Many of my recipes and ideas about food come from my desire to understand the history of our cuisine. Why do we eat the things that we eat? Why do cultures prepare foods differently from one another? Why does my family eat the way they do? What exactly were my "abuelitas" up to in their kitchens when I was too young to notice or appreciate the nuances and so-called "secrets" of their cooking? This recipe is my attempt to unlock and better understand one of those secrets. Please join me on my culinary journey into the ancient past to rediscover a lost culinary art. Click "Read More" to get started! :)
Perhaps the most mysterious food item that caught my attention many years ago was nixtamal. I have faint childhood memories of going with my mother to pick up the prepared nixtamal from a little house somewhere in an older neighborhood around town. I can still remember the distinct sweet smell of the corn being processed and freshly ground. I recall the house being particularly busy due to the holiday season. Other people were also there to pick up their orders of nixtamal to make tamales for Christmas! Nixtamal is the foundational ingredient for tamales, corn tortillas, pupusas, and other specialty foods of the Americas.
Nixtamal was developed in the Americas somewhere around 1500 B.C.. Though many reasonable theories abound, nobody seems to be exactly sure how people stumbled upon this process, but the nixtamalization process actually makes corn more digestible by removing the hard outer hull of the corn! Removing the hull also frees up more of the available niacin and other vitamins and minerals within the corn. The process even helps to kill any mold that may be present in the dried corn. Finally, nixtamalization makes the corn much easier to grind.
Modern commercial production of corn tortillas, corn chips, and other corn-based foods requiring nixtamalization no longer use this ancient technique. Modern production has switched to an enzymatic process that shortens the processing time from 24 to as little as 4 hours. Time is money I suppose, but I have a feeling that this process loses something along way. All that I can tell you is that doing it yourself tastes so much better! There is truly nothing like it. The process may seem daunting at first, but there is really nothing to it. Just take your time and rinse everything really good and you will be fine.
Fresh Homemade Nixtamal
3 Tbsp Calcium Hydroxide (Cal)
8 - 9 Cups Water
Begin by thoroughly rinsing the dry corn. Be sure to remove any broken bits of corn or other debris that may be present. Fill a non-reactive* cooking pot with the water and place on the stove over medium heat. Add the 3 tablespoons of calcium hydroxide and stir well. Add the dry corn and gently stir.
Bring the whole thing to just a simmer for about 45 minutes. Be careful, do not let the mixture boil. Just give it a stir now and then. The outer hull of the corn will begin to fall away. The goal is to remove the outer hull without reducing the corn to mush. Near the end of the cooking process most of the hulls will be loose and floating in the cooking liquid. The corn will remain whole overall. Remove the pot from the heat. DO NOT DRAIN THE CORN! After it has cooled down, put a lid on it and stick it in the refrigerator to soak overnight or at least 8 hours.
The next day, place the mixture in a colander and rinse thoroughly! I cannot emphasize this step in the process enough. Place your hand in the colander and agitate the corn mixture, while allowing the water to pour over everything. This step usually takes about 5 to 10 minutes of thorough rinsing.
After the corn has been rinsed clean, it is ready for the grinder. Corn grinders are pretty easy to find at your local Latin market. You can occasionally find them at some of the big discount chain stores, or online. I ran my corn through the grinder twice to obtain the texture I wanted. You may choose to grind the corn more or less depending upon your needs. Fresh nixtamal will keep in the refrigerator for a day or two if wrapped up tightly.
I had to search a bit to find NON-GMO dry corn. Ultimately, I was able to get it online. I had to buy a 25 pound bag, but I haven't had any trouble getting through it! My family loves corn prepared in this manner.
Calcium hydroxide and water is an alkaline solution. Be sure to use a non-reactive cook pot. Stainless steel or clay pots work well for this process. Calcium hydroxide also known as "Cal" can be found in your local Latin market or in the ethnic specialty section of many grocery stores.
The ratio of calcium hydroxide to corn is 1 tablespoon per cup of dry corn. The recipe can be adjusted up or down accordingly. Just make sure you have enough water in the cooking pot to cover everything well.