May 06, 2015

Tortillas will never be the same: nixtamalizing whole corn tortillas in Mexico!

This winter I gave myself a very big gift. The gift of Mexico. It was an antidote to a notoriously brutal Nova Scotian winter, but also to a confusing time in my life, one where the constant shifting back and forth between two lives (one in Maine and one in Nova Scotia) had worn me down. Wanting to put down roots but unable to take the leap in one definitive direction, I chose to just veer off-course entirely and get some perspective from a different vista, recharging my batteries while doing some much-needed work to inch closer to my master's thesis completion.

I swam in the ocean and fed my freckles (who greedily drank the sun and multiplied tenfold), consumed vast quantities of mangoes, avocados, papayas, and (!) octopus, met some inspiring new faces, and generally became acquainted with the gentle pace of life in the tiny coastal town of San Augustinillo. You've got to love a lifestyle where your daily to-do list includes eating a whole coconut, on the beach. 

Having discovered true bliss

Indeed, the high point of each day was walking down the hill to the village's only grocer to buy an extra-large green coconut, its top expertly lopped off with a few decisive strokes of machete, a straw popped into the exposed fleshy white bubble. And off we'd go, me and my coconut, nature's most refreshing drink. The best part: no plastic bottle, no waste. After drinking my coconut (usually on the sand, where coconuts are meant to be sipped), I'd return home, along the way requesting a few more chops from my machete-wielding friend to expose the gelatinous tender flesh inside. Unlike the dry brittle stuff we get up north, fresh coconut meat is soft, the jello of my dreams. A meal in and of itself. 

It will probably come as no big surprise to anyone who knows me that my most memorable moments of the trip revolved around food. But towering above the mountain of magical food moments (coconut oil-fried platano macho, chipotle shrimp eaten on the beach, fresh-fried chicharron at the market), was by far my journey's highlight: learning how to nixtamalize whole corn and make traditional tortillas with Elena. A game changer.

I met Elena at the friendly family-run posada where I stayed for a month, El Recinto Del Viento. She came daily to cook and clean, sometimes bearing small bags of beautifully-trimmed, pan-ready nopalitos (cactus), or free-range eggs from her chickens. She often couldn't hold back a good laugh at the strange fruit I would bring back from the market and ask her how to eat. Early on, we got talking about corn and when I learned that, like many rural Oaxacans, she grows her own year's worth supply of corn and nixtamalizes it every evening in order to make fresh tortillas for her whole extended family the next morning, it was all I could do to just invite myself right over.

I've wanted to learn how to make tortillas from whole corn for a long time. The 'masa harina' (nixatamalized corn flour) that is sold in grocery stores is made in large part from American-grown GMO corn, except for Bob's Red Mill which is GMO-free. (As an aside, most of the corn used to make tortillas in Mexico is GMO corn imported from the United States. Cheap, highly-subsidized American corn has been flooding Mexico ever since NAFTA, causing the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers who have been forced to leave their land in search of jobs in cities or in the United States. You can read more about that in this excellent article by Peter Canby. And about the GMO contamination of native Mexican corn here.) At any rate, if you want the real deal, a true flavour-packed tortilla, the way to go is whole corn kernels, not masa harina. And since we grow our own organic field corn, it seems like a no-brainer that we should know how to make our own fresh tortillas. But the whole nixtamalization thing was always a bit of a mystery and I'd been lazy about learning how to do it on my own. Now, thanks to Elena's generous guidance and teachings, nixtamalization has taken my love of corn to a whole other level.

