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12 October 2021

Masa harina, an essential ingredient in Mexican and Latin American cuisine for making corn tortillas, tamales and more, is made from nixtamalized corn that is ground into flour. Learn more about it.

Who doesn’t like corn, right? Being one of the most popular vegetables in the United States and Mexico, corn has multiple uses. Mainly, it is used as livestock feed as well as in making starch, beverages, corn flour, and industrial alcohol.

It is also used to make Masa Harina, which is a staple ingredient in Mexican cooking, though it also used around the world in various ways for its distinctive flavor.

What is Masa Harina? 

Masa harina is a type of flour made from dried corn kernels that are soaked and cooked in a lime solution (aka nixtamalized), then dried and ground. It is widely used in Mexican and Latin American cuisine, most notably for making tortillas, tamales, and countless other dishes.

After cooking the corn kernels thoroughly, they are further soaked in lime water or wood ash. This results in a mixture called ‘hominy’ which is then ground to Masa Harina, a fine powder that looks very much like wheat flour.

Masa harina is used in making various Mexican cuisines and is called by different names in different regions of Mexico.

Masa Harina in a measuring cup

Is Masa Harina the Same as Cornmeal?

Masa harina is not the same as cornmeal. Firstly, they differ in the procedure they are made by. While Masa harina (Spanish for “dough flour”) is made from corn by soaking it up in lime solution or wood ash, cornmeal is straight up made by grinding the corn kernels.

It is very much like corn flour with the exception that its texture is coarse in comparison to corn flour, which has a fine texture.

Masa harina is much like wheat flour and has a white appearance. With a unique taste, it is used in making tortillas. On the other hand, Cornmeal has a yellowish appearance, not as finely ground, and resembles small couscous.

What is Masa Harina Used For?

Used in many famous dishes of Mexico, masa harina is also very popular in the United States. It is the most important ingredient in corn tortillas, tamales, and a variety of other Mexican dishes.

Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas are fantastically appetizing. This mouth-watering version of tortilla can be easily made even in your own home.

All you need to do is mix dried masa harina with warm water in a bowl – called “masa” – and let it rest for five minutes. Knead, then form a corn dough of this mixture using your bare hands. You can always add more water if it feels too dry.

Next, form small balls out of this fresh masa dough and use a rolling pin to form a tortilla, which can then be heated using a hot griddle or a hot pan for 30 seconds to a minute. Boom! Your delicious corn tortilla is ready.

Homemade Corn Tortillas on a plate

Sopes

Another dish native to Mexico, made of masa harina is sopes. This is called by various names throughout Mexico. It is much like a tortilla with the exception that it has a smaller size and is thick on the outside, giving it a pizza-like shape.

The area in the center is used to hold all the succulent toppings which mainly include chicken, beef, or pork. Further, it is topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and all sorts of delicious Mexican sauces and served.

What Can I Use Instead of Masa Harina?

Nothing will perfectly replace masa flour for all of your needs, but here are a few options to consider.

Cornmeal

It is obtained by coarsely (or sometimes finely) milling corn kernels.

Corn Flour

Very much similar to Cornmeal, corn flour has a more powdery texture as compared to cornmeal which has a rugged texture.

Grits

Grits are easy to make. You just need to have cornmeal. Half a cup of water and a half cup of milk is added into boiled cornmeal and then heated for half an hour.

Masa Harina on a spoon

Can You Use Pre-Cooked Corn Meal to Make Tortillas?

Arguably, it can be very challenging to make tortillas using cornmeal because of the grainy texture of cornmeal. Since cornmeal is coarsely ground from corn kernels which makes it rather difficult to be rolled using a tortilla press or rolling pin.

Mmasa harina is finer and also softer and more pliable from the soaking process. This makes it easier to be rolled for making tortillas.

Buy Masa Harina

You can often find masa harina in the grocery store in the Mexican food section. If you can’t find masa harina, order online.