What Is Masa Harina?

By: the Editors of Easy Home Cooking Magazine  | 

Masa harina is a type of traditional flour used in Mexican cooking.
Masa harina is a type of traditional flour used in Mexican cooking.
Susanna Altarriba

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Q. I've come across several recipes that call for masa harina, and I've seen it in the supermarket in the baking aisle with the flour. What is masa harina?

A. Masa harina is the traditional flour used to make tortillas, tamales, and other Mexican dishes. Literally translated from Spanish, it means "dough flour," because the flour is made from dried masa, a dough from specially treated corn.

To make masa harina, field corn (or maize) is dried and then treated in a solution of lime and water, also called slaked lime. This loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens the corn. In addition, the lime reacts with the corn so that the nutrient niacin can be assimilated by the digestive tract.

The soaked maize is then washed, and the wet corn is ground into a dough, called masa. It is this fresh masa, when dried and powdered, that becomes masa harina. (Add water once again to make dough for tortillas or tamales.)

Fresh masa is available in Mexican markets, refrigerated and sold by the pound. But masa harina is a fine substitute. Availability and your personal taste determine whether you start with fresh or dried masa.

Do not substitute corn meal or regular corn flour, however; they're produced from different types of corn and are processed differently. They will not produce the same results. Regular wheat flour also cannot be substituted.

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To learn more about masa harina and Mexican cuisine, see:

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Originally Published: Nov 18, 2007

Masa Harina FAQ

What can I substitute for masa harina?
If you're making tortillas, you can't substitute anything for masa harina, as there isn't anything that will give you the same flavor and texture. If you're making a recipe where masa harina is just one small component, like tamales and soups, you can try subbing in cornmeal.
Where can I buy masa harina?
Fresh and dried masa can be purchased at Mexican grocery stores. You can also purchase it on Amazon, if you don't live close to a store.
What is masa harina made of?
Masa harina is made from field corn (or maize) that has been dried, treated in a solution of lime and water, washed, and then ground into a dough, called masa. This fresh masa is then dried and powdered to become masa harina.
What does masa harina mean in English?
"Masa harina" translates from Spanish to "dough flour" in English.
Are corn flour and masa harina the same thing?
No, they aren't. Masa harina is a flour traditionally used for Mexican corn tortillas. Corn flour is just finely ground corn, while masa harina has been treated with alkali, giving it very different properties.

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