Nixtamalization is the magical process whereby whole corn kernels are boiled and soaked in limewater. It's the equivalent of using sourdough to make bread (i.e.: dramatically boosting nutrient content, digestibility, and flavor). In a nutshell, here's what it does to corn:
  • It increases the nutritional value of corn exponentially, making the nutrients more readily available for the body to absorb. For instance, it increases calcium content by 750%! (For corn-dependent cultures, it's crucial to good health and avoiding the creepy-sounding pellagra, a disease found in cultures whose diet is heavily corn-based but who do not practice nixtamalization)
  • It softens the corn, breaking down its outer skin and changing its chemical composition so that it can be ground into a soft pliable dough, known as masa.
  • Nixtamalization reduces carcinogenic mycotoxins which are naturally-occurring on corn, diminishing their content by over 90%
  • Nixtamalization chemically changes the corn, releasing its flavours and aromas, hence that indescribable corn smell that makes one swoon when walking by a tortilleria

It's a fascinating subject to read about, one on which I geeked-out for hours on end after Elena's lesson. And if you're like me and want to know more, you must read the world's most entertaining, informative article about nixtamalization: Dave Arnold's Mesoamerican Miracle Megapost, where he even figures out a way to nixtamalize rye. That guy is my hero.

I was lucky that our expedition to Elena's coincided with my favorite gringo farmer's visit to Mexico, and that we were able to learn nixtamalizing together, especially since corn is one of his favorite crops to grow. We arrived at Elena's in the late afternoon. We first chatted and walked around, tasting tamarind out of plump pods, straight from her tree. We admired her ciruela (plum) trees with their shapely branches, barren of leaves but covered in compact, yet-to-ripen green fruit. Elena's family may not have a lot in the way of economic wealth but they are rich people when it comes to food and knowledge, and the kind of abundance that fertile, healthy soils shower upon you. There is a fulfillment and dignity that comes from living a life where you are so directly connected to the source of the food you eat on a daily basis. 

Elena showed us the cream-colored ears of corn (with the occasional purple fleck) that she and her husband grow in the hills near their home and we compared notes on corn varieties. When I told her that we grow a variety of deep yellow corn, she said "oh you're lucky, yellow corn is more flavourful than white!" In fact, I heard this from several people, but white corn seems to be favored in many parts of Mexico, due to the more pliable, workable tortillas it produces. But aside from the popularity of white corn, Mexican corn is a smorgasbord of all colours, shapes, and sizes... to be expected from the country known as the birthplace of corn. Having seen purple-blue, bright rose red, and even jade green Oaxacan corn, I am now dreaming of rainbows of tortillas.

One of the native corn varieties at the Mazunte organic farmer's market

To nixtamlize the corn, Elena measured out 4 kilos, the amount she makes every night for the next morning's tortillas (she has a large family and they eat tortillas with breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Then she added about a cup of "cal" or lime to a large metal pail of water and boiled the corn in the limewater over her outdoor wood stove. She boils the corn for about 30 minutes before removing it from the heat and it turns yellow from the chemical reaction with the lime. She says you know the corn is ready to be removed from the heat when the outer skin has started dissolving and the kernels have plumped nicely.

After she placed the metal pail aside to cool and rest overnight, we headed home and returned to Elena's bright and early the next morning, ready to see the next steps. She started by draining the corn and rinsing it in fresh water. She showed us how to rub handfuls of kernels with our fingers to get any remaining pieces of skin off. Once the corn was clean, we walked down to the communal masa mill, or molino in the village centre, a few minutes away.

Fortunately, we were first to get to the mill because within a few minutes, there was a small line-up of women all waiting to mill their morning corn. In about 5 minutes flat, the corn was transformed into a moist pile of fragrant masa. Elena paid a small fee to the woman who runs the mill and we were on our way back, with our precious cargo.

Back at the homestead, Elena kneaded a bit more water into the masa and we got right to work rolling out little balls and pressing them into tortillas. 

After pressing, Elena showed us how to carefully place the tortilla on the hot comal (the large clay plate that sits on top of the fire). There is a certain graceful technique to it. As Elena gently pointed out after my first few messy, torn-up tortillas, you need to place them down delicately, one end first, so they don't tear or fold. 

