I have long been fascinated by the hugely important yet largely unsung process of nixtamalization. It looms large in culinary history and has immense anthropological significance. With the recent COVID-19 quarantine I’ve finally had some time to experiment with it.
Nixtamalization is the process of treating corn (maize) with hydroxide, typically in the form of calcium hydroxide (lime) for masa and sodium hydroxide for hominy. It was invented by Mesoamericans millennia ago. Some of the major effects of the process are to hull the kernels, soften them to make them easier to work with, degrade harmful fungal toxins, improve aroma and flavor, and cross-link pectin to allow dough formation. Arguably the most important effect of the process, though, is to help dissolve hemicellulose freeing bound niacin and other nutrients making the corn far more nutritious.
We don’t really know how the process was discovered. One hypothesis speculates that ancient peoples used hot limestone rocks, pot-boilers, to cook maize. The hypothesis I favor is that ancient Mesoamericans might have mixed wood ash and lime from limestone with their stored maize to discourage rodent and insect infestation. This corn would then be boiled resulting in nixtamalization.
The process became so important in cultures where corn was a staple food that its pervasiveness in Mesoamerica could not be an accident. Despite the clear culinary benefits of nixtamalization, it must have created a cultural selection pressure, allowing communities who used the process to thrive while driving those who didn’t to sickness and death.
Unsurprisingly the process took on religious in addition to cultural and culinary significance. Westerners then failed to appreciate the importance of the preparation even though they were well aware of it, leading to catastrophe. The failure of westerners to adopt nixtamalization led to epidemics of pellagra throughout Europe and the American south for hundreds of years, a disease characterized by inflamed and degrading skin, dementia, and often death.
Hominy grits and thus nixtamalization is so linked to my personal heritage as an American Southerner, I wanted to understand it much better. In so doing I developed a recipe, although far from traditional, works well in the preparing hominy grits in the home kitchen.
For the following recipe, I use yellow dent corn. Typically you would see white corn for Southern hominy grits, but I rather like the color and more assertive corn flavor of the yellow. I also used a single grind technique, but ran the mill slowly to keep the heat down.
This recipe is not suitable for making masa, the dough used to make tortillas. For that you would need to cook the corn for longer and let it soak in the cooking liquid for at least six hours.
With all of that, let’s cook…
- ~8qt Pot
- Sheet pan
- Dish towel
- Oven capable of lower temps
- Grain Mill (I used the KitchenAid one. I cannot recommend it.)
- 600g Dent or Flint corn
- 1.8L Water
- 10g Lime (I used pickling lime. Slaked lime for masa would work, too.)
Add corn, water, and lime to the pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer.
Simmer corn for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for 20 minutes.
Pour off the cooking liquid and refill with cold water. Scrub and abrade the corn in your hands. The clear water should turn dingy with brown/black flecks of hull floating in it. Pour off the water, refill, and continue to scrub. Repeat this process until the water remains mostly clear, about five or six rinses.
Drain the corn in the colander.
Heat the oven to 215ºF.
Lay the dish towel out on the counter or the sheet pan. Spread the drained corn out on the dish towel. Roll the corn up in the towel to remove any excess moisture. Carefully unroll the corn and spread it out evenly on the sheet pan. Pop in the low oven for a few hours, shaking occasionally, until thoroughly dry.
The dried nixtamalized kernels will be quite a bit brighter than the raw corn, and more yellow if using yellow corn.
Whole corn kernels will store for quite a while in a closed container. The shelf-life reduces once ground.
To prepare for grits, run the whole grains through a grinder on a fairly coarse setting. Once ground, sift out the smaller particles with a fine mesh strainer. The shifted out corn flour works very well as a cornmeal substitute. The remaining coarse ground corn is ready to be used in a standard grits preparation. Cooking times will likely be longer than typical store bought grits.
The flavor of these grits is fantastic. If prepared and ground right before cooking, an immense corn flavor comes through. One of my kids commented, “Wow, this tastes like corn. Normal grits just taste like nothing.”