What is Nixtamalization?

I wasn’t familiar with the term until I became curious about pupusas and wondered how the corn differed from the tortillas and tamales of Mexico and Central America. It doesn’t. They’re made with masa harina corn flour or corn dough flour. What makes masa harina different from unprocessed corn flour is nixtamalization, the process of steeping corn in an alkaline solution, limewater / slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) or ash (potassium hydroxide) and then hulling the corn. The kernels are ground into a dough and then the dough is dried and ground into masa harina.

The process is done for the following benefits:
– Improves flavor and aroma.
– Makes the corn easier to grind.
– Chemically changes the flour to form dough with the addition of water.
– Increases the level of valuable minerals.
– Becomes easier to digest.
– Reduces toxins.

This is a popular brand of masa harina you’ve probably used or seen in the grocery store:

Food and culture go hand-and-hand and nixtamalization was born and sustains its identity in Mesoamerica. The term, nixtamalización comes from the Aztecan language, Náhuatl. You’ll see the term used on the front of the bag in the photo. Since the process began (earliest signs date back to 1200 – 1500 B.C. in Guatemala) there has been no decline in usage in Mesoamerica. The Aztecan and Mayan tradition lives on, while the process has largely faded out with the early North American Indian and South American Incan tribes. For example, Colombian and Venezuelan arepas are made with an untreated cornmeal. Though, the humitas of many South American countries use masa harina and corn.

Terms and definitions:
Maíz = corn
Masa = dough
Harina = flour
Masa Harina = dried and ground flour
Nixtamal = treated corn
Ground Fresh Nixtamal = dough for immediate use
Whole Nixtamal = hominy, used in pozole and menudo