I loved everything about this step of the process, the way the tortillas puffed up, the smell of the wood smoke mixing with the rich corn-ey aroma that makes your mouth water, the mound of warm tortillas that grew higher and higher as the little bolitas of dough became less and less. And then we tasted our first tortilla and well, probably my life will never be the same again.

Elena learned to make tortillas when she was eight years old, and has been making them pretty much every single day since. So we knew we were learning from a pro. Back when she first learned how to make tortillas, there were no mechanized mills and she used a metate (a traditional grinding stone) to mill the nixtamalized corn into masa by hand. When you consider the amount of work that goes into making a tortilla, from planting the seed to harvesting the corn, to nixtamalizing it and milling it into masa, rolling it, pressing it, then cooking it, you start to look at tortillas differently, you eat them with a bit more reverence. I asked Elena if she ever got bored or tired of making tortillas every single day and without a moment of hesitation she replied a strong no. She explained how much she enjoys this evening and morning ritual and finds pleasure in it. 

When you travel to another country, you see people going about their daily lives as an outsider, looking in. I've never gotten much satisfaction from being a tourist and staying in a hotel because there is a part of a culture that you cannot really understand unless you're invited into someone's home. There, you become a participant, not just an observer. To me, that makes all the difference in the world. So when someone invites me into their home, and especially into their kitchen, it is the greatest honour and pleasure, and no amount of sight-seeing can ever provide the richness of experience, the opportunity to exchange knowledge, culture, and friendship, and to crack open and fill up your heart and mind so deliciously.

I feel so grateful to Elena for sharing her time and wisdom with us. It was a true gift that will always stay with me. In fact, I returned home with a nagging tortilla obsession, an itch that could only be relieved by seeing if I could replicate what I had learned in the vastly different environment of my home kitchen. It's still a work in progress, but I'll share my experience of it, in case it is useful to anyone out there who wants to try. For those of you who share the obsession and have already assembled techniques and solutions for small-scale whole kernel tortilla-making at home, please do share in the comments! All feedback, tips, and thoughts are appreciated.

Makes about 2 dozen tortillas

2 pounds whole corn kernels (dry 'field corn' - not sweet corn - preferably organic)
1/4 cup pickling lime
3 quarts water

Mix the pickling lime (find it at hardware supply stores or buy it online) and water together in a large heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot (such as stainless steel, do not use aluminum). Wash off any lime that gets on your hands. Rinse the corn and add it to the limewater. Bring to a boil and then maintain a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes.  It can take more or less time than this, so check the kernels every now and then to see if the skin starts to dissolves. Lime creates a chemical reaction, so don't be surprised if the kernels change colour  Our yellow kernels get a green skin as soon as they touch the limewater. It's perfectly normal. After about 30 minutes, remove the corn from heat and allow it to cool and rest at room temperature overnight, and for up to 24 hours. 

Drain the corn and rinse it in fresh water several times, rubbing handfuls of kernel with your fingers to loosen any remaining bits of kernel skins. (Don't worry if some remain). Now you have nixtamalized corn kernels! You could use them to make a delicious pozole or you can mill them into masa.

Milling masa is the tricky part. Traditionally, this was done on a large grinding stone called a metate. Today, most Mexicans have access to a mechanized molino. I wanted to buy a metate but seeing as I could barely lift the thing, bringing it home seemed improbable. A blender or food processor isn't powerful enough to mill masa, but I had heard of using an old-school meat grinder so this is what I did. Hello tortilla noodles!

I had to run the corn through about 3 times and it was still a little chunky for my liking but the resulting tortillas were still a success, and quite pliable. I have since gotten a few tips from Facebook followers and from the amazing Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. Steve uses a Nixtamatic grinder that he bought and had shipped from Mexico, he even made a video showing how it works. Cost is about $400. Apparently, putting the masa through a blender or food processor after it goes through the meat grinder is also an option. As is using a Victoria hand crank mill, but again, you have to put the corn through twice to get a decent masa. I found that adding a little water to the corn as it went through the grinder was useful.

