Nixtamalization Of Corn: Ancient Secret Of The Americas

By reputation corn is a second-rate grain,  low in protein, high in carbs and lacking in key vitamins. Think polenta, tasty only as its companion sauce.

Now, Mexican tortillas fresh off the skillet. These also contain tasty fillings, but they accompany the delicious taste of corn which now holds centre-stage. And with taste comes nutrition. This corn has more protein and a wider range of vitamins and minerals. The difference? A 1500 year-old process unique to pre-colombian central America: nixtamalization. 

Nixtamalization is the ancient practice of treating corn with an alkali. This partially breaks down the indigestible outer husk, releasing flavour, protein and essential vitamins and minerals. 

Nixtamal And Vitamin B3

Though corn has found its way to all corners of the globe, it has done so un-nixtamalized and has failed to prevent outbreaks of Pellagra, a disease resulting from deficiency of vitamin B3 (niacin), during difficult times. Except in Mexico and other Latin American countries whose people enjoyed this ancient secret.

Making Nixtamal

Early methods of nixtamalization added wood-ash to dried corn. Later lime-wash (calcium hydroxide) became the favoured method. The corn is boiled in a dilute solution containing lime, left to soak overnight, then rinsed. Et voilà: nixtamal

Grinding, Then And Now

Making nixtamal is easy. Grinding it for items like tortillas and tamales is where the real fun begins.

mexican grinding stone "metate" with nixtamalized maize
Metate: traditional grinder


The traditional stone grinder (metate) requires great physical effort from even the most skilled. The metate’s function is largely ornamental in middle-class Mexican homes, though you will see indigenous Mexicans grinding the likes of corn, chillies and seeds that require a coarser texture. For fine masa, cooks will take their nixtamal to local mill, returning home to shape and cook their tortillas, something which is not an option outside of Mexico and Central America.

The latest chapter in the nixtamal story arrives in the 1970’s when corn dough was sold dehydrated as masa harina:  instant nixtamal requiring the simple addition of water. Finally everyone can make perfect trtillas at home.

Nowadays you can get tortillas ready to eat, vacuum-packed, from shops and supermarkets outside of Mexico. A good on-line source for us Europeans is the UK-based cool-chile-company. (Nixtamalized) tortillas are also available from Wholefoods, Planet Organic and some larger branches of the major supermarkets. And all reputable Mexican eating-houses increasingly serve real tortillas, often made in-house. Try

  • The Taqueria (Westbourne Park Road, London)
  • Wahaca (UK-wide), and
  • Pastor (Stoney Street, London)

The journey from dry corn kernels to plated tortillas or tacos is one requiring determination, patience and strength. A food processor will ease some of the pain, but you will still need to use  some kind of grinder – mine resembles an old-fashioned mincing machine, fitted with a grinding stone.

Fortunately masa harina takes out all the work. The simple addition of water gives you instant nixtamal, ready for pressing and dry roasting into tortillas or its many derivatives (there are quite a few, and we’ll cover these later – soon).

But, I stress, nothing quite matches the freshly made tortilla taken from dry corn through all it’s stages. As with all serious travel, the arduousness of the journey is forgotten on arrival and fatigue turns to joy as you taste a fruit inextricably linked its process. The experience is so good that at least once in your life, you have to try it– or at least persuade someone you really love to do it for you – you’re worth it!

NEXT: we’ll make tortillas from masa harina

LATER: when I next make tortillas from scratch I’ll share it in a post – just in case I’m not the only crazy cook on the planet

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