Masa harina and corn flour are two closely related products so it’s understandable that there can be some confusion between the two. Depending on the recipe in question one can substitute for the other almost perfectly. That said there are differences between the two products and we can look at the two from a few perspectives to divine these differences. First, let us get clear on what both masa harina and corn flour are.
Masa harina a corn or maize-based food product that goes through a special treatment process that gives it a unique taste. Dry maize or corn is cooked with an alkali agent, either lime or wood ash, and left to soak for hours after it cooks through. It is then thoroughly rinsed the product is then called hominy. The homing is now crushed into a dough that is fairly dry and we now have masa. Masa harina or masa de harina is the dried version of this dough. Masa harina means dough flour in Spanish. Masa or masa harina is used in tortillas, taco shells, tamales, pupusas, empanadas, cornbread and as a thickening agent in soups. That’s a tough act to follow.
Corn flour is made from milling dry corn or maize into a powder that ranges from coarse to fine. Corn flour is classified as a whole grain food because the husk, endosperm and kernel are all ground into the flour. Corn flour is sometimes confused with corn starch however there is an additional process involved in separating the corn starch from corn flour. Corn flour is used in many recipes including as breading in fried dishes, in baked goods for additional texture and as flour on its own. So what are the differences between corn flour and masa harina?
The first and most obvious difference is the process involved in producing the two. Masa harina goes through a process called nixtamalisation which cooks in lime or alkali and that makes the process of producing masa harina much more complex. In addition to that, the boiled maize or corn is washed and then ground into a thick paste (fresh masa) which is finally dried and ground to give us masa harina. Corn flour has a much more humble process to it. Whole grains including the husk are milled into the powder.
Taste : Masa Harina Vs Corn Flour
Corn flour has a very bland taste to it. This makes corn flour great for combining it with other foods. Corn flour does very well both sweet and savoury recipes. Masa harina, on the other hand, has a taste that is a little bit more difficult to explain. It does have the same corn-like flavour that you expect in a corn-based product however there are also some remnants of the mineral flavour it gains in the nixtamalisation process. For this reason, masa harina is regarded as having a more exotic and exciting flavour than corn flour. Add to that masa harina being a product of Mexican cuisine which is touted as having exciting flavours in its recipe books.
Uses : Masa Harina Vs Corn Flour
Masa harina is, for the most part, a speciality product and this is reflected in its lack of wide availability as compared to corn flour. Masa harina is used mostly in speciality Mexican cuisine dishes which are understandably not as widely consumed and enjoyed worldwide. Corn flour is somewhat of an all-purpose food item. Of course, it is used in baking outright but in many cases, it is used as an addition for texture or thickening. Of the two corn flour is more ubiquitous.
Gluten is a term used for a group of proteins that are found in some grains. Gluten has allergenic properties that can affect some people in the world and hence the rise in popularity of gluten-free products. Gluten is most notably naturally occurring in wheat and spelt among other grains. Corn and maize are naturally gluten-free so both masa harina and corn flour are naturally gluten-free. However, with corn flour, you may have to look for corn flour that is labelled as gluten-free because there is the possibility of cross-contamination in the preparation process of corn flour.
As we’ve already mentioned masa harina is a speciality of Mexican cuisine. For this reason, masa harina is not available throughout the entire world. Masa harina will be found in places where there is a heavy Latin American presence or influence. Corn flour on the other can be considered as a worldwide food. Whether in the form of maize meal or cornmeal it can truly be found all over the world and is popular in Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia.
There are very few things that corn flour cannot do. Baking? Add corn flour. Thickening a stew? Add corn flour. Corn flour serves so many purposes it is truly flexible. One of the things that corn flour cannot do is be used to make Mexican dishes such as tamales, pupusas and tacos. That is an honour strictly reserved for masa harina. When you buy corn flour you have something that you can even use to make porridge or grits while the purchase of masa harina can only be used for a few specific purposes. Masa harina is not completely useless as it can substitute corn flour if for some reason you have masa harina but not corn flour.
Price : Masa Harina Vs Corn Flour
We can also compare masa harina and cornflour in terms of price. Of course, the price differential will differ depending on where you are and the availability of the products. We have already noted that masa harina is not easy to find worldwide though in communities or countries with a huge Latin American influence it should be more widely available and therefore cheaper. That said masa harina can cost up to 6 times as much as corn flour pound for pound.
Masa harina and corn flour are two products made from the same plant but with very different processes. Corn flour is more widely available and much cheaper. Masa Harina is used for specialty Mexican dishes because of its flavour but outside of those, it can substitute corn flour although corn flour is more versatile.