What Is Masa Harina?

This humble flour is the secret to essential Mexican foods including corn tortillas and tamales. 

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Ever wondered what gives corn tortillas that recognizable, sour flavor? Meet masa harina. This corn dough flour is an essential ingredient in countless Latin dishes. But what distinguishes it from it's corn cousins, cornmeal and corn flour? And what about masa dough? Here you'll find everything you need to know about masa harina, plus get recipe inspiration for using it.

What Is Masa Harina?

Not to be confused with masa dough (more on the difference below), masa harina literally translates to "dough flour." It is a type of flour made from dried corn kernels that are cooked and soaked in a lime solution (here lime refers to calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) to make hominy — this is what gives corn tortillas their recognizable sour flavor. After it has finished soaking, the kernels are rinsed, dried, and ground into a fine powder resembling flour.

Measuring cup with masa harina on countertop
Blaine Moats/Meredith

Masa Harina vs. Masa

The difference between masa harina and masa is simple: Masa is what you get when you mix masa harina with water. It is a corn dough that is used to make a number of foods that are essential to Mexican cuisine, including tortillas and tamales.

Masa Harina vs. Cornmeal and Corn Flour

Both cornmeal and corn flour are made from milled, dried corn. Where they differ is the degree to which they are ground, with cornmeal being coarsely ground and corn flour being finely ground. Neither are soaked in the lime water solution used to make masa harina, which is why they don't produce the same sour flavor.

Masa Harina Substitutes

You can use corn flour or cornmeal as a substitute for masa harina, but you will not get that distinctive flavor that comes as a result of soaking the corn in lime water. So, what should you substitute for masa harina to get the same flavor?

Keep in mind that you may be able to find pre-made masa dough at Mexican grocery stores in the case that you cannot find masa harina. But aside from that, the best way to get that unique sour flavor is to try grinding up stale or dry corn tortillas in a blender or food process until you have a fine powder.

Where to Buy Masa Harina

Masa harina can be found in the international aisle at most major grocery chains. It can also be found at Mexican supermarkets. You might notice a variety of colors next to the name "masa harina," such as blue masa harina, white masa harina, and yellow harina. These refer to the color of the corn used to produce the masa harina. There are few differences between them aside from color, but yellow and white might be slightly sweeter. You may also see it labeled as "instant corn masa mix." Popular producers of masa harina available online include Maseca and Bob's Red Mill.

How to Use Masa Harina

I would be remiss if I didn't start with the most obvious and common way to use masa harina: corn tortillas! Make your own masa dough using masa harina, water, and salt, and then fire up the griddle to cook them up.

Masa harina is also an essential ingredient in tamales, sopes, gorditas, pupusas, and empanadas. Browse our entire collection of Mexican recipes for more inspiration.


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