What Is Masa And How Do You Use It?

Masa has a long and rich history that stretches back to prehistory. According to Eat Mexico, Central Americans started domesticating corn somewhere between 3000 and 3500 B.C., and locals invented the tortilla as far back as 2500 B.C. The transition from the corn plant to tamales and tortillas took some ingenuity, and in order to make these ancient staples, locals had to ground the corn into flour.

According to The Spruce Eats, cooks started soaking tough corn kernels in slaked lime as far back as 1500 B.C. They then pulverized this treated corn into a fine flour called masa harina. The masa harina served as the building blocks for some of our favorite Central American dishes that remain popular to this day.

Make sure to not confuse masa with masa harina. Once you combine masa harina and water, you get masa, the dough that cooks use to make tortillas, tamales, sopes, and much more (via The Kitchn). You can make masa at home if you pick up a bag of masa harina at your local store, or grab a bag of premade dough called masa preparada from Latin American markets that uses ground hominy as a base grain instead of corn. Basic masa has a very neutral flavor, and begs chefs to add extra spices and even beer to it to give the dough a greater depth of flavor (via The Spruce Eats).

What can you make with masa?

If you love authentic Central American food, you most likely already have eaten a ton of masa in your life. According to Saveur, you can use masa dough to create the exterior of empanadas filled with shredded beef, wrap the masa in corn husks to make home-cooked tamales, and can even add it in as a crumbled topping on chocolate chess pie. Masa doesn't contain any gluten, so you can even substitute wheat flour for masa to make cookies, gorditas, arepas, cornbread, and the savory Mexican drink Atole (via Plan to Eat).

If you have searched high and low for a new cooking challenge, or just want to explore an alternative grain with thousands of years of history, make sure to welcome masa into your kitchen next time you want to tackle some new recipes. The depth and versatility of the dough make it an ideal component for any cooking challenge you have in mind. You'll never see corn the same way after embracing this time-tested dough that millions love.