Nixtamal. Such a cool word! It is to Mesoamerica what hominy is to the United States: corn treated with an alkali substance to render it more nutritious, easier to grind, and, to many, tastier and more aromatic — think about the smell of a Mexican corn tortilla and that’s nixtamalization you are smelling.
Nixtamal or hominy are featured ingredients in a number of traditional dishes throughout the US and in Mesoamerica, primarily the American South, Mexico and Guatemala. Most of you know about hominy grits, which are regular grits made with nixtamalized corn; I like them made with white corn.
You will also see hominy in many soups and stews, most of which date back 500 years or more. The most famous soup with nixtamalized corn is pozole, which is arguably the national dish of Mexico, and which has a wide variety of styles; here is my recipe for red pozole, pozole rojo, and here is my rendition of white pozole, pozole blanco. Menudo also features hominy.
Primarily, however, you use nixtamal to make masa, dough for tortillas and tamales, as well as other tasty corn-based treats like masa empanadas or Central American arepas. Nixtamalization is what allows corn to become an actual dough that will stick to itself.
What follows is how to make nixtamal, or hominy, at home. Why bother? A variety of reasons, really.
- First, industrially canned hominy is nasty, a far worse product than what canned beans are to dried.
- Second, homemade masa dough is amazing, as much of a revelation as is making pasta from freshly ground flour.
- Third, when you make your own masa dough by nixtamalization, it will stick to itself better than industrial masa harina, which is dehydated masa.
You also can make cool little masa dumplings with fresh dough, like the chochoyotes in my venison mole. This won’t work with masa harina.
Making nixtamal is easy, once you are set up for it. First, you need dried corn.
Keep in mind that while any dried corn can be nixtamalized, not any dried corn makes good masa dough. More on that later. But if you just want corn in a stew or soup or whatever that tastes better than regular ole’ corn, any field corn will work. So far as I know, sweet corn is not nixtamalized, and it’s almost never dried anyway.
I get my field corn from a variety of sources, all online. Mexican corn from Masienda, a Los Angeles-based company that imports heirloom corn from Mexico; I get red bloody butcher corn from Breadtopia, and Oaxacan green corn from Heirlooms and More.
I am also growing field corn in my garden this year. My advice for good seed for field corn is to look up Native Seeds Search, the Seed Savers Exchange or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Just a note: field corn takes all season to grow, so plant it in spring according to how corn is grown where you live; check your local Cooperative Extension if you’re not sure.
Measuring. While you don’t need to do this, it makes for better nixtamal if you do. The standard ratio for nixtamal starts with the weight of the corn. Then, 1 percent of the corn’s weight in cal, which is calcium hydroxide, sold as pickling lime or slaked lime in some places and cal in Latin markets.
Note: You can use wood ashes for this, but I see no reason why, as you need a lot more to get proper nixtamalization, and it’s super messy.
After that, if you want to get technical, double the weight of the corn in water. I rarely do this, instead covering the corn by a depth of 1 inch. You do not want a ton of water in the nixtamalization process, or else the cal with be too diluted to work.
Different cooks do it differently, and there are multiple ways to get to nixtamal. Here’s mine.
Boiling. Bring the water to a boil, or, put the corn in the pot and cover by an inch and then bring it to a boil. Stir in the cal at some point before it boils.
You should see the corn immediately change color, usually there will be some sort of switch toward yellow. Weirdly, red corn turns black. Cook the corn for at least 20 minutes — you are really simmering the corn strongly, not keeping it at a rolling boil.
Stir the pot every five minutes or so, to keep the cal well distributed.
After 20 minutes, you are good for whole-kernel nixtamal, for pozole or whatever. And any corn will work for that purpose.
But if you are making nixtamal for masa dough, you need, ideally, dent corn, which is starchier than other varieties. I have made masa dough with flint corn, which grows in Northern climates and has a much harder outer coating. It’s not as good as dent corn, but it’ll work.
For masa dough, you need to cook your corn for closer to 40 minutes, but you will need to do a bite test. After about 20 minutes of strong simmering time, fish out a kernel and bite it in half: It should be al dente, and you will want to see the center look white and starchy, but the outer layer start to get sort of gelatinous-looking. Normally this will take 40 minutes, longer for flint corn.
When you are ready, turn off the heat. If your pot is heavy, like enameled iron, move it off the burner so it cools faster. If it’s a regular steel pot, keep it on the burner for some residual heat.
Waiting. You need the corn to set for 8 to 12 hours at room temperature. If the corn has soaked up a lot of water after the boil, pour in enough so the corn is covered by about 1/2 inch. Cover and let the pot set overnight. It takes that long for the calcium hydroxide to fully do its work.
After you’ve let the corn set, you will see your pretty corn swimming in a sea of sludge: That’s the pericarp, or outer coating, that has sloughed off. That’s good.
Rubbing and rinsing. You now need to rub off most or all of the remaining pericarp with your hands. Do this about 5 minutes or so, all in the sludgy water. Now, if you are making masa dough, save about a cup of that water, more if you are working with more than 2 pounds of dried corn. You’ll need this later.
Set the corn in a colander and rinse it well. Really well if you are using it whole-kernel for soup. You will notice that the sludge will collect in your sink’s screen. Periodically clean the screen. Leave a bit of the sludgy stuff on if you are making masa dough, get it all off of pozole or hominy grits.
You now have nixtamal.