What Is Masa Harina?
Masa harina is a traditional ingredient in Mexican cuisine. It is used to make tamales, tortillas and a variety of other Mexican dishes. Masa harina is the flour used to make these dishes, and in Spanish, it translates to dough flour. The flour comes from a dried masa, which is dough made from corn that has been specially treated. Making masa harina can be a cumbersome task. If you are looking for a substitute for masa harina, you are in luck because there are many, which I am going to provide an extensive list of following the process of making authentic masa harina.
Masa harina has a very distinctive flavor and is used to make corn tortillas. The unique flavor of masa harina is due to the way the corn flour is processed. The corn is dried, steeped in water and calcium hydroxide, precisely ground to a fine flour, and then dried again. After this process the corn flour can be combined with water or oil to form the masa dough used to make corn tortillas.
Fresh Masa Preparada
A great option to powdered masa harina is to purchase fresh masa preparada. This Spanish prepared dough is much easier to use in some of your Mexican foods, like making tortillas or tamales. The only downside with fresh masa preparada is that it has a shorter half life than the dry version.
Aside from corn tortillas and tamales, masa harina is most often used in chili and stew recipes to thicken the consistency. If you don’t have masa harina on hand in your cabinet, you can make a substitute corn flour by putting dried corn tortillas in a food processor to make a fine flour. Left over corn tortillas is the optimal substitute for masa harina because they are made from masa harina.
Another option for substitution is ground hominy. This is a good choice because hominy is a main ingredient in masa harina. Canned hominy will substitute for masa harina after being ground to the proper consistency in a blender or food processor.
Flour or Corn Starch
Regular flour or corn starch can also replace masa harina, and because they are commonly used for baking, you may have on hand. Both regular flour and cornstarch have a similar thickening property of masa harina but will not provide the distinctive flavor of masa harina.
Polenta or Grits
Polenta or grits can work as a replacement for masa harina because they have a similar texture and ability to thicken soups and stews. However, if you are looking for the unique flavor of masa harina found in the Latin American cuisine, you may want to use the grits. Polenta, which originates from Northern Italy is not made of milled corn kernels like grits.
You might think corn meal would be a great replacement for masa harina, but it is not made by adding calcium hydroxide to the corn, and therefore will not have the same distinctive flavor.
How do you prepare Masa Harina out of Ground Tortillas?
The corn tortillas are perfect substitutes because they are made from Masa Harina. Since you are using stale corn tortillas, they are already getting dry, which makes this quick recipe perfect:
Place the tortillas in a food processor and grind them to a fine consistency.
Add kosher salt to the blend and gauge how much will be needed based on what you think will be to taste in the final product.
Pulse the dry mixture to circulate the kosher salt.
Add warm water slowly and a little at a time until you have a consistency good enough to shape the dough.
The Process of Making Masa Harina
First, field corn is dried and treated with something called slake lime, which you can make yourself.
The slake lime's primary job is to relax and loosen the hulls from the kernels. The slaked lime also serves to soften the corn itself. Another service slakes lime serves is it is the beginning for preparing something beneficial for good health too because it allows niacin to be absorbed by the digestive tract. This process is known as nixtamalization
Turning Masa Into Masa Harina
Finally, the soaked corn gets washed. After it is washed, the wet corn is ground and pulverized into the dough, which is called masa. The fresh masa gets dried and powdered, and the dried masa is considered made-from-scratch masa harina. It is now ready to be used in recipes. Simply add water to turn it into a dough for food such as tamales or tortillas (Turning masa into masa harina).
If you are lucky enough to have a Mexican market nearby, you will easily be able to obtain fresh masa or masa harina, which is the problem. In smaller areas, especially as you withdraw from the coasts, it is not as easy to obtain. You can go through the trouble of making it yourself, which will come after ordering all the necessary ingredients.
There are ways to make all of those delicious foods without having authentic ingredients and going through all of the arduous tasks above. If you are needing substitutes for masa harina, I have plenty for you below.
The Many Substitutes for Masa Harina
There are going to be a lot of Mexican and Latin American recipes asking for masa harina because it is a staple. Before we go on, I just want to make it clear you should never try and use all-purpose flour. It will never be an acceptable substitute because it is made from wheat, and as we discussed above, masa harina is derived from corn.
I enjoy Latin American food, and I cook with masa harina more than most home cooks, but the ingredient is not available to a lot of people. There is no need to worry though. I have many substitutes capable of filling in, and in some cases, you will not be able to tell the difference between the real thing and the subs.
#1 Make Masa Harina out of Ground Tortillas
I like this substitute the best because it is the easiest. My wife loves Mexican cuisine, and she loves cooking with it. This means we have a lot of extra corn tortillas. Usually, the bonus corn tortillas are for burritos, tacos or tostadas, but when I am feeling in the mood, I like to grab several stacks of the stale ones before they are on their way to the trash. As long as there is no mold growing, the stale corn tortillas are perfect for transforming into masa harina.
The corn tortillas are perfect substitutes because they are made from masa harina. Since you are using stale corn tortillas, they are already getting dry, which makes this quick recipe perfect:
- Three or four large corn tortillas
- Kosher salt
- Warm water
- Place the tortillas in a food processor and grind them to a fine consistency.
- Add kosher salt to the blend and gauge how much will be needed based on what you think will be to taste in the final product.
- Pulse the dry mixture to circulate the kosher salt.
- Add warm water slowly and a little at a time until you have a consistency good enough to shape the dough.
