To make fresh homemade masa for tortillas or tamales, you must first prepare nixtamal—dried corn soaked in an alkaline solution. Though this process of nixtamalization may sound intimidating, it’s quite simple and requires only two key ingredients: dried dent corn and pickling lime, or cal, both of which are available at Latin markets and online. First-time masa makers should look for yellow dent corn, which has a high content of soft starch that will produce soft, pliable dough that is easy to work. (We like the Great River Organic Milling brand, available at amazon.com). Cal breaks down the outer hull of the corn and softens the starch within, making it more nutritious and easier to grind and form into a dough. While the corn needs to soak in the lime solution overnight, the resulting sweet corn flavor and texture are well worth the extra time. Event producer Paola Briseño González uses a metal Estrella molino, or mill, to grind the corn; she’s also developed a genius food processor technique that yields excellent results. If using a processor, be sure to let the corn cook and soak a bit longer to ensure that it grinds evenly.

Paola Briseno Gonzalez
Paola Briseño González

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Credit: DYLAN + JENI

Recipe Summary test

total:
14 hrs
Yield:
Makes 2 1/4 pounds fresh masa
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Ingredients

Ingredient Checklist

Directions

Make the nixtamal
  • Place corn in a large bowl, and add water to cover. Stir well with your hands to wash kernels and loosen any corn silk or husk pieces. Drain and set aside. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a medium nonreactive stockpot over medium-high. Using a wooden spoon, stir in pickling lime until dissolved. Stir in corn, and return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a low simmer. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until outer layer of corn is slightly cooked but the inner core remains dry and opaque, about 1 hour. Remove from heat. Let corn sit in cooking liquid (called nejayote), covered, at room temperature 12 hours.

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  • Drain corn in a colander; discard liquid. Rinse corn under running water, rubbing kernels between your fingers and against the colander to remove some of the slimy outer skin. Continue rinsing until the majority of the slippery skin is removed. (Don’t worry about removing it from every single kernel.) Drain and discard skins.

To grind masa in a mill
  • Set up the mill, and adjust the grinding plates for a fine grind. As you crank the empty mill, the plates should rub against each other with a small amount of constant friction. Place a large bowl below the grinding plates. Working in batches, place the prepared corn in the hopper, and grind, adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to lubricate the grinding process, 5 to 6 tablespoons total. Once all of the corn has passed through the mill, working in batches, return the corn mixture to the hopper. Continue grinding, using a wooden tamper or the handle of a wooden spoon to feed mixture into the mill and adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to hydrate the dough until mixture has a mashed potato consistency, 8 to 12 tablespoons total. (The texture may be slightly dry and shaggy, but you’re well on your way to soft and tender masa.) To grind masa in a food processor: Transfer corn to a salad spinner, and spin to remove excess water. (Drying the corn well is essential for grinding it evenly.) Transfer half of the corn (about 21/2 cups) to a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until kernels are coarsely chopped, 6 to 8 pulses. Process until corn is very finely ground, 3 to 5 minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl and break up if it forms a ball. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Repeat process with remaining corn, and add ground corn to the bowl with the first batch. Drizzle with olive oil.

  • Sprinkle salt over corn mixture. Add water, 1 teaspoon at a time, kneading masa in bowl at least 30 seconds after each addition. Continue adding water and kneading until the texture is similar to Play-Doh, slightly tacky but not too sticky, 10 to 15 teaspoons of water total and about 10 minutes of kneading. It’s important to incorporate a small amount of water at a time, allowing the masa to absorb the moisture and gradually become soft and pliable. If it feels a little dry, add more water, but only 1 teaspoon at a time to avoid overhydrating it. If it gets too sticky or feels too wet, let masa stand, uncovered, 20 minutes; gently knead to achieve a drier texture. To test if the dough is properly hydrated, form a golf ball–size ball in your hands. Press between your palms to flatten to a 1/2-inch-thick disk. The dough along the edges should be smooth; if it cracks, continue adding water and kneading. If the masa doesn’t release cleanly from your palms, it is too wet.

  • Cover bowl with a damp kitchen towel to prevent surface of masa from drying out. Use immediately, or let stand at room temperature up to 4 hours. If it dries out, dip your hands in water, and gently knead to add more moisture until the masa is soft, tender, and pliable.

Make Ahead

Masa can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in refrigerator up to 4 days.

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