nixtamal for Fresh Corn Dough (Makes about 2 lbs. of masa when ground)

500 grams (1 lb.) dried dent corn*

1 TBSP lime/calcium hydroxide (called cal in Spanish)

½ cup water

Nixtamal for Fresh Corn Dough (Makes about 1 ½ lbs. of masa when ground)

375 grams (3/4 lb.) dried dent corn

2 tsp lime/calcium hydroxide (called cal in Spanish)

1/3 cup water

Nixtamal for Fresh Corn Dough (Makes about 1 lb. of masa when ground)**

250 grams (1/2 lb.) dried dent corn

1 ½ tsp lime/calcium hydroxide (called cal in Spanish)

¼ cup water

→(A) Weigh corn using a kitchen scale. (B) Pour into a colander and (C) rinse thoroughly to remove dust and debris. (D) Place the corn in a large pot. (The pot I use is 5 ½ quarts or 5.2 liters.)

→Fill the pot about half way with cool water. The water should cover the corn by 2 inches or so. There will be a few pieces of corn that float to the top. I usually skim them off and discard.

→Place the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. (E) In the meantime, measure out the lime/calcium hydroxide in a small bowl. (F) Add the water. (G) Whisk together using a fork or small whisk.

→(H) Once the corn comes to a boil, (I/J) pour the lime/calcium hydroxide mixture into the pot. (K) The corn will instantly turn a yellowish color. Stir the corn with the cal to incorporate.

→Reduce the heat, and let the corn simmer steadily for one hour. (L/M) Then, turn off the heat. Put a lid on the pot and let sit for 8 hours or overnight.

→(N) The next day, the nixtamal will be slimy-looking. (O) Pour the corn into a colander to drain the slimy water (called nejayote). (P) Then begin to rinse the corn. You are trying to remove the outer skin from each kernel. To do this, rub the corn back and forth between your hands under cool, running water. (Q) You will begin to notice that the corn feels clean and likes shiny.

→(R) Pour about two cups of the cleaned, nixtamalized corn into a large food processor. Add about 1 tsp of water. (S) Turn on the food processor, and let it run for about 7 minutes. (T) At around 5-6 minutes, you will notice that the nixtamal will start to come together to form a smooth masa. You may need to add another teaspoon of water at this time. Once a ball has formed, let it spin for another minute to achieve a really smooth dough (U).

→I usually break up the ball of masa and put it back into the food processor for one final spin (the finer the grind the better). This only takes about a minute.

→Place the freshly ground masa in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to retain moisture. Repeat with the remaining nixtamal.

→Use the masa immediately or store it in the fridge for one day. You can place the already ground, cold masa in the food processor the next day. Not only will it warm the masa up, but it will also help you to achieve an even finer grind. You may need to add a few teaspoons of water while re-grinding.

→If you feel that the masa is dry, you can always hand-knead water into the dough. You will be surprised at how much water it accepts. The masa should have the consistency of a soft, smooth, and moist Play-Dough.

→(V-Z) show you how to make the tortilla.

NOTES:

  • *I bought my corn from a new company based in New York called Masienda. They are fantastic to work with. They sell Mexican landrace corn grown by amazing farmers in Mexico. All of their corn is non-GMO. It is extremely important that we protect these ancient varieties of corn. Please try to purchase non-GMO corn whenever possible. In addition, some of the corn is organic. I encourage you to visit their website: masienda.com.
  • **1 lb. of fresh masa usually makes about a dozen 5-inch tortillas.
  • I usually make the smallest batch of masa (1 lb.) It is a nice amount to begin with.
  • I highly recommend that you use a kitchen scale and measure the weight of the corn in grams. It provides a more exact measurement.
  • You do not need to refrigerate the nixtamal overnight. Just let it sit on the stove.

Recipe Source: Adapted from Diana Kennedy, Yuri de Gortari, and Mija Chronicles

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21 thoughts on “Nixtamal para Masa Fresca ~ Nixtamal for Fresh Corn Masa (Dough)

  1. Stephanie Chavez says:

    Hi Nicole,
    This step-by-step is perfect! One of these days I’m going to try to make my masa from scratch like this. Thank you for sharing such a treasured traditional recipe! I have one question though. What kind of tortilla presser do you use? The one I have doesn’t press the tortillas evenly – one side always comes out slightly thicker than the other side. Is that normal? It bugs me so much that I gave up using it and just hand roll them.

