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Sep 7, 2008 01:23 PM

Corn Meal vs Masa Harina

Is there a difference?!


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  1. Masa harina is made from white maize flour treated with lime or wood-ash lye. Good for tortillas, tamales, and the like. I use corn meal to make corn bread; but corn meal does not make tortillas. I also make corn bread using the meal people here use to make arepas: Areparina makes good corn bread but is not good for tortillas!

    10 Replies
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      Can this be right? Why would anyone treat flour with lye? What is the reason?

      I thought lye was used to break down whole corn kernels, such as American field corn, in order to make fresh masa without flour.

      1. re: Steve

        You're right. I don't know at what stage lye is used: on the kernals, ground maize, or flour. But is used at some stage and is necessary.

          1. re: xanadude

            Thank you. That was the best wiki I've read. Learn something everyday!

            1. re: xanadude

              Well, I should have looked at this link before posting my response!

            2. re: Steve

              According to my very good Mexican cookbook., the corn is cooked with LIME (or cal) - as in the mineral (not Lye - as in soap, nor is it Lime - as in the fruit). It is rinsed out after cooking and before the corn is ground into meal.

              1. re: Complexity

                True, in Mesoamerican cultures they use lime (calcium oxide or calcium hydroxide in its hydrated form), not lye (sodium hydroxide). In the American south they do use lye (or potassium hydroxide) when making hominy. They are both very strong alkalis (bases) and serve the same purpose in these (very similar) processes.

                Lye itself is not a soap. "Lye soap" is produced by heating a fat (typically lard) in a solution of lye in water. The sodium hydroxide reacts with the triglycerides in the fat to create free fatty acid salts and glycerol (or glycerine).

                1. re: Complexity

                  In another thread on hominy, we learned that traditionally in the American South corn was treated with lye (sodium hydroxide), derived from wood ashes. Besides its use in soap,it is used in processing a number of other foods (olives, chocolate, pretzels).

                  In Mexico, the use of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) is more common. This made from lime (calcium oxide) which can be made by roasting limestone. On a smaller scale it can be made by burning shells. Both are alkalis.

                  Both uses can be traced to pre-columbian times.

                  1. re: Complexity

                    @Complexity, I would like to know what very good Mexican cookbook you're referring to? I seem to have lost the hand written recipes we had, so I'm in the market for a good Mexican cookbook. Thanks.

                  2. re: Steve

                    Hi, newbie here. My understanding is that processing corn kernels with lime is a nutritional necessity when corn is the primary grain in a culture. Without prior processing, niacin (one of the B vitamins) in the corn isn't "accessible" during digestion. Pellagra can be the result. Unfortunately it took Europeans a very long time to understand this - Lots of outbreaks of pellagra by non-Mexican heavy corn consumers as late as the early 1900s.

                    I suspect that corn kernels are commercially processed with an alkali before being ground into flour or grits.

                2. One more point - you can use corn meal for polenta, but you can't use masa harina for it.

                  1. Texture and color is different as well. Masa is usually white and has the consistency of wheat flour, whereas corn meal is often times yellow and is like micro couscous.

                    1. wouldn't masa harina be like grinding hominy grits? same corn, same lye treatment?

                      btw, in addition to the cornmeal texture most people know, there are also very fine corn meals that look like flour, white corn and yellow corn, both.

                      i think one could make tortillas from that fine meal? sam, what do you think? are you familiar with the fine-ground corn meals? is this wiki article accurate?

                      do you think hoecakes are like arepas? my description of my aunt martha's hoe cakes:

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: alkapal

                        I'd guess that a fine corn flour would make tortillas, but the taste wouldn't be the same without the lye treatment.

                        1. re: alkapal

                          Hoecakes sure sound like the american version of arepas (minus any oil or frying; toasted over oil-free pan in our house)

                          Don't know the fine distinctions of the various corn flours, but I do know from experience that Venezuelan P.A.N. is whiter, finer, (and more difficult to shape) than Mexican Masa... The arepas come out softer, chewier, and whiter with the PAN.

                          I don't think the PAN would be suited to tortillas because of its texture and difficulty in using it to shape those patties.

                          1. re: oryza

                            Arepas start with a precooked corn flour. This is formed into a smooth stiff dough, and then shaped into english muffin size cakes. These are then cooked on a griddle till toasty on the outside, preferably light and steam on the inside.

                            Most of the hoecake recipes I've found make corn meal batter, and cook it pancake style on a griddle. They are more like corn meal crepes.

                            Johnnycake (journey cake) may baked from a stiffer dough, into thicker cakes. Some old recipes call for placing the dough on a board, and baking it before a fire - so it would have to be stiff enough to stay on an inclined board.

                            Episode 2 of Feasting on Waves featured another variation, the Caribbean Johnnycake ('jonacake' was what I heard). This looked more like a corn fritter or doughnut - deep fried with a hole in the middle.

                            Mexicans have thick masa cakes as well, variously called gorditas or sopes.

                        2. I prefer the masa harina when I fry oysters, shrimp, and fish, when I don't want the grittiness of corn meal.

                          14 Replies
                          1. re: Veggo

                            try the fine ground corn meal for frying fish -- and making hush puppies, too. it has a flour-like consistency/texture.

                            1. re: alkapal

                              I just checked my pantry- it is Alabama King fine ground corn meal that I use for frying fish. What is the distinction between it and masa harina, or is it the gringo name for a similar product? It certainly is flour-like.

                              1. re: Veggo

                                Masa harina has been treated with lye. Fine corn meal probably hasn't.

                                1. re: tmso

                                  right, corn meal has not been treated with lye, as done with masa harina.

                                  1. re: alkapal

                                    What is the value-added of the lye treatment?

