What Is Masa Harina?

You'll find corn tortilla and tamale recipes calling for this specialty flour—but what is masa harina?

Not too long ago, I was in San Antonio for a friend’s wedding. I expected to see barbecue and brisket at every turn, but found an abundance of made-to-order tortillas! I became so obsessed with them, I ordered a $30 cast iron tortilla press and began scouring the internet for recipes.

In my quest to make the perfect tortilla, I kept seeing one word over and over again: masa harina.

What Is Masa Harina?

It literally translates to “dough flour.” This naturally gluten-free flour is used to make tortillas and tamales. It’s different from corn flour or cornmeal because the corn is soaked in lime water. (It’s a solution made with calcium hydroxide, not the green citrus fruit.) Soaking the corn infuses it with calcium and niacin, making it easier for the body to digest and giving it a distinctive flavor.

Once it’s soaked, the corn is rinsed several times to remove any residue. Then, it’s dried and ground into “instant” flour. Just add water and you’re ready to go!

Where Can You Find Masa Harina?

You’ll find masa harina in the ethnic aisle at most grocery stores. You may find a few different brands, especially if you’re at a specialty store. They’re all made with the same ingredients, but they’re often ground to different levels of fineness. Play around with a few brands until you find your favorite. I like the coarsely-ground Maseca for making tamales and the finer-ground Bob’s Red Mill for tortillas.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a Mexican grocery store, you might be able to find masa preparada (a dough made from freshly ground corn). Check the ingredients label before you pick one up; they often add lard to the dough to make it easier to make tamales.

How Do You Use Masa Harina?

Masa harina is most popularly used to make corn tortillas—it’s as easy as adding water and salt, pressing the dough balls flat and cooking ’em up on a hot griddle. You can also use this flour to make other authentic Mexican dishes like tamales, pupusas, empanadas or cornbread.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.