We bought a 5 lb bag of masa harina recently, and I’ve started playing it with it. Traditionally, you use this Latin American corn flour to make corn tortillas but you can use it for many other dishes too. Classically, you might encounter it in tamales, arepas, pupusas, and corn meal mush or porridge. Other uses include flour coatings for frying, flour for cookies, a thickener for chili, empanada dough, godita dough, or dumplings dough.
First, what is masa harina? It is flour made from masa, corn that has been soaked in lime (an alkaline base, not the fruit) and drained. Soaking the corn in the alkali essentially makes the corn more nutritious: it adds calcium, and makes the niacin in the corn available to human digestive tracts. Cultures that based their diet on masa rather than plain corn avoided a common nutritional disease, pellagra. In addition, there are also culinary advantages. Masa has undergone chemical changes that allow the corn flour to create a dough through a couple different mechanisms– there are fats that are broken down and emulsified, the proteins are better able to bond to each other, and some protein-carbohydrate bonds are facilitated. Technically, it is not a whole grain because the outer part of the grain, the bran, is somewhat destroyed by the exposure to lime. However, it is so much closer nutritionally to a whole grain than a refined grain that you can legitimately count items made with masa toward your daily ration of whole grains.
It is gluten-free, and readily available in many supermarkets and practically all Latino groceries. Common brands include Maseca, Goya, Quaker Oats, and Benita. There are various grinds, like cornmeal, so make sure you select carefully for your purpose. Masa harina pour tortillas can be used for tamales, but masa harina pour tamales won’t work well for tortillas. Arepas can be made with either, but there is also large grind arepa flour called masarepa that would yield the most “authentic” arepa. It’s not recommended as a substitute for cornmeal in cornbread, but I have used it for a portion of the flour in the base recipe for whole grain scones. Have you ever used masa harina, and if so, what did you make? I’ll happily take suggestions for what to make with the remaining four pounds!
Image credit: Joel Penner, via Wikimedia Commons