Any lover of Latin American food has probably come across the terms “masa” and “masa harina” at some point in their eating or cooking career.
The terms are extremely similar, and to the average onlooker, they sometimes appear to mean exactly the same thing. However, despite the close relationship between masa and masa harina, it’s still important to understand the exact difference between these two terms.
Terminology: “Masa Harina”
To start, it’s necessary to know some terminology. The Spanish word “masa” means dough, and “harina” means flour; masa harina is the special corn flour used to make masa, a dough that is the basis for foods like tamales, tortillas, and other Latin American dishes.
Although the word masa can refer to any kind of dough made from any flour, in Latin America this word usually refers to corn flour dough made from masa harina.
What is Masa Harina?
Masa harina is a very specific, unique kind of corn flour that requires a particular preparation technique. Some people prefer to make their masa harina at home using a complex process that involves cooking, soaking, and grinding, while others like to buy their masa harina premade.
The entire process of making masa harina can take up to 2 days or longer depending on the exact system, which varies from family to family and country to country. Because this process requires dedication, many people buy instant masa harina to use in their masa dough recipes.
One of the most well-known brand names of masa harina is Maseca (masa seca = dry dough). This brand gives its customers a slew of masa harina options for all different kinds of masa-based foods.
Across Latin America and the U.S., other companies have also taken up the torch to provide customers with quality corn flour products, but few have accomplished the size and reach of Maseca. Some other companies include Bob’s Red Mill, La Venezolana, and White Feather.
In addition to being able to purchase masa harina to make your own masa dough at home, in Mexico and some other Central and South American countries it’s possible to find tortillerías that sell premade masa dough and freshly made tortillas and other foodstuffs.
The Difference Between Masa Harina and Cornmeal
Some readers may already also be familiar with cornmeal, which is used in foods like corn muffins and stuffing.
Although masa harina and cornmeal share some things in common (namely, that they’re both made from maize), it’s worth noting that there are some crucial differences between the two that largely have to do with the preparation processes.
Corn meal is produced using a fairly simple and straightforward process. In contrast, the process of making masa harina is more complex and has numerous variations. Another difference is that corn meal is usually relatively coarse, while masa harina is a very fine powder.
Still, there are some generally agreed upon standards and steps that most people follow to make masa harina.
How to Make Masa Harina
The first step to making masa harina is to cook the dry corn kernels from the maize plant in a solution of water and lime (thus creating an alkaline calcium hydroxide solution) for a few minutes to a few hours.
After cooking, the skins are removed from the kernels and the corn is left to soak in the alkaline solution for approximately 8 hours.
The alkaline liquid, also known as nejayote, is discarded after the cooking and soaking process, and then the corn kernels are washed to remove any remaining skins, hulls, or leftover starches.
The final product of this process is nixtamal, or whole hominy; the process of making the hominy is called nixtamalization.
At this stage, the nixtamal can either be ground up immediately to create masa dough that can be used right away, or it can be dried and then ground into a fine powder to create masa harina.
Water can be added to the masa harina in the future to instantly create masa dough. Some processes require that the nixtamal is made into masa dough first, and then that the masa dough is dried and made into a powder in order to make the masa harina.
Both processes work just fine and can achieve successful, delicious results.
Where to Find Masa Harina
Masa harina is a staple at most grocery stores and small food shops in Mexico and throughout the Latin American world. The overwhelming majority of stores that sell food will also have masa harina for sale.
In the United States, masa harina is usually found in the Hispanic or foreign foods section of the grocery store. Sometimes it’s located with the other flours or with the baking supplies. Masa harina is also found in specialty stores that sell Mexican and Latin American foods.
Masa Harina Nutrition
Masa harina is more nutritious than corn meal and other similar corn flours because of the way that it’s made. This type of corn flour also has a different nutrient profile from plain, whole corn.
