Saturday, August 14, 2004

Making Tortilla Masa

Have you ever started a recipe not quite sure your skills and/or your patience would be up to the task? When I started making this tortilla masa last night, I was thinking the project could easily turn out to be a disaster. Actually, as I write this I’m thinking it may be a bit premature to declare a victory.

My molino arrived earlier in the week. You may recall that I had planned to make tortilla masa earlier, but then realized that I was not equipped to grind the corn. I ordered a molino – a corn grinder – from, hoping that it would do the trick. I’m still not entirely convinced that it is the appropriate device to grind corn for tortilla masa. My guide for this endeavor, Diana Kennedy’s From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, characterizes the molino as something used to grind a dryish masa for certain types of tamales. I’m not making tamales. Anyway, I plunged in last night and hoped for the best.

dried corn

The first few steps were easy enough. I weighed out two pounds of dried corn, picked it over, rinsed it, and then put it in a stainless steel pot and covered it with water. After the water came to a boil I added a little slaked lime (calcium oxide) and cooked the mixture for about 15 minutes. When the lime is added, the corn turns a deep golden color. The corn should be cooked just until the skins slide off easily. After about 12 minutes I tested a piece and found that I could peel the skin off, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it slid off easily. I let the corn cook another couple of minutes and then took it off the heat, since 15 minutes was the recommended cooking time and I feared I might overcook it. I then left the corn, which at this stage is called nixtamal, to soak overnight.

nixtamal that has soaked overnight

This morning I checked on the corn and found that the skins had not just loosened up, they had turned to slime. Removing them turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated. I started out rubbing the corn kernels with my fingertips under running water, but I had slippery kernels skittering off in all directions. I finally found a method that worked for me – I took a small handful at a time and rubbed them between the palms of my hands under running water. Doing this over the colander that held the rest of the corn prevented the escape of any wayward kernels. After the skins are rubbed off the corn is referred to as nixtamalizado and is ready for grinding.


Unfortunately, I do not have a work surface in my kitchen that I can clamp the molino to. There is not enough of an overhang on my counter, and my kitchen table is made of soft pine. Fortunately, I do have a suitable table in the basement. I cleared it off and cleaned it up, clamped the molino to it, and started grinding. I had been afraid that this stage might be tough-going, but it wasn’t bad. Of course, it’s possible I didn’t have the grinding plates as tight as they should have been! It took somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes to grind all the corn.

the molino with the nixtamalizado in the hopper and the finished tortilla masa in the dish

I plan to use some of the tortilla masa this evening to make Gorditas and will freeze the rest. Was the masa properly ground? Will the gorditas fall apart in the pan? Will they taste good? Was all this worth it? Stay tuned…


Anonymous said...

Wow...I can't wait for the update. Hope it turns out well for you. This also sounds like quite a fun project you've got going. I really enjoy reading about your experiences and I love all of the photos you provide on a step-by-step basis. I also own this Diana Kennedy book, but have yet to make anything from it. Reading this has made me want to pull it off the old bookshelf and give it another once-over!


Reid said...

Hi Cathy,

Good luck! I can't wait to see how it all turns out! By the way, nice molino. =)

Cathy said...

Hi Alice - it was fun! I had worried that either getting the skins off or grinding the corn would be impossibly difficult, but that turned out not to be so. Diana Kennedy's book has beautiful pictures and quite a bit of narrative, which makes it a great book to browse or read, even if you don't have immediate plans to cook from it. In many ways it reminds me of a Rick Bayless book I checked out of the library years ago. Besides the fact that both books concern Mexican cuisine, the recipes in both tend to be made up of components, with each being yet another recipe! It makes for a long day if you haven't already stocked your freezer or refrigerator with the necessary components!

Hi Reid - Thanks! I don't know much about molinos, but I think this is a nice one. It sure is heavy! I plan to post tomorrow about my dinner this evening - don't want to give anything away yet!

campbellpip said...

hi cathy,
this is phil from new zealand. cant buy masa down here so i am going to try what you outlined and hope it turns out ok.i lived in the u.s. for ten years and married a mexican lady so love mexican food.thanks for the tips

Anonymous said...

