What Exactly is Masa?

Quck answer

Masa is a traditional Mexican dough made from corn that is used to make various dishes like tortillas, tamales, and pupusas. It is made by soaking dried corn kernels in an alkaline solution, which helps break down the tough outer hull and makes the corn more nutritious. The soaked corn is then ground into a fine paste, creating masa. Masa is a versatile ingredient that can be flavored with various spices and fillings. It is a staple in Mexican cuisine and is loved for its unique flavor and texture.


Are you a fan of Mexican cuisine? We definitely are! Burritos, tacos, tortillas, tamales, enchiladas…the list of our favorite Mexican dishes is endless!

If you’ve ever tried making Mexican recipes from scratch, you may have noticed a common ingredient. What are we talking about? Masa, of course!

Masa — also known as corn masa flour or masa harina — is a traditional type of flour used in the preparation of tamales, tortillas, and many other beloved Mexican dishes. In Spanish, masa harina translates to “dough flour” because it is made from dried masa.

To produce masa, field corn is first dried and then soaked and cooked in a solution of lime and water (known as slaked lime). This scientific process is called nixtamalization.

The slaked lime helps to remove the hulls from the corn kernels and softens the corn. It also reacts with the corn to make it more digestible.

After being soaked and cooked in slaked lime, the corn is washed and ground into a dough, which is then referred to as masa. When fresh masa is dried and ground into a powder, it becomes the corn masa flour or masa harina that you can find in stores.

Some Mexican markets may sell fresh masa by weight. However, if you can’t find fresh masa, powdered corn masa flour or masa harina is a great substitute. These powdered versions just require the addition of water to form dough for your favorite Mexican dishes.

If a recipe calls for masa, be sure not to substitute it with cornmeal or regular corn flour. These other products are made from different types of corn and have undergone different processing methods. If you use them in a recipe that calls for masa, you will not achieve the desired result! For instance, regular cornmeal made from untreated ground corn will not form a dough when water is added.

Masa is gluten-free and packed with nutrients. Besides being low in fat, it is also cholesterol-free and a good source of calcium. While it is commonly used in Mexican cuisine, masa can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes from various culinary traditions.

Give It a Try

Feeling hungry yet? Ask a friend or family member to join you in exploring the following activities:

  • Invite an adult friend or family member to take you to the grocery store and explore the aisle with Mexican foods. Look for masa harina and observe what other ingredients and types of flour are available. If you’re feeling adventurous, purchase some masa harina to make your own Mexican dishes at home.
  • Check if there is a Mexican restaurant nearby. Plan a lunch trip and ask the manager if you can have a behind-the-scenes look at the cooks in action. Take a close look at the masa they use. Does it match your expectations? How many different ways do they incorporate masa in their dishes? If possible, choose a few of your favorite Mexican dishes that contain masa and give them a try!
  • Select a recipe or two to try at home with your friends and family members. Make sure to check the ingredient list beforehand, as you may need to go to the store to gather a few items: + Corn Tortillas + Real Homemade Tamales + Basic Masa Dough + Pupusas

Additional Resources

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masa
  • http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/what-is-masa-harina.htm
  • http://www.aztecamilling.com/en/nutrition-health/everything-starts-with-corn/corn-history

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