As the Mexican phrase goes: Sin maíz, no hay país (Without corn, there is no country), you can’t talk about Mexican food without naming Masa Harina. Literally “dough flour” in Spanish, Masa Harina forms a cornerstone in Latin American cuisine. Yet, despite it being big in Latin America, you rarely find it in markets worldwide. Masa Harina is made from dried Masa or finely ground corn flour. Given its nutty and faintly sweet flavor, people use it for making traditional tortillas, pupusas, tamales, and an array of other Mexican recipes.
However, it isn’t available everywhere. And while it is not impossible to make at home, it’s a rather taxing process. Therefore, I’ve learned that it’s better to use a substitute. Why not? If you can get the same result.
But before we begin, let’s dive into the history of this ingredient.
What is Masa Harina?
Most of the corn in Mexico is consumed in the form of Masa, a soft corn dough. It is also called Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. This clay molded the food traditions of a continent. Masa dates back to 5,000 years ago when the Aztecs and the Mayans discovered the concept of nixtamalization.
In Mexico, Masa for tortillas is always made from nixtamal. It is then dried, and cooked in water with slaked lime (called cal in Mexico). This technique softens the texture of the dough and dramatically improves its nutritional profile.
Is masa harina healthy?
Yes! Masa Harina has a long list of health benefits. Some of which are listed below:
- Masa Harina contains niacin. It is one of the eight vitamin Bs, also known as B3. Just like other B vitamins, it helps convert food into energy by aiding enzymes.
- Masa Harina is known to treat high cholesterol by lowering LDL levels and increasing HDL levels.
- Masa Harina lowers your heart disease risk by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
- It contains calcium which aids in vitamin D absorption.
- Masa harina is gluten-free. So people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity can easily use it in different foods.
Masa Harina Nutritional Value:
|Nutrition||Value per Serving (1 cup or 114 g)|
|Total Fat||4.2 g|
5 Top-Notch Substitutes for Masa Harina
If you’re unlucky enough not to have Masa Harina, substitution is the way to go. Some of the best Masa Harina substitutes are:
An excellent thing you can do is to substitute cornstarch for Masa Harina. Cornstarch is also made from Masa Harina. As we know, starch is a powerful thickening agent. Therefore, it gives a similar effect in soups or stews. Moreover, since cornstarch is available widespread, it makes an even better replacement.
|Nutrition||Value per Serving (1 cup or 128 g)|
|Total Fat||0.1 g|
Thus, if you intend to cook a southern dish thickened by Masa Harina, note that cornstarch is the best option. Although, you’ll need to roughen its texture before using it in your recipe. To do this, you can add equal amounts of water to cornstarch and thicken it. Never add cornstarch directly to your dish. It will make it lumpy or, worse, unappetizing. Moreover, cornstarch is the best Masa Harina substitute in soup.
2. Ground Tortillas
Another sub you can opt for is leftover tortillas. So if you have some leftover corn tortillas in the kitchen, use them as a replacement for Masa Harina.
|Nutrition||Value per Serving (1 tortilla or 24 g)|
|Total Fat||0.7 g|
It is no secret that tortillas are made from Masa Harina. But, it does not mean that they are similar. However, when used as a substitute in burritos and tacos, you will get almost the same texture and flavour. To ideally mimic the characteristic profile, add a small amount of kosher salt with steaming water to your ground tortillas. Moreover, don’t throw tortillas away, even if they are stale. You can always use them so long there is no mould.
Consistency is the key. Always aim to get the consistency the recipe has called for. Or else, you’ll end up ruining the outlook of your dish. Finally, the best thing about this substitute is that you can use it for most Masa Harina recipes.
Grits is a meal derived from boiled cornmeal. It is made by grinding corn kernels in an industrial mill. Then the milled product is put on a screen to separate the larger grain from the smaller ones. Thus, the large grains become grits, while the smaller ones are turned into cornmeal.
|Nutrition||Value per Serving (1 cup or 233 g)|
|Total Fat||0.9 g|
Grits are not the best substitute, given their coarse texture. Therefore, it is best if you whirl them around in a food processor or a mortar and pestle to get the desired texture. Moving on, did you know grits was one of the cheapest dishes during the late 19th to early 20th century? However, it still hasn’t lost its popularity. And is a comfort food for many to date.
Another option you can go for is to substitute cornmeal for Masa Harina. Cornmeal is yet another kind of flour made from corn that offers a thickening ability similar to Masa Harina. But, don’t just buy any bag of cornmeal. Why? Because there are different kinds, textures, and colors of cornmeal depending on the corn they were made from. I’ll suggest you always choose yellow cornmeal flour as it gives the best results. Since different corn meals vary in texture, try mixing it with all-purpose flour to smooth it out. And only add it to your dish after it gets the ideal slurry consistency.
|Nutrition||Value per Serving (1 cup or 122 g)|
|Total Fat||4.4 g|
But, since cornmeal does not undergo nixtamalization, you mustn’t expect any lime water taste here.
If you’ve nothing else available at hand, substitute polenta for Masa Harina. It is an Italian dish. And an excellent stand-in to our Latin American ingredient. Polenta is made by cooking ground-up cornmeal. However, in the 16th century, Europeans made polenta from chickpeas, farrow, chestnuts or spelt.
|Nutrition||Value per Serving (1 cup or 240 g)|
|Total Fat||11 g|
You can get polenta from the grocery store as dried and coarsely ground corn. However, make sure that when you substitute it for Masa Harina, it is ground very finely. You can also find non-dried polenta in a tube. It is an excellent substitute for Masa Harina in chilli or chowder. But, this type of polenta isn’t suitable for tamales or other traditional Mexican dishes that call for a coarser flour.
Although, polenta looks a lot like grits. They come from different types of corn. Polenta is made from ground flint corn, while Grits comes from dent corn.