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Nixtamalization: The process of cooking and steeping corn in an alkaline solution, usually water and cal. Developed thousands of years ago, this ancient Aztec technique removes toxins and frees up essential amino acids and nutrients that are not available in untreated corn. It improves the texture, flavor, aroma, nutrient density, and structure of the corn, allowing it to be ground into masa. That makes nixtamal an O.G. superfood.
Central to nixtamalization is the use of an alkaline (i.e., pH basic) solution to break down the pericarp, or outer skin/hull of the corn. The level of alkalinity is most commonly manipulated with calcium hydroxide, or cal, as it’s known in Mexico, though other alkaline substances–from wood ash to mussel shells–have also been traditionally used for the same purpose.
Not only does cal facilitate nixtamalization, it is also used to manipulate shelf life. The higher the cal ratio, the more basic (i.e., pH) the corn becomes, producing an incrementally more shelf-stable masa and tortilla. For example, a high-pH tortilla at 10 pH with no additional preservatives might last for one to two weeks at ambient temperatures, compared to a neutral, 7 pH tortilla that may last one to two days, max, when stored at ambient temperatures. This is such a widely-used “natural” form of preservation that additional cal is often added directly to a finished masa, before it’s sheeted or formed into tortillas.
Be forewarned, however, that too much cal can develop a highly pungent aroma and flavor in a tortilla, serving to mask the flavor of the corn itself. Many cite cement, ammonia and even bile as aromas commonly associated with high levels of calcium hydroxide use. Likewise, the higher the ratio of cal to corn in the steeping process, the more its yellow coloring will tint the tannins of the corn itself. A white corn might turn into an off-yellow masa, for instance, or a blue tortilla might become an unappetizing wet concrete-looking color.
Given how many factors cal affects (from masa workability, color, aroma, shelf life and flavor), it’s important to note that cal is a masa ingredient with big implications. As a general rule of thumb, we suggest beginning with a 1% ratio of cal to the total weight of corn (e.g., 100 lb of corn : 1 lb of cal).
Masienda’s Chef-Grade Cal is mined and processed for safe consumption in mineral-rich quarries throughout Missouri. While we have explored international “live cal” or cal viva (i.e., calcium oxide in rock form) supply sources, it turns out that raw cal in this state contains impurities and even toxic elements like lead and arsenic (no bueno). If you should choose to use live cal, please be advised that prolonged contact may be harmful to your health.
Caution: Prolonged contact with hydrated lime may cause irritation burns to wet skin. In case of contact with eyes, flush thoroughly with water and call a physician. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.
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