Either way, once you have your masa, you need to add a bit of water, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup but this varies. The dough should not be so dry that it cracks, but should not be so wet that it sticks to your hands. Once you've got a nice working dough, you can knead it a little and then roll it into little balls, about the size of golf balls or a bit bigger, depending on what size tortilla you want. You then flatten it, either by hand, or using a tortilla press (which comes in heavy cast aluminum or wood and can easily be ordered online). Pressing between 2 sheets of thin plastic is the way to go. You gently peel back the plastic and then cook the tortilla on a hot skillet, over medium-high heat. About 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Place the hot tortillas in a clean tea towel and keep them wrapped and covered so they stay warm and develop that lovely pliability and chew.

Phew! Is anyone still reading?? This might be my most epic post yet. I could say more, but you're probably exhausted, and so am I. Though this is probably not the last you'll hear from me on the topic… Happy nixtamalizing, please share feedback in the comments!


  1. I love your article, frankly it almost brought me to tears. How lucky i was to meet you, Elena and all those that surrounded us during those weeks. You use words as well as you use ingredients for cooking, as well as you use images for your clip vignettes, as well as you use smiles with friends. Bravo!

    1. Gwyn? Andree? Aw, whoever you are, it was a magical magical time wasn't it? Thank you for reading :-) Maybe we do it all again next winter? Big hugs from here...

  2. Thank you for such a beautiful post! I'm curious, what did Elena and her family eat with their tortillas through out the day?

    1. Ann-Louise, great question, I'm not totally sure but they have chickens so definitely eggs, probably a lot of beans, vegetables, probably chicken and pork... next time I visit Elena, I will ask her :-)

    2. Tortillas are to Mexicans what bread is to North Americans. So you would have tortillas available with your breakfast eggs, and of course with any proteins or veggies at lunch and dinner. :)

  3. Yes, i read the whole thing, it was wonderful! Where would one get "field corn" as opposed to "sweet corn" in Nova Scotia? What the markets normally sell is sweet corn yes? Do you think you could make masa in a Vitamix or similarly powerful blender? Not sure if you have access to one like that. I'm so happy your trip was such a success!!

    1. Ariana thank you for reading it!! So, sweet corn is the stuff you boil and eat off the cob, field corn is hard dry corn used for milling into cornmeal, or making tortillas… you might be able to get whole corn at EOS but probably not, I wonder if Speerville Mills would carry it and you could special order it through EOS. You can also order it online, like here is one example: - if you want I'll bring you some of ours when I'm in town in August :-) As for the vitamix, I had wondered about that, apparently it will mill pretty much anything but I don't have access to one right now. But definitely worth a try. Hope your tour is going well!! xoxo

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this post! It reminded me of my mom's obsession with authentic Mexican food. We were living in the Philippines, and she got a craving for tamales. We started with corn, she some how worked out how to nixtamalize it and make masa. She wrapped the tamales in banana leaves, and that's what we ate for our non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner!

    1. Ooh! Tamales wrapped in banana leaves are my favorite, your mom sounds like a very wonderful lady :-)

  5. Wonderful entry, Aube! What an honest account and how beautiful to see the real process of tortillas. As a child growing up in Mexico City, I always appreciated eating tortillas in a small town or outside the city, as they were handmade. My mom always said that, because tortillas are one of the subsidized foods, the government always chose the cheapest corn possible. The process is long, but it looks like it was worth it. Your tortillas look amazing. I'm sure they taste much better than the frozen ones we get here Congrats!

    1. Thank you Gina! It means a lot coming from you :-) xoxoox

  6. Awesome post I have enjoyed it very much. Thanks for sharing your experience. With love Janice

  7. Excellent post. I found it very useful. Love the final result. Thanks for the inspiration and the tips.