Mexico Life
masa harina tortilla dough Making your own tortillas is way easier than you think!

Masa harina: what it is and what to do with it

It’s the foundation of so many Mexican dishes, but can you use it at home? Yes!

It never occurred to me to use masa harina, or corn flour, in anything besides tortillas.

But now that I am using it, I’m loving the nutty corn flavor, slightly gritty mouth-feel and airiness it lends to both sweet and savory baked goods. It’s surprisingly versatile, and I’m having fun in the kitchen with it!

Apparently, I’m not the only one — check out the recipe below for Masa Ball Soup, a clever (and delicious!) take on classic Matzoh Ball Soup.

So what’s the difference between masa harina and cornmeal? They’re both from corn, but that’s where the similarities end.

Cornmeal is simply dried, ground corn. We’re talking “regular” field corn, not the super-sweet hybrids we like to eat at picnics. Unless it’s labeled “whole grain,” it’s made from degerminated corn, i.e., the nutritious bran and germ have been removed to make it last longer.

Tequila Lime Cake
You can make this Tequila Lime Cake with 3 tablespoons of the Mexican liquor or substitute lime juice.

Masa harina is also made from dried corn, but using a special process called nixtamalization. It’s soaked in a limewater solution to remove the hull, improve the texture and help release nutrients. When those soaked corn kernels are ground, that’s fresh masa. If you dry that, you have masa harina — literally “dough flour.”

That’s why you can’t really substitute one for the other; they’re very different.

Tortillas, sopes, huaraches, gorditas — all of these are made from masa harina. Can you, should you, make your own at home? Another surprise: it’s not that hard. Really!

Tequila Lime Cake

  • 1 cup flour
  • ¾ cup masa harina
  • 2 ¼ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. butter, melted OR 1/4 cup coconut oil, melted (or half and half)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp. tequila OR fresh lime juice
  • Zest of 3–4 limes

 Glaze:

  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted if lumpy
  • Zest of 2–3 limes
  • 2 tsp. tequila or milk
  • 2 to 3 tsp. lime juice

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease an 8-inch square or 9-inch round pan. In small bowl, whisk flour, masa harina, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In larger bowl, whisk granulated sugar, melted butter, eggs, vanilla, milk, tequila/lime juice and zest. Stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Pour batter in prepared pan. Bake 25–30 minutes, until cake edges begin to pull away from sides of pan and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely before glazing.

To make glaze: Mix confectioners’ sugar, zest, tequila (or milk) and enough lime juice to reach a smooth, pourable consistency. With cake turned out onto a plate, pour glaze over top, spread to edges and allow to drip down the sides.

Masa Ball Soup

  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 cup masa harina
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 quarts chicken stock
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 rib celery, diced
  • ¾ cup diced sweet potato
  • Garnish: minced cilantro, sliced jalapeño, lime wedges

In large bowl, whisk eggs with water and oil. In a small bowl, mix masa harina with baking powder, salt and pepper. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients; combine thoroughly. Refrigerate uncovered for 30 minutes.

Divide stock evenly between two pots, season both to taste with salt; bring to a simmer. Add carrots, celery and sweet potato to one pot; simmer until just tender. Set aside.

Using wet hands (re-wetting as necessary), form masa mixture into 1 to 1 ½-inch balls. Add to simmering pot of stock without vegetables. Mixture may feel soft but should form balls. Once all masa balls are added, cover and simmer until cooked through, 30–45 minutes. Cooked masa balls can be kept warm in their broth until ready to serve.

Reheat both pots. Using slotted spoon, transfer masa balls to serving bowls; strain masa ball cooking broth with fine-mesh strainer into the pot with broth and vegetables. Ladle hot broth and veggies into each bowl. Garnish with cilantro, peppers and lime wedges.

Tortitas de Elote

 Enjoy as a crispy side dish or as a snack with bean dip, sour cream, fresh salsa or a squeeze of lime.

Tortitas de Elote
Tortitas de Elote are crispy, cheesy bites of heaven.
  • 1¼ cups masa harina, plus more for coating
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ cup grated Chihuahua cheese
  • 1¼ cups milk
  • ¾ cup sweet corn kernels
  • ¼ cup chopped scallion
  • ¼ cup minced fresh cilantro
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Corn oil

In a bowl, mix masa harina, salt and cheese. Heat milk to a simmer; pour into masa harina mixture. Stir. (Cheese should melt and incorporate into the dough.) Gently fold in corn, scallions, cilantro and garlic. Let sit 30 minutes to turn into a medium-stiff dough.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Using your hands, make patties out of the dough, about 4 inches across and ½-inch thick. Dredge in masa harina; lay gently in the skillet. Cook until golden and crispy, about 4 minutes per side.

Masa Harina Pancakes

  • 1 cup masa harina
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • 3 Tbsp. corn oil

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk eggs, milk and oil. Pour into dry ingredients; stir. Let sit 5 minutes; stir again. Batter should be thick. Heat skillet over medium heat and spray or pour a little oil onto it. Cook pancakes, turning once when bubbles form.

masa harina pancakes
Masa harina pancakes are just as fluffy as conventional ones, but with a touch of nutty corn flavor.

 Tortillas

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1½ cups warm water

In large, shallow bowl, combine masa harina and salt. Gradually add 1 cup water, using your hands to make a cohesive dough; then add remaining water slowly, mixing and kneading in the bowl, until dough is smooth and somewhat firm (like Play-Doh). Divide into golf ball-sized chunks, then roll into balls. Cover with plastic wrap or damp towel.

To shape, a tortilla press is easiest, but they can be rolled by hand or pressed with a skillet or flat-bottomed dish. (Put plastic wrap on either side of the dough ball before flattening it.)

Preheat a comal, cast iron pan or griddle over medium-high heat for 5 minutes until evenly hot. Add a tortilla. Flip after 10 seconds, then cook each side for about a minute or until brown spots form. Tortillas should puff up while cooking the second side.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Instagram at @thejanetblaser.

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