    • Nicole says:

      Hi Stephanie,
      Thank you so much for your positive comments! Once you start making your own masa, you’ll never be able to go back to Maseca 😉 I have two tortilla presses; I bought both of them in Mexico. The first one is a round, metal press that measures about 7 inches inches in diameter. I bought it at a store called Vasconia. The second one is made of wood. It is rectangular and measures 9.5″ wide by 13.5″ long. I bought it at the Mercado Sonora in Mexico, DF. I honestly prefer using the wood one. It applies even pressure and the tortillas always come out nice. I’m sure you are pressing the tortilla twice and rotating it in between so that is probably not the problem. I have seen wooden tortilla presses for sale at our local Mexican grocery store, so depending on where you live you might be able to find one there. I am attaching a picture of both so that you can see what they look like. Please let me know if you have any additional questions 🙂

      Metal Tortilla Press

      nullWooden Tortilla Press

      • Stephanie Chavez says:

        Ah, thank you! My Mom bought one a long time ago that looked very similar to your wooden one, which I liked better, but it was so big I had nowhere to put it in our small condo, I ended up asking her to keep it and bought a smaller one that is made of a hard plastic material. I do turn the tortilla after the first press which makes it pretty even after that. Maybe I’m just too picky. Is that normal then, to have to turn once after the first press?

      • Nicole says:

        Yes, I totally understand. The wood one is really big. I have to store mine in the basement. I’m wondering if a metal press might work better than a plastic one. They aren’t too expensive. You can get them for about $20-30 online.

        In terms of pressing the tortilla out, you should definitely press it twice, rotating in between. This is what I’ve always seen the señoras in Mexico do. It makes the tortilla more circular and even everything out.

        Maybe you could give the wood press a try sometime and see if you like it better 😉 Keep me posted.

  2. Lola's Cocina says:

    Nicole: This post was a work of art! You put so much work into presenting how to make the masa and tortillas as well as the historical significance and challenges with genetically modified corn. You’re a wealth of knowledge! I’m reading a book, Tortillas: A Cultural History by Paula E. Morton, that you might enjoy. You’ve inspired me to make masa from scratch — I bought a bunch of cal once because I swore I’d be making corn tortillas everyday like they do in Oaxaca. I plan to share your post on my Lola’s Cocina Facebook page this week.

    • Nicole says:

      Lola,
      Thank you so much! I truly enjoy making masa, and while I have a good understanding of the process now, I know there are still many things to learn. I’m always wishing I lived down the street from a Diana Kennedy-like Mexican señora so I could pick her brain about everything, haha. Please let me know when you try making your own masa. Don’t be discouraged if the first time isn’t a success. It took me dozens of failed batches before I even came close. Thank you so much for sharing this post on your Facebook page. I’m always excited for more readers. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I just looked up the Tortilla book, and it definitely looks like my kind of read. I’m going to order it on Amazon. I honestly hadn’t heard of this book, so thanks for the awesome recommendation!!!

  3. mexicanfoodmemories says:

    Wow! Que artículo tan interesante e informativo, he quedado muy impresionada. Me encanta la manera tan sincera y apasionada que tienes para cocinar comida mexicana. Te has ganado mi admiración. Una pregunta, ¿dónde puedo conseguir cal aquí en Londres, o sea, en que tipo de tiendas la venden? Saludos totales,

    MexicanfoodinLondon xx

    • Nicole says:

      ¡Hola! Muchísimas gracias por pasar a ver a mi blog. Honestamente, me encanta la comida mexicana y me fascina la idea de poder prepararla en mi cocina. Sin embargo, como sabes, es difícil a veces encontrar los ingredientes necesarios y aun cuando los encuentras a veces el sabor es diferente o la textura no es como la recuerdas.

      Así empezó mi camino con la masa. Jaja, mi novio veracruzano no me permitió hacer los tamales de su mamá con masa harina. Entonces tuve que entender el proceso de hacer masa desde el principio. Y qué bueno porque he visto que no hay comparación.

      Ahora, nunca he estado en Londres. Entonces no puedo decirte exactamente donde encontrar la cal. Yo la encontré en una tienda mexicana que está aquí en Pittsburgh, pero la he visto también en lugares como Ace Hardware que venden materiales de “canning.” Yo preguntaría por “food-grade lime,” o “pickling lime.” No sé si Amazon te entrega cosas, pero se vende ahí también. Aquí está el link: http://www.amazon.com/Mrs-Wages-Pickling-Lime-16/dp/B00FRLLIQC/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1434486967&sr=8-2&keywords=lime+food+grade

      Mucha suerte con la búsqueda y si tienes alguna pregunta por el proceso de hacer masa que publiqué aquí, no dudes en decirme 😉

    • Nicole says:

      Hi Mike,
      Your nixtamal will always be about double the amount of dried corn you use. So, 1 lb. of dried corn will yield about 2 lbs. of nixtamal. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks for stopping by!!!

  4. Richard says:

    hi i live in colombia and the corn they sell here is a machine peel corn would that work for tortilla and the the only cal a can fine is the one they use in construction call calcium hydroxide is that the same cal. the corn here is call maiz trillado thanks a lot.

    • Nicole says:

      Hi Richard,
      I have never worked with maíz trillado, but from what I’ve read, it has already been soaked in lye (cal) and hulled. So, you will NOT need to cook it with the cal. You can simply boil it and then grind it. You definitely do NOT want to use calcium hydroxide used in construction. It is not food grade and can be harmful to your health. Please let me know if you decide to make the masa. I’d be interested in knowing how it turns out. Thanks for stopping by!

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