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What Is Masa Harina? How to Use Masa Harina in Mexican Cooking

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 20, 2020 • 3 min read

Nothing compares to the pleasure of eating homemade corn tortillas hot and fresh off the stove. The signature earthy sweetness and flexible texture all comes down to one thing: heirloom corn kernels which are transformed into fresh, fragrant masa.

Corn is historically central to the Mexican diet and holds an important place in the social, economic, and cultural fabric of the country. It has sustained Mexican communities for generations. “In Mexico, corn has a sacred aspect to it,” says Chef Gabriela Cámara. “Corn is really central to the health and well-being of the people.”



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What Is Masa Harina?

Masa harina is finely ground corn flour, or cornmeal, that comes together to form the masa dough. Not all masa harina is the same, just as not all wheat flours are the same: different corns are used for different preparations—starchier corns, for example, will make for a fluffier masa, while more fibrous corns lead to a heartier masa; one corn might be better suited to an atole (a hot masa-based drink) than a tortilla.

How Is Masa Harina Made?

Masa harina is made from organic corn that has been nixtamalized and dried.

Nixtamalization, a process that was perfected by Mesoamericans centuries ago, is the first step: Soak dried corn kernels in a mixture of water and cal, or calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime or pickling lime (readily available in many spice shops or online), until the corn is soft enough to grind in a mill. The resulting ground cornmeal is then dried to become masa harina.

If you can’t find fresh masa dough, you can mix masa harina with warm water to make a dough at home.

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How to Use Masa Harina

Masa harina is the cornerstone of corn tortillas, tamales, sopes, and so many more staple dishes of Mexican cuisine.

  • Corn tortillas: Combine the masa harina and 1 cup of water in a medium bowl and mix well. Continue adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is smooth, thick, and slightly sticky, and holds together in a uniform dough when pressed. Roll masa into 1-ounce balls and set aside on a sheet tray or plate beneath a damp towel so they don’t dry out. Flatten in a tortilla press (lined with plastic wrap so it doesn’t stick), and cook on a comal or cast-iron skillet. Learn how to make corn tortillas here.
  • Tamales: Mix masa harina into a dough, then knead to combine with any number of spices, chile pastes, salt, and lard (to help it spread). Place a few tablespoons of spiced masa into prepared corn husks: spread into an even layer, add any desired fillings, and fold husk to tightly seal. Steam in a pot of broth or water for about 40 minutes and let cool slightly before unwrapping. Learn how to make Chef Gabriela Cámara’s Sweet Tamales de Guayaba Recipe here.
  • Sopes: Making sopes, a cross between a tartlet and a tortilla, begins the same way as a tortilla: by using masa harina to form a dough. The dough is flattened in a tortilla press into a smaller, thicker disc. It is then cooked partway on a heated comal, cooled very briefly before being pinched around the edges to create a small lip, like a miniature pie. They’re finished off on the comal to firm up their shape (you can also lightly fry them) and topped with any number of fillings.


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Substitutes for Masa Harina

Some corn flours have a coarser texture than masa harina, which is ground so fine it has a soft, powdery feel, so depending on what you’re using it for, you may need to choose your substitute carefully. If you’re making tortillas, using all-purpose flour or bread flour will be a better bet than something like polenta, which would work better for a cooked preparation like tamales.

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