April 16, 2014
This post is going to be about masa harina and how to use it in a gluten free diet. But first I have a story.
When we first started traveling full-time we spent several months in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio. We were in a small town – so small that the grocery store did not even sell fresh meat. Good grocery stores are extremely high on my list of what makes a great RVing location, so I was ready to leave until we found out the local secret.
The sole culinary bright spot for miles around was a family run Mexican restaurant where they handmade their corn tortillas. The only problem was that the restaurant was so tiny, that it couldn’t even fit all of the local residents that wanted to eat there. There was a line out the door every Saturday morning for the breakfast taco specials! It’s no wonder they tried to keep the place a secret from the snowbirds.
Last night, as I was making homemade corn tortillas for my family, I was mentally drooling as I remember all of the meals we ate there and eventually my stream of consciousness daydreaming led me remembering that I’d never written a post about the key ingredient in corn tortillas: masa harina.
Masa harina is corn flour. But not just any corn flour. It’s made from corn that has been soaked in lime water and then ground into “masa” and then dried to make “masa harina”.
The process of soaking the corn in lime makes the vitamin B3 that is bound up in the corn available for use in your body, and it improves the amino acid quality of proteins in the germ.* I know that corn often gets a bad rap, but if you are going to eat it (and my family does) masa harina is a better option than cornmeal, from a nutritional standpoint.
Another interesting effect of the soaking process is that the chemical changes increase the corn’s ability to absorb water. This is why you can make a dough out of masa, but not cornmeal. This increased absorption is very important when it comes to considering potential substitutions when masa harina is included in a gluten free flour mix. More on that below.
Masa harina can be found in the Hispanic section of most grocery stores. Even stores that don’t usually carry gluten free ingredients, will carry masa harina if there is a Hispanic community in the area. As we’ve traveled around the U.S. we’ve only had trouble finding it in St. Louis, MO and in New England. If you’re in an area without a Hispanic community, then Amazon is your friend.
Maseca brand – Instant Corn Masa Flour
Maseca brand – Instant Corn Masa Mix for Tamales
Both of the Maseca options are certified gluten free, but the masa mix for tamales is more coarsely ground. You can make corn tortillas with it, but I find the dough a bit harder to work with.
Yes and no. Masa harina is a naturally gluten free food and the Maseca products are labeled gluten free. Last week I noticed that Walmart has now come out with their own Great Value brand of corn tortilla and flour tortilla flours. These ARE NOT labeled gluten free, so choose the Maseca even if it has a slightly higher price. Bob’s Red Mill also has a masa harina, but it is NOT produced in the gluten free facility.
In short: just buy the Maseca.
I use masa harina in my kitchen for three things:
Homemade corn tortillas are beyond anything that you can imagine if you’ve only ever eaten store-bought tortillas. Even if you can buy GF labeled corn tortillas, you should still make your own. At least occasionally. They are that good. There is a recipe on the back of the Maseca masa harina that I recommended above, but if you’d prefer to see how it’s done and learn to make gluten free flour tortillas, which are a bit more complicated, check out my .
Masa porridge is one of my go-to breakfast recipes for my kids. It is tasty and my 7 yr old can make it himself. Plus, since the masa has already been soaked, I don’t have to remember to soak the grains for the porridge, like I would if I were using any other gluten free grain. (If you’d like to hear more about why I would soak any other gluten free grain, leave a note to that effect in the comments. It’s too much to go into here.)
Lastly, masa harina is the 4th flour in my gluten free flour mix. When I was creating my flour mix year ago, I did not realize the genius of including masa harina. (Warning: I’m about to show my geekiness!) Because masa harina is so much more absorbent than other gluten free flours, adding it to the flour mix means that I can use less flour and more water. So, for 1 loaf of bread, I only have to use 12 oz of my flour mix, whereas I would need 15 oz. of any other GF flour mix. Pretty cool, huh?
Coconut flour is the only other gluten free flour that I’ve used that is of a similar absorbency as masa harina. That is the only flour that I would recommend as a masa harina substitute. You can use other flours, but you would need to be comfortable with decreasing the liquids in the recipe by sight. I know most of my students are totally cool with doing that after a few classes, but if you’re new to gluten free baking, I wouldn’t try it.
Obviously, masa harina and coconut flour have very different flavors. So, if you need to use a substitute for masa harina in one of my recipes, consider what that flavor switch will do. Coconut flour will work just fine in some recipes, but in others you might not want that sweeter taste. I don’t find the masa harina to be strongly flavored, but others do. Just another example of how we all taste things differently, and that we can each choose the gluten free flours that we want to create a custom taste that we love =)
Go to the comments and tell me if you’ve ever had homemade corn tortillas or how you use masa harina in your kitchen.
Have you had trouble finding masa harina? Let me know below, so that I can make sure to stock up before we visit that area?
If you’ve not made corn tortillas, think about it. If your mind raises any objections, post them below. I’d love to be able to help you with those because I truly believe that a few homemade tortillas can bring much happiness into your life!
P.S. I’m planning to post my masa porridge recipe next.
(Note: If you are excluding corn from your diet, there is no need to give other people a hard time in the comments for not doing so!)
*Nourishing Traditions, p. 454