There are some things to be mindful of. Depending on the recipe, there will be some that call for different consistencies in the corn flour. This may take some adjustment. Tamales are a good example. They require the flour to be much coarser. Just pay attention to the recipes so you know exactly how fine to make your flour when grinding the tortillas. This is one of my favorite ways to make masa harina, and there are not many recipes out there. This is from personal experience, so please let me know what you think in the comments.
#2 Fresh Masa Preparada
In a lot of preparation methods, masa preparada is simpler to use than masa harina. It eliminates quite a few steps. For example, masa preparada eliminates several steps and makes up for a lot of time spent preparing masa harina for a recipe of made-from-scratch corn tortillas.
These steps get eliminated because masa preparada is Spanish for prepared dough. A good analogy is making a loaf of bread. You would be able to skip having to make the dough yourself because you are buying it with this product.
In a sense, you are are still using masa harina because masa preparada is made from it. This makes it a perfect substitute in most recipes. The downside is it does not have much of a shelf life, so do not put it in the fridge thinking it will last a long time. It can be found in Latin American and Mexican grocery stores. If you do not have any close by, you can purchase it online here. Even though a purchase can be made online, you still have to be mindful of the limited shelf life.
#3 Ground Hominy
Hominy is essentially the result of the process I outlined in my introduction to making masa harina from scratch. This means hominy is the main ingredient for masa harina, and it is also considered a shortcut because you get to skip so many steps. It makes for an ideal substitute.
Pieces of hominy are just kernels of corn, but it is special because it is corn that has had the hulls removed by the process in the intro. With the hulls removed, the hard outer shell is gone, so the soft inner kernels are left, which is what we want to use. Perhaps you keep dried or canned hominy in your pantry like I do in case of emergencies because it is an ideal replacement if you want to make masa harina.
If you have dried hominy, cook it into the hominy you would find in the form of a canned product. It is no different than turning pinto beans into re-fried beans. You can find hominy at several different supermarkets and ethnic grocers. If you want to use hominy for your masa harina, you just grind the corn in a food processor or a grinder and substitute it.
#4 Ground-up Corn Taco Shells, Corn Tostadas or Tortilla Chips
Depending on what your creation is, ground corn taco shells, tostadas or tortilla chips are suitable substitutes for masa harina. It is important to know that grinding corn tortillas that have not been fried or baked is the best way to form a substitute for masa harina. Corn tostadas, corn tortilla chips and corn taco shells are made mostly from the same ingredients as their counterparts made from fresh corn.
The primary ingredients are water, salt and masa harina. There is a stark difference between fresh corn tortillas and the other products. The tostadas, shells and chips have either been fried or baked, and those are American culinary touches, and they also have added ingredients to preserve freshness. This may cause some concern, but it will not make any difference in case you were concerned.
The chips and other products can be ground up in your hands, and you can also dump them in the food processor to make masa harina dough for items calling for a finer, less course dough. If possible, go with the baked versions instead of the fried products.
There is something a lot of people will overlook about masa harani. It is also used to thicken sauces, gravies and stews in Mexico and Latin America. In fact, some of the creations above using chips are perfectly acceptable to use to thicken sauces because they are essentially masa harani. If you are heavily involved in southern ethnic cooking and prefer to thicken with masa harani, you may need substitutes from time to time. There is no better substitute for masa harani to thicken a soup or sauce than cornstarch.
It is made from the endosperm of corn. A slurry is a culinary term for a thickening agent being added to a liquid in order to be added to a soup, sauce or gravy to make it thicker. You have to make the slurry with cornstarch before adding it to a dish though. If you add plain cornstarch straight to a dish, it will clump up and make your dish lumpy and unappetizing. Like masa harani, cornstarch is arguably the best, quickest and easiest way to thicken dishes at home or in commercial kitchens. It is vital for anyone doing heavy cooking to know how to make a slurry in case masa harani is not doable.
Although masa harina is a Latin American dish, Polenta, which originates in Northern Italy, is an excellent substitute. Most of you have seen in the form of yellow grits and porridge, but it is so much more. Polenta is sold in almost all grocery stores. It comes in a bag just like masa harina. Polenta bought in this form comes dry and coarsely ground.
If you want to properly substitute polenta for masa harina, you will have to find the finely ground polenta, and use it exactly the same way the masa harina would be used in a recipe. It is almost an even swap.
If you cannot find polenta sold this way except in a tube, it is acceptable to use the tube polenta in place of masa harina as a thickening agent for any recipes calling for masa harina as a thickening agent. The polenta in a tube goes better with any soups or chowders needing masa harina for thickening.
Polenta differs from grits, which is also another substitute for masa harina. I prefer polenta as a substitute instead of grits because it is made from flint corn. I find it to be a superior substitute because it has a better texture and flavor.
Final Thoughts on Masa Harina Substitutes
There are other substitutes available for masa harina, but the seven listed are my recommendations. I covered a variety of uses for masa harina, which is one of the more versatile dishes I have seen from Mexico and Latin America. In the introduction, I gave a recipe on how to make masa harina from scratch. Making it from scratch might be the best substitute for store-bought masa harina of all.
I truly hope you enjoy experimenting and making these dishes with the substitute ingredients. Just keep in mind masa harina has a variety of uses so keep researching and practicing because it is the best part of cooking besides eating the food.
Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions, suggestions or comments, please leave them below. There will be new culinary articles added regularly.