What Is Masa and Masa Harina? Here’s What You Should Know.

updated Feb 6, 2023
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
someone pouring masa into water
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Are you ready to tackle making homemade tamales or tortillas? If so, you’ve probably run across the words masa and masa harina. You’re likely wondering, “What exactly is masa and how is it different from masa harina?” Read on to learn more about how masa and masa harina are used to make tons of flavorful Mexican and Latin American dishes.

The Difference Between Masa and Masa Harina

Masa and masa harina are foundational components of traditional Mexican and Latin American food. Masa refers to the prepared dough made from masa harina, a flour made from nixtamalized corn. The word “masa” translates to “dough” in Spanish and “harina” means “flour”. Masa and masa harina are used to make tortillas, tamales, gorditas, sopes, and many other Latin American dishes.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

What Is Masa?

In its simplest form, masa is the dough made from mixing masa harina with water and other ingredients. This is why you will commonly see masa harina sold as “instant,” which refers to the speed with which you can make the dough. When making tortillas or tamales, for example, ingredients like water, salt, and lard or shortening are often mixed with masa harina to make a flavorful masa dough.

What Is Masa Harina?

Masa harina is a very fine flour made from finely ground hominy or dried corn kernels that have been cooked and soaked in limewater (a diluted solution of calcium hydroxide) — this process is known as nixtamalization.

It is this alkaline solution that gives corn tortillas and tamales their subtle sour flavor. Masa harina is like any other flour and is best kept sealed at room temperature. Because the corn has been treated with limewater, you cannot substitute cornmeal in recipes that call for masa harina.

Types of Masa Harina

Masa harina comes in several different varieties depending on what you are going to make with it. The most common is white masa harina, which is made from dried white corn and can be found in most grocery stores either where you’d buy all-purpose flour or common Latin American ingredients.

You can also buy yellow masa harina, which is made from dried yellow corn. The difference between white and yellow masa harina here are minimal. Aside from the different in their hues, white masa harina is a bit sweeter than yellow masa harina. Both white and yellow masa harina, however, can be used to make corn tortillas and tamales, and to thicken soups and drinks like atole, a popular sweetened hot drink in Mexico and Central America.

In some parts of the country you’ll also be able to find Nixtamasa, Harina Centroamericana, and Harina Tamales all sold under the Maseca brand. Nixtamasa is used primarily for corn tortillas, Harina Centroamericana is used to make Central American favorites like papusas, and Harina Tamales is a bit more coarsely ground and used to make tamales.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

What Is Fresh Corn Masa?

Most Mexican grocery stores also sell a fresh corn masa called “masa preparada,” which is a dough made from freshly ground hominy, not masa harina flour. It can be purchased in two ways: a smooth consistency for making corn tortillas, or a coarse-textured masa with lard and seasonings for making tamales.

Smooth-ground masa should be kept well-covered at room temperature and used right away for best results. Coarse-ground masa can be covered and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to three months.

What To Make With Masa Harina

Masa harina is the base of so many recipes in the Latin American culture and is incredibly versatile. All you need is a few common baking ingredients to make a simple masa dough that can be used to make corn tortillas, sopes, huaraches, and many other traditional dishes. It’s easy to find and work with, but if you’re lucky to get your hands on fresh masa, pick some up for some truly delicious tortillas and tamales!

Recipes with Masa Harina