by Shannon Stonger
Health Impact News
The process of nixtamalization is a simple one, one that has been practiced for generations by those whose mainstay is the corn grain . Corn masa, the dough that makes tortillas and chips and tamales, cannot be made without this process. But it wasn’t done for frivolous reasons or for aesthetic purposes. Instead, those who subsisted off of corn  and other local foods found it imperative to their health.
Pellagra is a disease often acquired by cultures who began to utilize corn in large amounts in their diet. When corn was introduced to a new culture through travel or trade, and the historic practice of nixtamalizing the corn was ignored, people often fell ill with skin, digestive, and mental disorders. This was later diagnosed as pellagra.
Those who had been subsisting on corn for generations and who were taught to soak their corn  in lime, however, consumed corn as the backbone of their diet without such symptoms. Their was wisdom in the preparation.
This process of soaking and cooking the corn in an alkaline solution – nixtamalization – is now known to release a B vitamin called niacin. Pellagra – and the vitamin and amino acid deficiencies related to it – can be prevented when the diet contains enough niacin. Nixtamalization, therefore, is a simple practice that transforms corn into a nourishing everyday food by releasing the niacin and making the grain more digestible.
How to Nixtamalize and Grind Corn 
- Dried Corn 
Historically, dry corn was soaked and cooked in wood ashes which created an alkaline solution. This practice is still done in rural areas and is certainly an acceptable option.
If you do not have access to wood ashes, many prefer to use lime (not the citrus fruit) to nixtamalize their corn. This powder is also known as pickling lime or calcium hydroxide. It can be found at various online sources with a simple search for the above terminology. Alternatively, many Latin American supermarkets also carry it under the name “CAL”.
A note of caution in using lime: This substance is very caustic and can cause burns if used inappropriately. Take caution to avoid all contact with eyes and nose when handling lime. A tiny amount on the skin rinsed off in running water is not harmful, however, and neither is the resultant nixtamalized corn when cooked and rinsed properly.
1. The first step is to cook whole corn  with the lime water. For each cup of whole corn, use 1 Tablespoon of pickling lime. Mix these together in a large pot, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 15 – 30 minutes. It’s a good idea to check the corn after 15 minutes. It is done if the skin easily slips away from the rest of the kernel. If not, cook a bit longer and check again after 5 more minutes. Try not to overcook the corn, though.
A simple test to tell if the corn is done is to remove a few kernels from the pot and let cool until they can be handled, 1-2 minutes. Then put them between your thumb and fingers and rub. If the outer skin does not come off easily then it needs to be cooked longer. If it comes off with a simple run then it is ready. If it is mushy then it has cooked too long.
2. When the corn is done, simply turn off the burner, cover the pot, and allow to soak for 8-24 hours at room temperature.
3. When ready, pour the corn through a colander and rinse 3-5 times until the water runs clear. While rinsing the corn, rub it together with your hands to remove the outer skins which should pull away easily. When you first begin to rinse and rub the corn, you will notice that the skins create an unappetizing appearance. This is normal. Keep rubbing the corn and rinsing and the skins will wash away. What you will be left with is a bowl of shimmering, beautiful corn that should look plumper and slightly different in appearance than the dried corn you started with.
4. The corn is now ready to be used as an ingredient (hominy) or ground and used in recipes. There are a few options for how to grind your wet corn:
- Food Processor – This method works moderately well to create a fairly coarse masa but it must be done in small batches. This means the final dough does not become as homogenous as it ideally would for tortillas.
- Manual Corn Grinder – This piece of equipment is often used in homes in the Americas where corn tortillas are an everyday affair. To make a fine enough masa for tortillas it must be passed through twice – first on a coarser setting and finally on a finer setting. The second grind is the most difficult and requires patience. Manual corn grinders can be found online under names such as Victoria or Corona mills.
- Electric Grinder – In modern Mexican homes where tortillas are made often and electricity is an everyday comfort, a machine called The Nixtamatic  is employed. This machine rapidly grinds masa to a tortilla-fine consistency for ease and convenience.
When grinding, you may have to add a very small amount of water to the manual corn grinder or the food processor. Take caution, however, in doing so as you can always add more water but you cannot take it away or add dry flour to the mix. The end texture of the masa dough is a lot like a modelling clay or play dough. It should be pliable and moist but not so sticky you can’t handle it. Likewise, the texture should be mostly homogenous with only a few bits of corn scattered throughout the dough.
Preserving and Using Masa Dough
Once the masa is prepared, there are several options for cooking or preserving. The dough can be preserved in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for several weeks. You may find that the dough has dried out a little bit once taken from cold storage. This is easily remedied with a gentle sprinkling or spritz of water until the dough is of the right consistency.
Masa dough can be used in a variety of traditional recipes. Ground coarsely, it can be used for tamales. Finely ground, it can be used for traditional Mexican and South American dishes such as fresh corn tortillas and coconut-fried chips, which we will discuss in the next part of this series.
About the Author
Shannon Stonger grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota. She studied chemistry in college, graduated, and married her husband one month later. They were then blessed with two baby boys within the first four years of marriage. Having babies gave their family a desire to return to the old paths – to nourish their family with traditional, homegrown foods; rid their home of toxic chemicals and petroleum products; and give their boys a chance to know a simple, sustainable way of life. They are currently building a homestead from scratch on two little acres in central Texas. There’s a lot to be done to become somewhat self-sufficient, but they are debt-free and get to spend their days living this simple, good life together with their four young children.