About 1500 B.C., people living in coastal Guatemala figured out that cooking dried corn in alkali water removed the kernels’ skins and produced a softer dough than unprocessed ground corn did.
More recently, food scientists have found that this process, called nixtamalization, increases the bioavailability of both protein and niacin. The resulting dough is the basis for corn tortillas, chips, tamales, and more. Whole corn that has been nixtamalized is called hominy, while the ground form is called masa. Use the whole, moist kernels in soups or stews. Or, grind them through a food mill able to handle moist kernels to make masa, to which you can add enough water to make a slightly sticky dough for making tamales or, using a tortilla press, tortillas.
Nixtamalized corn has “a delicately nutty quality combined with something almost chalky and mineral-like,” says Zarela Martinez, author of The Food and Life of Oaxaca. She shared the following recipe for nixtamalizing corn.
- 2 pounds clean, dried flour-corn kernels (about 1 quart)
- 1/4 cup pickling lime (food-grade calcium hydroxide)
- 3 quarts water1/2 cup oil
- Rinse the corn in a colander and set aside.
- In a large, stainless steel (nonreactive) pot, dissolve the lime in the water. Immediately wash off any lime that gets on your hands. Add the corn and discard any floating kernels.
- Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and cook uncovered for 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, and let the pot sit, uncovered, for 4 hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
- Pour the corn into a colander in the sink. With cold water running, rub the kernels between your hands to rub away the softened hulls — they’ll have a gelatinous texture. Rinse thoroughly; some old recipes say to wash between 4 and 11 times. Drain well.
- Promptly refrigerate and use within three days.
Learn more about whole-grain corns in Uncommon Corn.