Making Fresh Masa
Fresh Ground Corn Masa
I’ve gotten a little obsessed with masa. Masa is the dough made from ground corn used to make corn tortillas, tamales, sopes, empenadas, and such. If you want the freshest, most authentic tacos, you need to make your tortillas from scratch. You can make a passable taco with store bought tortillas, but you reach a point where it doesn’t cut it anymore. I reached that point a while back and I’ve worked my way through all the options I have in my remote part of New England to make the best corn tortillas I can.
The tacos that only had steak, onions, cilantro, and hot sauce on a corn tortilla but tasted overwhelming. Amazing. And that you’ve come to the conclusion that without the perfect tortilla, you’ll never make a truly great taco
To make tortillas at home you can use store bought ground corn called Masa Harina to make your dough. Most grocery stores carry it. It’s a quick and relatively easy process. Check it out here. But… there is another, far more involved, yet far more authentic way to make masa dough. It involves a few strange looks from all your friends and relatives when you explain why you’re doing this. When you explain that you haven’t been able to fully duplicate the simplicity and awesomeness of those carne asada tacos you had in Ensenada. The tacos that only had steak, onions, cilantro, and hot sauce on a corn tortilla but tasted overwhelming. Amazing. And that you’ve come to the conclusion that without the perfect tortilla, you’ll never make a truly great taco. And that to make a truly great tortilla you’ll need to start with actual corn. It requires a little trial and error and a minor financial investment, but the end result is wonderful. Ok, so it feels like something that you may never fully master. I’m a long way from that. I do feel like I’m getting closer to fine. Maybe. I don’t know. So far so good.
You’re going to cook and then soak corn in a limewater solution. That process removes the outer hull of the corn and allows the corn to easily be ground and absorb water to make a dough. That process is called Nixtamalization. So… you’re going to need three things you probably don’t already have and that you’ll need to either order online or search around for. You need dent corn, picking lime, and a grain mill.
Dent Corn: You can’t use popcorn. Sorry. That would be too easy. I started out by buying chicken feed corn at my local Agway. Very cheap, and it actually works. Unfortunately, a portion of the corn will be cracked. You don’t want a lot of cracked corn because during the process of nixtamalization the lime will soak into the corn. Not terrible, but not great either. I ended up ordering a 50# bag of yellow corn online from honeyville.com. Surprisingly affordable.
Pickling Lime: I was able to find this at Agway. It’s used in a variety of pickling applications, so you may be able to find this locally. Otherwise, it’s easy enough to find online. You’ll see it as “Cal” or Pickling Lime.
Grain Mill: So once the corn is cooked and soaked, you’re going to need to grind it down relatively fine. Turns out there’s not a ton of options out there for this. You can buy a relatively affordable hand-crank grinder for anywhere from $35-90. That’s what I use. It does the job, but it’s a workout. I thought about getting the grain mill adaptor for my Kitchen Aid. It’s a little over $100, but unfortunately it’s only good for dry grinding and the corn is wet, so it will clog. Not good. There’s a few other electric options out there, but they are expensive. We’ll chalk those up to the “some day’ category. You can use a decent food processor, and it will get it close. Before I bought the grinder I made the dough a few times with just the food processor. It actually makes decent tortillas and it’s a good place to start, but you’ll get a much nicer, softer dough and final tortilla if you grind it down finer. Even with a hand-crank grinder you’ll need to run the corn through twice. So now I use my food processor for the first grind and then I run it through the mill. Saves a little work as the grinding is the part of the whole process that will make you question why you’re doing this. It’s a bit of a task.
So you still want to make fresh masa. Cool. Here you go.
Making Fresh Masa
2 lb. dent corn
1/4 cup pickling lime
Rinse the corn and add to a non-corrosive pot. Cover with water about 1 inch above the level of corn. The corn will absorb water and you’ll want it to remain covered. Heat over medium high until the water begins to simmer. In the meantime, combine the pickling lime and 1/2 cup of water in a bowl and stir to dissolve lime. Careful with the lime. Wash up if you get any on you and try not to breath in any dust that forms while you’re working with it. As soon as the water begins to simmer, add the lime mixture and stir. Lower the heat to medium to keep the water at a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes. At this point the hulls of the corn should easily peel off. Remove the pot from the heat and cover. Let sit overnight. I’ve heard a variety of timetables for how long this should sit. I’m going to do some averaging, and say at least 5 hours, but preferably overnight.
Once the corn has rested in the pot with the picking liquid overnight, you’re going to thoroughly rinse. Use a large colander to rinse the corn while rubbing handfuls of corn between your hands to remove the hulls. You’ll want to do this until the water runs clear. It usually takes 3-5 minutes of working the corn.
Now you’re ready to grind the corn. I get the corn ready for the grain mill by first using a food processor. I’ll put 1 – 2 cups at a time into the processor and grind for 1 – 2 minutes. Scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Once you’ve got relatively fine ground corn, move onto the grain mill. I set the mill at the finest grind I can. You’re going to need a wood pestle to push the dough into the auger. You’ll need to crank the mill as you’re pushing the dough. At this point, just remind yourself that it’s going to be worth it.
Once you’ve ground all the corn, you’ll be able to form a nice ball of dough. You’ll need to add a bit of water. I also add some salt, but that’s not necessary. I generally add 1 Tbsp of salt and between 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of warm water. About a Tbsp at a time. After adding a bit of water you’ll want to kneed the dough for a minute or so. You’re looking for a nice soft dough that doesn’t crack when pinched. It will be slightly sticky, but not wet. That’s it. You have fresh masa. Now you can make wonderful tortillas or tamales or whatever. Awesome.
I’ve read that you can freeze this. I haven’t tried that yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ve refrigerated it for a day or two and it still works. It hardens up a bit so you’ll need to work the dough and add a little warm water to bring it back. Note. When I made the dough by just using the food processor, it took much more water to find the right consistency and it never got quick soft enough.