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Masa versus Masa Harina versus Masarepa

By Steve Dunn Published

The corn flour used in Latin American cooking comes in different forms, with names that can be confusing. Here's a guide to help you choose the right one for your recipe.

Corn flour is as fundamental to Latin American cooking as wheat flour is to American and European cuisines. It’s the basis for everything from tortillas to arepas to the Salvadoran/Honduran corn cakes called pupusas. The corn flour used in Latin American cooking is made from precooked corn; this distinguishes it from cornmeal, which is ground from uncooked dried corn. But unless you’re familiar with the various corn flour terms, it’s easy to confuse them. Here’s a guide.

Masa

What it is: Moist dough traditionally made by grinding nixtamalized corn kernels. Nixtamalized corn has been cooked and soaked in limewater, an alkaline solution of water and calcium hydroxide, which breaks down and gels some of the corn’s carbohydrates and makes the corn taste nuttier and more complex (think corn chips). The precooked corn is ground until it forms a mixture that holds together (masa is Spanish for “dough”); masa can also be made instantly by mixing masa harina (harina means “flour”) with water.

Masa Harina

What it is: Masa that has been dried and ground again into flour (hence its name, “dough flour”).

Common applications: Tortillas, tamales, pupusas, empanadas, sopes, gorditas, as a thickener for soups

Common brands: Maseca (labeled “Instant Corn Masa Flour”) (above left), Bob’s Red Mill

Masarepa

What it is: Instant corn flour made from precooked corn that has not been nixtamalized.

Common applications: Arepas

Common brands: P.A.N. (above right), Goya, Maseca CentroAmericana, Areparina

Recipe Pupusas

These savory stuffed corn cakes are steeped in 2,000 years of Latin American history. But for a version that even a rookie could pull off, we had to break with tradition.

Recipe Pupusas with Beans and Cheese

These savory stuffed corn cakes are steeped in 2,000 years of Latin American history. But for a version that even a rookie could pull off, we had to break with tradition.

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