A Guide to Masa Harina

Masa harina is an ingredient often cited in recipes and referenced casually in conversation and comments as the trick to making the BEST tortillas with little to no effort. That said, its utility extends well beyond the tortilla. Masa harina will have you on your way to homemade tamales, tetelas, sopes, tlayudas...all of the masa creations your appetite can imagine.

Most think: “Ok, masa harina – easy enough, give me a bag and watch me go! I’m ready to make my one ingredient masterpiece!” (Well, two, but more on that in a minute.)

The best part of this assumption is that, for the most part, it’s true. High quality masa harina (or ‘masa flour’ as it’s often referred to in recipes, on cooking blogs and in common culinary speak), does in fact yield outstanding and shockingly easy-to-make corn tortillas. Beyond perfecting your own technique and desired masa consistency to tortilla thickness ratio, the aroma, flavor and ‘wow’ factor of heirloom corn tortillas is truly minutes away once you start the process.

But do a little digging and the scene gets a bit more muddled:

Ok, masa harina. It's dried corn dough. Right?

Yes, but also, not quite.

But it's a powder that I add water to, yes?

That's slightly more accurate, but we cringe at the word powder and prefer...sands of magic.

So what exactly is masa harina?

For starters it is made from the same masa that is used to make authentic corn tortillas. So yes, the ‘ground corn dough’ reference is true, but it requires a bit more nuance. Remember that corn tortillas are products of nixtamalization, or the process of soaking (also referred to as ‘cooking’) whole-kernel heirloom corn (aka raw, dried masa corn kernels) in calcium hydroxide (or simply, ‘cal’ in Spanish) before those re-hydrated kernels are then run through a grinder of some sort.

How Masienda Makes Masa Harina

Masienda Heirloom Masa Harina begins with single-origin heirloom corn (white olotillo or Mexican white corn) sourced from the tropical (coastal) climes of Oaxaca, Mexico.

This whole-kernel corn is gently cooked and steeped in soaked in lime water (alkaline), an ancient technique known as nixtamalization. This process softens the corn, imparts calcium and activates the nutrients, especially vitamin B3, found naturally in each kernel.

The kernels (now nixtamal) are then ground into a fine masa, or dough. For Masienda Heirloom Corn Masa Harina, it undergoes a low-and-slow drying process, which is used to make a finished, shelf-stable product that carefully preserves the flavor and nutrients of a freshly-milled masa.

With the simple addition of warm water, the masa is transformed into the foundation for hundreds of dishes, including making tortillas, tamales, tostadas and other delicious recipes.

Other Varieties

Because of both marketing dollars and simple monopolistic mechanics, today most people substitute Maseca, a brand name, for masa harina. (Think Xerox or Post-It, but we digress.)

Maseca is the mass-produced form from Mexican multinational masa flour and tortilla manufacturing company, Gruma. which was introduced to the Mexican food marketplace in 1949 before launching in the United States in 1977. While the industrialization of this once small-batch technique has expanded access to ‘at-home’ corn tortillas, the cost of this culinary innovation has manifested in countless ways, least of which include the sacrifice of taste and flavor of the finished product. If you’re curious to learn more about the making of a tortilla giant, TASTE explores the issue further here.

In a nutshell, Maseca has dominated the masa harina / corn flour / instant market for decades, confusing countless well-intentioned, quality-seeking at-home cooks and restaurant chefs alike.

Why Chefs?

Since launching in 2014, Masienda has collaborated with top chefs to develop custom, in-house masa programs for their restaurants around the world. While these programs have helped spark a fresh masa movement in professional kitchens, we recognized early on that not all kitchens would have the physical space or resources to execute daily masa production. Masa flour (masa harina) was a convenient alternative, but as briefly mentioned above, the leading options left more to be desired, from sourcing to quality.

Masienda Heirloom Corn Masa Harina was developed to solve this problem, crafted to deliver:

  • Superior Flavor – derived from Masienda’s single-origin supply chain and culinary (never industrial) approach to sourcing
  • Consistency – We individually dial in the cook, nixtamal and grinding processes for each scratch-made batch
  • Ease of Use – Just add water (no molino required)

Sharing our product with restaurant chefs across the country always has been and will continue to be a core part of our mission to lead a new standard for masa quality, preparation and consumption.

What’s the difference between cornmeal, cornstarch, masa flour, masa harina, corn masa and instant masa?

