Masa is the backbone of Latin American cuisine. It is produced by soaking dried field corn in a lime solution and grinding it into a fine paste. This paste is used in foods like tortillas, tamales, and sweet fried foods. Variations have been produced all over Latin America for tens of thousands of years, and the food continues to be produced by modern dwellers. Making masa is relatively easy at home, and using it fresh will dramatically change the flavor of Latin American foods cooked at home.
When masa is made, the tough outer husk of corn kernels is removed, making the corn easier to digest. The process also frees up important dietary minerals and nutrients, making the end food product more nutritious to eat. The development of this food in Latin American cultures ensured that native peoples had access to a balanced, healthy diet.
Fresh masa is often available in Latin American specialty stores. Many of these stores also sell masa harina, a dried version that can be rehydrated and used like fresh. Many cooks believe that fresh masa has a superior taste and texture, but dried will do in a pinch. Especially when someone is first learning how to cook Latin American food, this version can be a useful shortcut.
To make masa, dried field corn is rinsed while a lime mixture is brought to a boil in a non-corrosive pan. The type of lime used is calcium hydroxide, or slaked lime. Latin Americans sometimes just call it “cal.” The dried corn is added to the lime mixture and boiled for five to 15 minutes, depending on how the masa will be used. Then, the mixture is removed from the fire and allowed to soak for two to 24 hours.
After soaking, the corn mixture is carefully rinsed in cold running water to remove all of the lime. Leftover lime will cause the mix to go rancid, resulting in a sour smell and unpleasant flavor. At this stage, the mixture is known as nixmatal. The nixmatal is ground, either by hand or using an electric grinder. For things like tortillas, it must be ground very fine, while tamales are made with a looser grain. After grinding, the masa is ready to use. It can also be dried and ground again.