How to Make Masa

Learn and you're on your way to culinary greatness!

Ever eaten a tamale? A corn tortilla? How to make masa is where it all begins.


But you may wonder, "How do I make masa? What is this fabled dish? Is it the Guatemalan version of the ambrosia of the gods?"

© Phylevn
how to make masa

I don't know about food of the gods, but it does make many tasty dishes. Fortunately, we live in Guatemala, where the nearest masa recipe is as close as any kitchen in the country. To learn how to make masa from scratch, read on (and click on any picture to view at full size).

If you enjoy typical Guatemalan food, you have probably experienced the corn tortilla (tortilla de maiz), tamales, pupusas or a variety of things that begin as pure ground corn dough, or masa de maiz. Here is what happens once the corn is harvested from the stalk until it arrives at the masa consistency used to make all of those mouthwatering, stomach-filling delights.

The first step is the raw corn on the cob called the mazorca. This is not like sweet corn at all. It is very dry and hard and feels more like a tough popcorn kernel than the corn you may be used to.

How to make masa

Tip: Sometimes it is difficult to get the kernels unattached unless you first remove a row the length of the mazorca and then start working your way around until you are left with just the cob.

Next, once you have the corn or the maiz off of the cob in kernels, you may need to let them dry even more. If you see that they are the least bit humid when you remove the kernels, my Guatemalan friend who showed me how to make masa recommends letting them dry more.

How to make masa

We did this by leaving them on pans in the laundry room when the dryer was on or in full sunlight. When the maiz is completely dry, the cooking process begins.

How to make masa

Then, the maiz is boiled with cal to make it tender. Cal is like a lye that helps remove the tough outer shell of the kernel to leave the tender (after boiling) edible part.

How to make masa

As you can see, cal is a white powder. My Guatemalan friend who helped me with this process says that you should taste the cal to make sure it isn't too bitter before you use it with the maiz.

How to make masa

After the maiz has cooked for several hours with the cal, you should wash and let it cool. It will then be tender enough to grind.

How to make masa

How to make masa

The tough shell (cáscara) of the kernels removed by the cal must be rinsed out of the maiz. Here you can see the cáscara being rinsed out of the maiz.

How to make masa

Then, you should agitate the maiz and rinse it until the water runs clear when it is drained.

How to make masa

This cooked maiz is now called nixtamal (pronounced neesh-ta-MAL) in Guatemala. The last step is to take it to a molino where it is ground into masa de maiz (sometimes spelled masa de maize) and then used to make many different Guatemalan delicacies.

How to make masa

Now that you know how to make masa de maiz, you can use it to make a number of other recipes that will stick to your ribs (and your stomach!) By far, the most common food made with masa is corn tortillas (learn to make corn tortillas), but pupusas are a common Guatemalan food based on masa de maiz as well.

For more recipes, return to Recipes Page from How to Make Masa.


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