Hello there,

I lived in a village in El Salvador for a year and helped prepare the masa, and your pictures of the corn at the various stages look just right to me. I think the family I lived with even had the same model of grinder! When we made masa for tortillas, though, there was another step beyond what you've described. Once we'd put the corn through the grinder, we rubbed it to a finer paste on a metate like this one:
I think if you skip this step, your tortillas will be kind of crunchy! But I recall that getting the right kind of motion with the mano on the metate took some practice, so you may want to settle for crunchy tortillas. Or maybe running them through the grinder again with the grinder set on a finer setting would work.

Oh, one other thing: I believe the lime is calcium _hydroxide_.

Thanks for posting the pictures! Looks great.


Gustavo said...

I'm about to embark on the same adventure, so it's great to have your pictures and description. I make tortillas from maseca often, but I'm living in Paraguay right now, and while there is plenty of corn, there is no nixtamal or masa. I love the Rick Bayless book, by the way, but making my own masa will be by far my most ambitious undertaking yet. I'll have to grind it all by hand too, lacking a mill.

Cliff said...

After making masa a dozen times or so, I've come to the conclusion that the Masa Grinder that you and I are using does not grind the corn as fine as I'd like. The flavor is incredibly good but the texture is a bit rough. I'm looking at purchasing an electric wet grinder, (Indian cooking appliance), a bit pricey but real smooth masa from what I understand.

Bridget said...

My husband and I are going back to San Antonio to visit family in April. I've been trying to figure out how to make the food I grew up with at home since the coastal carolinas don't have much of a selection. We plan to stop by some of the molinas there to see how they make masa. I'll send you some pics when we get back.
Take care,

Anonymous said...

I have been calling around, trying to find a source for dried field corn here in Virgiia to make my own luck at all. Anyone know where I can order some online? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

For dried field corn in Virginia - I live in Harrisonburg and there is a little Mexican market attached to T&E Meat Market that sells dried corn for hominy. The Mexican Market is only open Friday and Saturday - T&E is open Mon - Sat.

Mike Shea said...

A correction to the original instructions. Cathy referred to slaked lime, which is the correct description of what most would want to use, but then listed it as "calcium oxide". They are not the same. Calcium oxide is "quick lime" or "hot lime". Slaked lime is calcium hydroxide, which is made by hydrating or "slaking" the lime by combining it with water. The reaction is quite violent and exothermic (produced heat) and can expose anyone in the area to potential thermal or chemical burns. It can be used if proper procedures are used, but hydrated lime is readily available and would be the best option for most "newbies".

Second comment would be to those who are trying to find field corn in urban areas. Go to stores that handle a lot of bird/squirrel/deer feed. You should be able to find field corn on the cob (typically for squirrels) and hand shell the corn off the cob, or in the same area find bags (10 lbs common size) of shelled corn meant for squirrels or deer. Read the ingredient label to see if there is anything added, but most of the less expensive bags will be plain and simple field corn and is the same corn used for human food. Some of the more expensive deer feeds will have molasses and some other minerals and such added to it, though you should see that right off and those items would be listed on the label. Obviously you would not want to use those mixtures.

Alternately you could look for an animal feed store, especially one that does custom mixing and grinding. They may have corn in 40 or 50 lb bags or be willing to sell you a bucket full of bulk corn by weight. Even though you may not need that much is will be so cheap (less than $10) that is is worth buying the extra volume.

Anonymous said...

Hi, i have a restaurant in kerala, and decided last year to add mexican to it. We cant get masa or maseca here so i looked around , in london i tried it with hominy , didnt form a tortilla. Then found cheap animal feed maize and Cal, very expensive online there. Cheap as chips here in India. Found an Indian molino, in London, brought it to London, just like yours,produces masa a little lumpy, will try matate, lots of women here know this. Havent got the hulling worked out yet, but that lovely smell is there. Got my eye on an electric one that was on you tube!