Corn is the ancient engine that drives Latin American gastronomy. And masa harina, a flour made from nixtamalized corn that was invented in the 1950s, has become a reigning household item because of its accessibility and convenience. While fresh masa keeps only a few days and should be frozen for any longer storage, masa harina is shelf-stable and simply needs to be rehydrated with liquid before use. In Mexico, masa harina is used for everyday meals, in myriad shapes and with varying fillings, such as tostadas, tamales, tacos, tlacoyos, tlayudas—the list goes on. In Venezuela, arepas—the national dish—can also be made with masa harina, shaped into griddled patties for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Cooks in Puerto Rico have their own uses, making bite-size surullitos arepas, guanimes (similar to tamales), and funche.
Foods made of masa thread together so many countries and cultures in Latin America, each with our own star dishes that pull families and friends to the table. However, now that masa harina is so prominent in the home kitchen, its uses extend well beyond the classics.
Masa harina boasts an incredible nutty, buttery aroma, and its subtle flavor makes it the perfect background for a host of flavors. It’s similar to corn flour, with the important distinction that corn flour isn’t usually nixtamalized. For corn flour, the hull, or pericarp, of the kernel is typically removed by grinding everything finely down to a powder. Home cooks sometimes use corn flour and masa harina interchangeably, but they can yield different results. Nixtamal, an ancient alkalizing process, is imperative for a perfect tortilla; without it, the cooked dough won’t have the necessary pliability that you need.
Nixtamalization also yields a bounty of nutritional benefits. Masa harina is high in calcium, vitamin B3, and protein. Alone, it’s quite dense, which is what makes it perfect for flattening into a thin tortilla. But even in recipes that stray from the traditional antojitos and entrées, it’s a handy helper and definitely worth having stocked in your kitchen. Whether you’re looking to add flavor and richness to a stew, to boost breads or pancakes, or to use as a dredge for the perfect crisp, masa harina shines.
Bake buttery breads
Chef Lety Gonzales, previously executive chef at WestBrew in San Diego, California, says she has a molecular appreciation for this precious ingredient: corn, she notes, is ancestral to her Mexican roots, and because of that, it finds its way into a wide variety of her dishes.
She adds masa harina to biscuits—equal parts masa harina and all-purpose wheat flour—and uses a little extra masa harina to dust into the layers of the dough. She cuts the biscuits thick before popping them into the oven and says the taste is incredible: “The flavor is like a buttered tortilla,” she explains. “It’s beautiful the way the corn flavor comes through.” At WestBrew, she served them for brunch with crab, a poached egg, arugula tossed in a chocolate chili oil, and a poblano tatemado hollandaise sauce.
You can also fold masa harina into yeast-risen breads for a dose of nutty, buttery richness. Aimee France, a baker who resides in New York City and specializes in cakes and bread that sell by commission, and at the Lower East Side’s Alimentari Flâneur, says she’s added masa harina to her sourdough recipe to experiment. Using a 10:1 ratio of all-purpose flour to masa harina, she found that the bread’s flavor was buttery, with a tight crumb and good rise. And while masa harina’s finer ground won’t yield quite the same crunch as cornmeal when used to flour a banneton, which she likes to do, it will contribute a touch of rich flavor to the crust.
Earthy, sweet, crisp-edged, and with an almost custardy center, chef Alan Delgado’s signature pancakes are something special.
Dredge up new textures
Masa harina’s gritty texture and rich flavor makes it ideal for dredging ingredients before frying. Puerto Rican chef and writer Reina Gascon-Lopez says she uses it as a dredge by mixing equal parts with all-purpose flour for a balance of flavor and texture. The flour helps the dredge adhere, but you can even dredge with masa harina alone.
“I like using it when I fry fish, chicken, or mushrooms,” she says. “I find that it gives a great crunch and gets a beautiful golden color when deep-fried.”
Masa harina has such a wonderful flavor on its own that you don’t need to add spices to the mix, though staples like salt, powdered garlic, and paprika are always a welcome addition. Gascon-Lopez says her seasonings depend on what she’s coating, but that she usually uses kosher salt, black pepper, and garlic powder. Compared to wheat flour, a masa harina dredge yields a thinner crust and less even coating, but the flavor is deeper and the texture is delectably crunchy.
Thicken sauces (and drinks) with flavor
Masa harina excels at crispy-crunchy textures, but its power to thicken soups, sauces, and luscious hot drinks should not be underestimated.
Recipe developer and writer Teresa Finney makes a white roux with it to thicken her enchilada sauce. She mixes equal volumes of vegetable oil and masa harina, cooking the sauce down until it thickens before pouring in her blended chiles, injecting the flavor of maíz.
When Rick Bayless makes red chileatole with fall vegetables, he makes a purée with a chile mixture, a cup of broth, and masa harina in a blender, which gets filtered through a strainer to remove any clumps. Then Bayless fries the purée with a little oil to deepen the flavor before adding in more broth to reach a soupy consistency.
Whether you’re thickening a soup, a sauce, or a stew, take a cue from Finney and Bayless, and stir up a small masa harina slurry separately before adding it to whatever liquid you’re thickening. This method, which will prevent clumps of dry masa in your dish, is also the way my boyfriend’s dad taught me to make champurrado, the traditional Mexican hot chocolate that’s made with masa harina, and atole (another thick, warm maíz drink, sometimes flavored with vanilla, guava, strawberry, or even blackberry).Fany Gerson
Creamy soups, crispy dredges, dense and buttery breads—these are all adaptations that have expanded masa harina’s traditional uses in the kitchen without losing the essential purpose of this instant masa flour. As core as it is to traditional dishes, masa harina has made itself indispensable in sprucing up plenty of others. If maíz’s 3,000-year legacy has taught us anything, it’s that the limit to cooking with masa harina does not exist.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious