Down the rabbit hole

nixtamalizing corn

When you first learn to cook, it’s exciting to learn how to make from scratch things that you used to buy ready-made. It begins with simple items like chicken stock and hummus, and quickly progresses to pie crusts, cakes, and bread. You branch out to dairy, starting with yogurt and crème fraiche and graduating to cheese. Channeling your forebears, you learn how to cure your own bacon, make duck confit, and  ferment cabbage into sauerkraut. Sure, it takes time and effort to make these all of these new items, but the payoff is immense. Food tastes better and you control all of the ingredients, tweaking the flavors to suit your palate.

The fever begins to burn brightly. You make things from scratch you never even dreamed of:  marshmallowsgoldfish crackers, ketchup! You start investing in equipment: pressure cookers, canners, grain mills, and blenders that cost more than your first automobile. It becomes a badge of honor to say “I made it from scratch.”

But eventually you find your limit. As Carl Sagan sagely noted, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Nevertheless, many cooks travel quite far down the “from scratch” rabbit hole. But even the most intrepid cooks, who have likely made their own tortillas, may not have ventured as far as nixtamalizing corn to make the masa harina for those tortillas. This ranks as of one of the most dedicated DIY projects. 

Nixtamalization is an ancient process, first practiced by natives in Central America, that results in a product called masa which is used to make tortillas, tamales, pupusas, arepas, and hominy. “Nixtamal” comes from the Nahuatl word nixtamalli which means “unformed corn dough.” Nixtamalization is the process of cooking and soaking dried corn in an alkaline solution. After the cooked and soaked corn is rinsed and dried, it is either ground into masa harina or made into hominy (posol).

So why nixtamalize? It is essential if you want to make dough for tortillas. While cornmeal made from untreated ground corn is, on its own, unable to form a dough with water, the chemical changes in masa allow such dough formation. Nixtamalization does more than that, however; it also makes the corn more nutritious, as unprocessed corn is deficient in free niacin. Nixtamalizing frees the bound niacin into a form humans can absorb. Adequate niacin is important to us  now, as it was to the ancient Mesoamericans, in preventing diseases like pellagra. And, of course, nixtamalizing corn imparts a different, but delicious, flavor to the corn.

Now that you know about nixtamalizing, will you try it? How far down the “from scratch” rabbit hole have you travelled? 

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  • hillsboroks  on  March 19, 2014

    I think we all are faced with the trade-off of time available to "go down the rabbit hole" of making everything absolutely from scratch and using a few quality pre-made ingredients so that a dish can be prepared that is mostly from scratch and still be very high quality. For example, I always make all my pie shells from scratch as well as the fillings because I have made them for so many years it isn't difficult and I don't like the quality of the store bought pie shells. But when a recipe calls for homemade aioli and I am in a hurry and have lots of other things to prep I will use a good quality purchased mayonnaise and add the extra flavorings to it. I happily use top brands of vanilla in a bottle and would probably buy nice masa to make homemade tortillas (if I wasn't just buying nice pre-made tortillas) so that dinner can get on the table at a reasonable hour most nights. All the do it yourself trend is fun but it does takes time. I think most modern cooks have to make choices based mostly on time these days. Also it is easy to forget that, so much of the DIY stuff that old time cooks did they did out of necessity since they grew their own food, had to cook and preserve it for winter, and didn't have grocery stores to bail them out. It is almost as if DIY has become a modern luxury for those with extra time.

  • ellabee  on  March 19, 2014

    I'm in one of the target DIY demographics: retired, with not much money but plenty of time. And nixtamalization has been on my list ever since I got Rick Bayless' Authentic Mexican out of the library the first time. There's a fun thread on it now at the chowhound forum:

  • FuzzyChef  on  March 19, 2014

    A while ago there was a great joke website up about where you could order "artisan, handmade water" which was carefully fabricated from hand-picked hydrogen and oxygen. Sadly, the site appears to no longer around.

    For my part, I regularly make my own ricotta, pasta, and of course doughs of all kinds. But I draw the line at milling my own flour.

  • Beckiemas  on  March 20, 2014

    Hah, this was a great post, very self-reflective, thanks. I'm certainly on my way, but still near the front of the hole !

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