If you love Mexican-style food and cook it yourself often, we highly recommend you have a bag of masa harina at home as you will surely need it for a lot of recipes.
But what if you don’t use this product often and stumble across a recipe that calls for masa harina? What can you use instead?
What are the best substitutes for masa harina? The best substitutes for masa harina include cornmeal, cornstarch, grits, corn tortillas, arrowroot powder, masa preparada, flour, polenta, ground hominy, as well as corn tortilla chips, tostadas, and taco shells. If you have time and patience, you can also make masa harina yourself.
In this article, we will tell you everything about masa harina and its uses. You will learn what products make a good masa harina substitute depending on the cooking task you need to accomplish.
Step-by-step instructions for making masa harina at home are also included in this article.
What Is Masa Harina?
If you are familiar with Mexican cuisine, you most likely know what masa harina is. Also known as simply masa or masa dough, this corn-based flour is used to make dough for tortillas, gorditas, tamales, etc.
So what exactly is masa harina? It is pre-made corn dough that has been dehydrated. The actual process of making masa harina includes soaking dry corn kernels in calcium hydroxide in order to nixtamalize them.
Nixtamalization is a popular maize preparation process that changes the structure of corn kernels. The corn kernels are then ground for a refined texture that makes it possible to make masa dough.
This dough is then dehydrated, packaged, and ready for anyone to make masa dough again just by adding water to the dried mixture.
Masa harina comes in three different colors depending on the color of corn used to make it. You can purchase yellow, white, and blue masa harina.
While all three can be used to make the same type of dough, the difference is that the blue variety has a more intense and nuttier flavor. It has to do with the natural flavor of blue corn.
White masa harina, on the other hand, tends to have a sweeter flavor compared to the yellow and blue varieties.
As it is made from corn, masa harina is gluten-free which makes it a great product for people with gluten intolerance.
How Do You Use Masa Harina?
To turn masa harina into a dough, you need to add water to it. The amount of water you should add to the dry mix depends on what you are making with the masa dough.
Tamales, for example, call for a moist dough which means that you may need to add more water than you would when making gorditas or papusas, two types of corn cakes.
After adding the water and reaching a consistency where the dough holds its shape, you can flatten it into tortillas. You can also use masa harina to make cornbread and empanadas.
Masa harina can also act as a thickener for soups and sauces.
When using masa harina as a thickener, make sure to make a paste with a small amount of liquid first and only then add it into the warm dish. This way you will avoid off-putting lumps in the dish.
One of the most peculiar uses of masa harina is the Mexican drink called atole. It is a warm winter drink often served for breakfast or after dinner.
Aside from masa harina, the drink contains milk, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar, and chocolate if it is atole de chocolate.
The 11 Best Masa Harina Substitutes
Whether you live somewhere where masa harina is not available or you simply don’t have it at home, there are many other products you can use instead.
From other corn-based products to regular flour and arrowroot powder, here are the top 11 masa harina substitutes you can use.
Cornmeal is one of the best substitutes for masa harina for a few reasons. Firstly, just like masa harina, cornmeal is made of corn.
Secondly, the textures are quite similar. Cornmeal comes in different textures, ranging from fine to coarse. The finer version is very similar to masa harina in terms of texture.
It is worth mentioning though that even the finest cornmeal is not as fine as masa harina. So, mixing some flour with it will do the trick.
And lastly, cornmeal, out of all corn products, namely cornstarch and corn flour, has the more prominent corn flavor. And so does masa harina.
If you want the flavor of the dough made with cornmeal to resemble the flavor of authentic masa harina dough, squeeze some lime juice into it.
Cornstarch is another ingredient present in nearly everyone’s home at all times. This corn product comes from the endosperm of corn kernels which is their starchiest part.
Cornstarch can replace masa harina in recipes where the latter is used as a thickening agent. You can use cornstarch to improve the texture of soups, sauces, gravies, and casseroles.
To thicken dishes with cornstarch, make sure you are using it correctly. Start with a tablespoon of cornstarch. Mix it with the same amount of cold liquid to make a slurry.
Mix until there are no clumps and add the cornstarch slurry into the dish you want to thicken.
Cornstarch has many other uses too, and it lasts quite long as well. Considering its versatility and very affordable price, it is certainly good to have a bag of cornstarch in the pantry.
Even if you never need it as a masa harina substitute, you will surely use it for something else.
Grits are another product made from corn. Yellow or white corn kernels are ground to make grits. Grits have a coarser texture than cornmeal.
As for the flavor, grits have a quite neutral flavor profile as they generally come from less sweet and starchy varieties of corn.
The most common use for grits is to boil them with water, milk, or another liquid to make a creamy porridge-like dish that makes a great breakfast.
But as a substitute for masa harina grits work best as a thickener for soups, stews, sauces, and so on. But keep in mind that the texture of grits is different from the texture of masa harina.
4. Corn Tortillas
Corn tortillas are made with masa harina, which explains why they work as a masa harina substitute.
Being made from masa harina, corn tortillas will provide the needed flavor. But, you will need to grind the tortillas to make them work.
If a recipe calls for 1 cup of masa harina, grind 3-4 corn tortillas to use instead.
While it won’t work the same way masa harina does, it will certainly do the job, and you won’t have to turn down the entire recipe just because you don’t have masa harina.
