Ingredient Intelligence

What Is Masa?

Image Credit: Christine Gallary

Are you ready to tackle making homemade tamales or tortillas? If so, you've probably run across the words masa and masa harina. Are they really the same thing, and how do you shop for them? Let's demystify these Mexican and Latin American staples.

The Difference Between Masa and Masa Harina

Traditional Mexican and Central American food would be nowhere without masa. The word technically translates as "dough," but it might as well mean "food." Without it there would be no tortillas, tamales, gorditas, sopes, or any of the other foodstuffs associated with this part of the world.

Masa harina is a flour that is used to make masa dough. To get a clearer picture, think of the two this way: Masa harina is like the all-purpose flour used to make pie dough, or bread flour to make bread dough.

Image Credit: Emma Christensen

What Is Masa?

In its simplest form, masa is the dough made from mixing the masa harina with water. This is why you will commonly see masa harina sold as "instant," which refers to the speed with which you can make the dough: instantly.

What Is Masa Harina?

Masa harina is a very soft flour made from finely ground hominy or dried corn kernels that have been cooked and soaked in limewater (a diluted solution of calcium hydroxide — not to be confused with water flavored with lime juice). It is this alkaline solution that gives corn tortillas and tamales their pleasantly sour flavor. Masa harina is like any other flour and is best kept sealed at room temperature. Because the corn has been treated with limewater, you cannot substitute cornmeal in recipes that call for masa harina.

Masa harina comes in several different types depending on what you are going to make with it. The most common is white masa harina, which is made from dried white corn and can be found in most grocery stores in the ethnic aisle, but you can also buy yellow masa harina, which is simply dried yellow corn. The differences here are minimal; there is a slight flavor difference (the white being a bit sweeter), and of course a color difference. Both can be used to make corn tortillas and tamales, and to thicken soups and drinks like atole, a popular sweetened hot drink in Mexico and Central America.

In some parts of the country you’ll also be able to find Nixtamasa, Harina Centroamericana, and Harina Tamales all sold under the Maseca brand. Nixtamasa is used primarily for corn tortillas, Harina Centroamericana is used to make Central American favorites like papusas, and Harina Tamales is a bit more coarsely ground and used to make tamales.

Other ingredients can be added to the masa harina depending on what you are making. Leaveners such as baking powder and fat (usually lard) are added to make tamales light and fluffy. Chile powder, sugar, or cinnamon can be added to make a flavored dough.

Image Credit: Christine Gallary

Buy It Fresh

Most Mexican grocery stores also sell a fresh corn masa called "masa preparada," which is a dough made from freshly ground hominy, not masa harina flour. It can be purchased in two ways: a smooth consistency for making corn tortillas, or a coarse-textured masa with lard and seasonings for making tamales.

Smooth-ground masa should be kept well-covered at room temperature and used right away for best results. Coarse-ground masa can be covered and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to three months.

A Pantry Staple

Masa harina is the foundation of so many recipes in the Latin American culture and is versatile enough to warrant a space in your pantry. Simply mix with water and you have masa dough that can be used to make corn tortillas, sopes, huaraches, and many other traditional dishes. It's easy to find and work with, but if you're lucky to get your hands on fresh masa, pick some up for some truly delicious tortillas and tamales!