The process of nixtamalization makes it possible for the digestive tract to absorb niacin (vitamin B3) found in the corn. Chemical reactions take place between the lime in the calcium hydroxide solution and the chemical components of the corn that allow the body to utilize this nutrient.
Also, certain kinds of corn have an even more diverse nutrient profile that regular yellow corn. For example, blue corn has an abundance of antioxidants and proteins that aren’t present in high quantities in other corn varieties, and red corn has special phytochemicals present.
Some readers might be surprised to learn that the nutrients present in masa harina are different from those found in whole corn. The nixtamalization process changes the chemical composition of the corn, making it so the masa harina is higher in certain nutrients and lower in others.
First of all, in comparison with plain corn masa harina has a higher caloric value. In 1 cup of corn, there are about 132 calories, but 1 cup of masa harina has 416 calories. However, most people won’t eat 1 cup of masa harina in one meal (1 cup makes about 9 tortillas).
Masa harina is also higher in carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and fat than regular, whole corn that hasn’t gone through the nixtamalization process. But, whole corn has a higher vitamin C content than masa harina.
Below is an outline of some of the nutrients present in these two foods.
1 Cup of Masa Harina
- 87g Carbohydrates
- 3g Fiber
- 11g Protein
- 4g Fat
- 155mg Calcium
- 54mg Iron
- 05mg Zinc
- 238μg Folate (vitamin B9)
1 Cup of Whole, Unprocessed Corn
- 29g Carbohydrates
- 2g Fiber
- 5g Protein
- 8g Fat
- 3mg Calcium
- 8mg Iron
- 69mg Zinc
- 5mg Vitamin C
- 71μg Folate (vitamin B9)
Types of Masa Harina
Just like there are many different kinds of corn, there are also many different kinds of masa harina! The three most common varieties of masa harina are white, yellow, and blue, which are made respectively from white, yellow, and blue corn.
The nixtamalization process is the same for all of these varieties of corn, but the final products are somewhat different. Of course, the color of the foods made from white, yellow, and blue masa harina will be different, but the flavor of the resulting masa dough is also different.
Normally, the white masa harina will be the sweetest and stickiest; blue masa harina has a earthier flavor and a crumblier texture, and yellow masa harina carries the classic and traditional Latin American taste.
Besides the prevalent white, yellow, and blue corn flour varieties, it’s also possible to find and use purple, red, and gray masa harina flour to make colorful versions of your favorite dishes!
There are even particular kinds of masa harina that have been designed for specific dishes, like a coarser harina for tamales and a special harina for Central American foods that carries a unique flavor characteristic of these dishes.
Experimenting with different colors and types of masa harina can be a fun and satisfying endeavor. There’s a huge amount of variety!
How to Use Masa Harina
There are a lot of different ways that cooks can use masa harina in their dishes. The most popular foods that use masa harina are Latin American, and they usually involve the use of masa dough as the primary base for the dish.
Masa harina can be flavored with salt, spices, and even some oils to create uniquely flavored masa doughs. Add any dry spices to the masa harina before making the masa dough. This way of flavoring masa harina can be especially useful for making sweet treats using masa dough.
Tamales are one of the most famous ways that masa harina can be used. To make tamales, you must first follow the directions to create a masa dough, and then you can choose your fillings for the tamales. The tamales are wrapped in a corn husk and then baked or steamed to cook.
Homemade tortillas are another fantastic way to use masa harina. Like with tamales, the masa harina must first be made into masa. After this, the dough can be flattened and cooked to create yummy tortillas that can be used for wraps, tortilla chips, or even just as a snack!
A somewhat unexpected way to use masa harina is in the form of empanadas, a crispy, often fried pastry that can be filled with cheese, meat, fruit, or even vegetables to create a finger food that’s fantastic for both parties and more sophisticated meals.
Knowing the difference between masa and masa harina is extremely important for cooks who want to make Latin American foods. With this knowledge, you’ll now be able to read any recipe and successfully make and use masa dough with all colors and varieties of masa harina.