Around 500 years ago corn (or maize) was introduced to Europe through the Columbian Exchange with Mesoamerica. It quickly took hold as a staple crop in places like Italy and Spain which were subsequently inundated with an epidemic of the vitamin-B deficiency Pellagra. Over the next 200 years, doctors were stumped as to the cause, with many theorizing that it was due to a toxin in the corn that their patients were eating. But we now know that the true cause of the disease was their lack of knowledge on how to properly process corn for maximum nutrition.
The indigenous peoples of Southern Mexico who first bred corn from a wild grass developed the process of cooking it in an alkaline solution which unlocks nutrients like vitamin B that are not bioavailable in raw corn. This process is known as nixtamalization. The word “nixtamal” comes from a combination of the Nahuatl words for “lime ashes” and “corn dough” which describes the original method of creating the alkaline solution using hardwood ashes to raise the pH of the water.
Today, most nixtamalized corn is processed using calcium hydroxide which is sold as “pickling lime” in the US. Nixtamalized corn is not only more nutritious than raw corn, but it also has a unique flavor and texture that lends itself well to making tortillas, corn chips, tamales, and more. This process might sound a little bit intimidating, but it’s really very simple. Read on to learn how to process your very own nixtamal so you can impress your friends and family with a pile of homemade tortillas!
Pickling Lime (Calcium Hydroxide) Nixtamal
Once the hulls are removed, you are left with clean nixtamal or hominy which is ready to use however you like!
As I mentioned above, the first people to nixtamalize corn did so using wood ashes. In my experience, this method makes a gigantic mess, and you end up with the same product as the pickling lime version. But it can be a fun project for folks looking to connect with the old ways.
Wood Ash Nixtamal
Your wood ash nixtamal/hominy should have a delicious corny-smoky smell and will lend itself really well to tortillas and tamales.