Of this group, they are all interchangeable, minus cornmeal and cornstarch. Depending on the context of the reference, each of these terms is simply a different combination of English, Spanish and colloquial speech. The important differentiator between cornmeal and masa harina is that cornmeal results from the grinding of dried field or ‘dent’ corn. In other words, corn that has not undergone nixtamalization. Masa harina results from the grinding of corn that has been prepared via the nixtamalization process we explain above. Cornstarch is derived from corn, yes, but it undergoes a process whereby the protein and the fiber are removed (whereas masa harina is made from whole-kernel, nixtamalized corn). The result is a very different ingredient from any sort of masa harina and should not be confused with the other names in the list.

Making Masa with Masienda

For starters, our golden ratio here at Masienda is 1 Heirloom Corn Masa Harina : 1.4 Water* (by weight e.g., 1 kg : 1.4 kg). If you don’t have a kitchen scale, one packed cup of Heirloom Corn Masa Harina requires approximately one scant cup of water (by volume).

Slowly add the water to the dry masa flour in a large bowl, stirring the masa to incorporate evenly by hand (you may also choose to use a standup mixer with paddle extension). Knead until the water is evenly incorporated and no dry, powdery spots remain. Add salt, spices and seasonings to taste (optional), evenly incorporating throughout finished masa. If aiming for a masa for tortillas, you want a finished masa that is moist to touch, but not tacky (leaving bits of wet masa on your hand and fingers).

Once prepared, use immediately, or rehydrate with additional water before use (if waiting several minutes before use).

Making Tortillas The Right Way:

  • For additional hydration during the tortilla cooking process, we recommend using a spray bottle/mister to lightly hydrate each side of the tortilla (to prevent dryness and cracking).
  • *Warm water (~100 degrees F, or the hot setting on your faucet) is recommended, in order to begin blooming the natural flavor of the masa and to fully activate the small bits of pericarp (corn skin) in the masa flour (which help the masa bind, naturally).
  • Water can be substituted with other liquids such as stocks, broths, juices etc., depending on the desired flavor. Spices may also be added. Masienda respects tradition while encouraging creativity for all cooks.
  • 1 lb of Heirloom Corn Masa Harina yields approximately 2.4 lb of service-ready masa (38 tortillas, weighing 1 oz each before cooked—84 tortillas in each 2.2 lb bag of Masienda Heirloom Corn Masa Harina.
  • See the printable recipe below, and let us know your thoughts!

What Home Cooks Are Saying...

As of posting this blog, our top-rated Masienda Masa Harina has been reviewed 98 times by satisfied at-home cooks. The number of 5-star ratings? 98! Here are a few of our favorites...

Never using another brand again!
I got this flour as part of the kit when I ordered the tortilla press. My entire life, we have used two brands in my life: Quaker and Maseca. They do not compare! ThisHeirloom Corn Masa Harina has superior taste and aroma. I’ve used it for tortillas, sopes and just recently used it for tamales. So good! I don’t foresee myself going back to the national brands. As long as this flour is available, it will be my go-to masa harina.
– Anita

Best Flavor and Texture
I’ve been using the masa for about four months now. I ran some trials against other brands. I even bought some fresh masa from a local tortilleria. The flavor and consistency of masienda wins every time. Not gritty – meaty but airy. And the flavor is clean with a healthy dose of corn and minerals. I’ll never buy a tortilla again.

– Jaime

Order 2
Do yourself a favor and order at least 2 bags! You’ll be glad you did! I knew of Masienda because some of my favorite Fine Dining Mexican Restaurants in LA used their masa, so I knew the masa was special. I never made my own tortillas before, so I was a little intimidated. But they are SO easy and SO rewarding! Now I’m making tamales and tetelas too!

– Erin

Pure joy
This masa makes some of the best corn tortillas I’ve ever eaten, and I was so surprised by how easy and enjoyable it is to make tortillas by hand. You can be eating a fresh tortilla in less than 10 minutes start to finish! I never realized how bland most tortillas are until I tasted this masa. It’s exceptionally corny and just tastes right, like what all other tortillas aspire to be. Absolutely worth the price.

– Christin

Stellar masa -- plus free time travel
Masienda’s Heirloom Corn Masa Harina makes truly wonderful tortillas — up there with the best I’ve enjoyed in Mexican friends’ and relatives’ homes. It’s worlds better than the agribusiness masa brands available in supermarkets (not just in the U.S. but, alas, in Mexico as well) which are as dismal as over-refined white flour. By contrast, Masienda’s Heirloom Corn Masa Harina has a rich nutty flavor, handles easily, and creates perfect, supple tortillas. The result for me as a Mexican-American is instant time travel to my boyhood and teen years. It’s wonderful to serve these tortillas to guests here in the U.S., too, who are always delighted and impressed.
- Ed