                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      well, i don't know about masa, but for hominy grits, it is a way to treat the corn hull to remove it, iirc.


                                      1. re: alkapal

                                        It serves the same purpose for the corn used in fresh masa and masa harina, nixtamal, which is treated differently from the corn used for plain cornmeal. See the wikipedia article Xanadude linked above for an explanation of nixtamal.

                                      2. re: Veggo

                                        Masa harina is corn flour, used to make corn tortillas, tamales and gorditas

                                        Corn meal is a coarser than masa or polenta.

                                        Polenta is coarser than masa harina.

                                        To confuse the issue even further...want about grits?

                                        Grits and polenta are the same thing-- ground corn. They are NOT what we think of as corn meal.

                                        Grits are made from the milling of corn kernels, as is corn meal and polenta. The first step in the process grits is to clean the kernels; then, the grains are steamed for a short time to loosen the tough outer hull. The grain kernel is split, which removes the hull and germ, leaving the broken endosperm. Heavy steel rollers break up the endosperm into granules, which are separated by a screening process. The large-size granules are the grits; the smaller ones become cornmeal and corn flour.
                                        Also there are quick cooking, old-fashioned grits, instant and hominy grits.

                                        Polenta is a finer grind than grits, but you can use them interchangeably. Hominy grits are specifically those made from nixtamalized corn, that is, corn that has been treated with lye. These are less common than regular grits.

                                        Hominy grits are completely different from either polenta or corn meal. Hominy is corn that has been soaked in lye or lime. The polenta-version of grits is masa, the finer hominy flour that is used to make corn tortillas and tamales. Hominy has a very distinctive flavor that is nothing like ground untreated corn. If you've never had grits or hominy, think of corn tortillas, and you'll have a sense of the flavor. Corn meal and polenta are both ground corn. The only real difference is in the coarseness of the meal. In the USA, corn meal is typically much coarser, thus called meal than traditional polenta, which is often referred to as a flour because it is usually finer. If you are going to substitute corn meal or grits for polenta, stick with regular with corn meal. It will have a different consistency/texture than a traditional cooked polenta, but the flavor will be essentially the same. Note that corn meal will usually require longer cooking, and probably more liquid than polenta. If you try to use grits use in place of polenta, the texture may be similar, but the flavor will be ENTIRELY different, and you may be unhappy with the final result. If you have a recipe that calls for grits, you can often substitute corn meal mush, as long as the unique hominy flavor is not critical to the final dish. Incidentally, all the corn we are discussing here is grain corn, which is not the same as the summer corn or sweet corn we eat fresh.

                                        Sort of track, but in the venue of Mexican flour, we have Horina de Trigo, which is used for making flour tortillas. As far as I can determine, horina de trigo is and equivalent to all propose flour and not bread flour.

                                        I use masa horina for frying fish in some recipes, instead of corn meal.

                                        Actually, the only thing I use corn meal for is corn bread and to sprinkle on my pizza peel, to help slide the pizza onto the pizza stone.

                                        When I make polenta, I always make a lot more, and por the leftovers in a apn(the size depends on how much I left over...but I want it to be at least 2" thick). I will fry slices in olive oil for breakfast with eggs and Italian Sausage or grill it for dinner.

                                        1. re: AG4JAZZ

                                          hominy grits are not the same as stone-ground grits in how the corn becomes "grits" -- i.e., losing the hull. hominy grits are treated with lye, not the stone-ground grits. grits will not give a similar texture to polenta. and i've bought fine corn meal that is not called polenta.

                                          1. re: AG4JAZZ

                                            A minor point - the lye treated corn, when freshly ground makes masa, a stiff dough. This is what the best fresh corn tortillas are made from. A coarser grind is mixed with lard and used to make tamales.

                                            Masa harina (masa flour) is masa that has been dried. When mixed with water it forms a dough that approximates the original masa. You can buy masa harina para (for) tortillas, and masa harina para tamales - the finer and coarser versions.

                                            The difference between corn meal and polenta (and grits) has been discussed at length in other threads. While there may be differences in the preferred grind in the American South and Italy, there are also differences in the preferred corn. But if you are not from either region, you can use them interchangeably (provided you don't broadcast it on Chowhound).

                                            To confuse matters further, there is masa arepa, a fully cooked ground corn meal that is used to make corn cakes in countries like Venezuela and Columbia.

                                          2. re: Veggo

                                            Cooking the corn in lye releases the bound niacin to become a form useful to humans. Many corn-eating cultures of the past suffered from Pellagra with the exception of those that ate it in the other form.

                                            1. re: Blueicus

                                              Interesting...I never would have guessed that ground corn involves as much chemistry as physics.

                                              1. re: Veggo

                                                Thanks guys, this what I was thinking was right , the lye part. I wanted to make a handed down reciepe for Bizcochos cookies which called for Mase de Maiz and I was tempted to use corn meal only because it was I had on hand at the moment. Glad I checked. Little differences can make a big difference in the taste and some ethinic food require the real ingrediant. Like lard vs crisco!

                                                1. re: Veggo

                                                  ONe more point. In a museum on chocolate production, I understand chocolate nibs are mixed with cal to keep vermin and bugs out. Kind of a preservative, natuaral insecticide that is washedawayt before the nibs are used. I wonder if Dutch alkali chocolate process just used some unwahed nibs mixed with cal and voila, Dutch cocoa! but maybe not. Traditioonally Mayan corn was air dried for storage in stacks. But i wonder if the cal is also used for preserving corn kernals in some places, beforethe corn is wahed and t ground similar to the chocolate nibs? . use of cal as a preservative and insecticide rodenticide in addition to its use in nixtmal.