So, if you need a masa harina substitute, look around your kitchen to see if you have a few stale tortillas left. It’s okay to use stale tortillas so long as they are not moldy. In fact, it is a good way to use them up.
5. Arrowroot Powder
Arrowroot powder is a common gluten-free ingredient used in baked goods and as a thickening agent for sauces and jellies.
This powder is one of the healthiest masa harina substitutes. It comes from the root of a tropical plant and has many benefits.
Due to its resistant starch content, arrowroot powder may aid in weight loss. It is also a good source of iron, potassium, and B vitamins. With all these benefits, arrowroot powder is relatively expensive.
When using arrowroot powder instead of masa harina as a thickener, make a slurry first and only then add it to the dish.
The proportions are 1 part of arrowroot powder mixed with 1 part of cold liquid. It may be water, plant-based milk, wine, and so on.
An important thing to know about arrowroot powder is that it doesn’t go well with dairy products. When you mix arrowroot powder with dairy, it creates an unpleasant slimy texture.
6. Masa Preparada
Masa preparada, which translates into “prepared dough”, is a masa harina product that you can use for anything that calls for masa dough.
It comes in a bag and as masa preparada is technically fresh dough, it doesn’t last long. So, purchase it when you need it and use it as soon as possible.
Masa preparada makes your job easier when you need to make bread, tortillas, tamales, and other Mexican dishes as you don’t need to start the dough from scratch.
You skip the step of mixing the dry and wet ingredients and don’t have to worry about getting the right consistency of the dough.
Another benefit of using masa prepared is that it eliminates the cleaning you have to do after making the dough yourself.
Regular flour may not be the best substitute for masa harina but it certainly works for making doughs and thickening soups, stews, and sauces. Additionally, it’s something nearly everyone has at home.
Regular flour doesn’t have the same texture as masa harina. And most importantly, it doesn’t have corn flavor.
When using regular flour instead of masa harina to make doughs, start with a small batch to see if you like the result or not. And only then go ahead and make a larger batch.
Polenta is a popular Italian dish. Yellow corn is coarsely ground to make polenta. Polenta is available in two forms.
You can buy pre-cooked polenta that comes in cubes. But it most commonly comes in its dry form. When you cook dry polenta, it turns into a creamy porridge.
You can use dry polenta the same way you use masa harina. Pre-cooked polenta, on the other hand, works well as a thickener.
As polenta is essentially corn, it provides a flavor similar to masa harina. But it is not prepared with pickling lime. So, the flavor won’t be identical.
Polenta is widely available in stores. While it is typically coarsely ground, the texture may vary from brand to brand. We recommend you buy the finest polenta if you have decided to use it as a substitute for masa harina.
9. Ground Hominy
Hominy is the ingredient used to make masa harina which is why it is a good substitute for it.
Hominy is whole dried field corn. But not right off the cob. Just like kernels for masa harina, hominy is nixtamalized.
Hominy comes in different forms. You can buy hominy in cans that come with a small amount of liquid as well as buy dried hominy in bags. You can also find coarsely ground hominy in Latin American stores.
But if you have whole hominy at home and a corn grinder, you can certainly grind the nixtamalized corn kernels and use them instead of masa harina.
Ground hominy will work well for not only tortillas and tamales but also for atole, the traditional Mexican drink.
10. Corn Tortilla Chips, Tostadas, or Taco Shells
Store-bought corn tortilla chips, tostadas, and taco shells are another easy substitute for masa harina though they won’t provide identical results.
Masa harina is used in the making of these products. But when using the store-bought varieties, there are two things you should remember.
First, the chances are high that these products contain other ingredients. This is done to keep them fresh longer. And second, they are hardened through baking or frying. We recommend you opt for the baked versions.
You can grind these corn products to a fine powder with the help of a food processor and use them as a thickener in various dishes.
When using corn tortilla chips, tostadas, or taco shells instead of masa harina, it is best to go with the plain varieties. Using the flavored varieties is not a good option unless it is the only choice you have.
11. DIY Masa Harina
If none of the abovementioned substitutes seem to work for you, you have free time, and are ready to put in a bit of effort, then you can certainly consider making masa harina yourself.
To make masa harina, you will need dried corn, calcium hydroxide, which is also known as pickling lime, and salt. Before you pick up the ingredients and start the process, make sure you have a hand-operated grinder for corn.
Here are step-by-step instructions for making masa harina at home.
- First off, soak the corn in water. Add 4-5 cups of water to 2 cups of dried corn. Mix in 1.5 tablespoons of calcium hydroxide and bring the water to a boil.
- Stir the corn every five minutes. After around 10-15 minutes the corn will be al dente. Check this by biting into the corn. If the kernel is still white but the skin comes off easily, it’s time to turn off the heat.
- Add more water to cover the kernels by 2 inches. Allow the corn to soak in water for 8-16 hours.
- Next, strain the corn and run cold water over it. As you need most of the skins to come off, rub the kernels in-between your hands.
- Now it’s time for grinding. Use a hand-operated corn grinder to turn the soaked kernels into a mass with a smooth consistency. You may need to add a few teaspoons of water to the kernels to make grinding easy.
- Add salt and as much water as you need to achieve a non-sticky consistency. And your homemade fresh masa harina is ready!