There’s a saying in Mexico that conveys just how deeply corn is valued: “Sin maíz, no hay país.”
Without corn, there is no country.
One of the most popular forms it takes, masa, dates back over 5,000 years when the Aztecs and Mayans discovered nixtamalization—treating corn in an alkaline solution, and then cooking, drying, and grinding the kernels down to a flour, also known as masa harina. The process of creating this distinctive flour has since evolved, but what hasn’t changed is its prevalence in traditional Mexican and South American favorites like tortillas, tamales, pupusas, arepas, gorditas, tlacoyos, and more.
At the heart of countless recipes, masa is a versatile ingredient that deserves some space in your pantry. Here’s why:
The Lowdown on Masa
Soaking corn in lime (the mineral, not the fruit), gives masa its earthy flavor and breaks down the structure of the grain so it can be made into a dough. It also adds calcium to the mixture and makes its niacin—an essential B vitamin that helps convert food into energy, supports DNA repair, and aids a healthy nervous system—more digestible and easier to absorb.
As a bonus, masa harina is gluten-free, and its niacin, calcium, magnesium, and fiber content is higher than what’s found in refined white flour.
Versatility Meets Simplicity
Here are some tasty, easy ways to feature masa on your menu:
Tortillas are probably the most well-known use for masa—all you need to make them is masa harina, salt, and water. Portion the masa harina into round balls, press them between parchment paper or flatten in a tortilla press, and cook on the stovetop in a nonstick skillet.
For a tasty and nutritious spin on tacos, try a veggie version filled with smashed black beans and grilled summer veggies, topped with avocado and a crunchy shredded red cabbage slaw tossed with fresh jalapeños, cilantro, and lime juice.
Masa Cakes can be made with the same ingredients, though people often add baking powder and egg for a fluffier texture. The dough can be cooked on a skillet or griddle and served at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
At Freshly, we like to make a lighter version of the traditionally fried masa cake by brushing a skillet with a little oil and baking them at 400°F on a parchment lined baking tray for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Masa cakes are also easy to dress up: add texture with a crunchy cabbage slaw dressed in a spicy lime dressing, top them with a dollop of greek yogurt, serve them with black beans, or enhance their flavor with a drizzle of honey for a touch of sweetness.
Tamales are a holiday tradition for many Latin American families, and are truly a labor of love. Here, masa is wrapped around various fillings and steamed in a corn husk. For a healthier version, use a combination of broth and oil in place of lard, which is found in traditional recipes. Take some liberties with fillings, too, which can range from a combination of mushrooms and meat to fruit.
Masa cakes can be found in Freshly’s newest meal: Mexican-Style Shredded Beef