Down the rabbit holeMarch 19, 2014 by Darcie
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: marshmallows, goldfish 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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