What is Nixtamalization?
Posted by denisegoitia | Filed under News & Notes
The indigenous peoples of the Americas have been growing and breeding the plant we know today as corn, Zea mays, for thousands of years. Over that same period of time, they also developed a process for making the kernels of the plant much more nutritious and delicious. This process is called nixtamalization. It involves cooking and steeping the dried corn kernels in an alkaline solution, then cooking them until tender. At this point the corn is called nixtamal and can be ground into masa for tortillas, tamales, or hundreds of other dishes. The whole corn nixtamal can also be eaten as is, and then it is usually called hominy. In Mexico and the Southwest it is commonly added to soups or stews along with meat, peppers, and other seasonings to make posole.
The nixtamalization process releases niacin, a vital nutrient.
When Europeans integrated corn into their diets and introduced it into Africa they didn’t understand the importance of nixtamalizing the corn. Many Europeans and Africans developed niacin deficiency as a result, which often led to the serious and often fatal disease pellagra. The niacin deficiency also led to protein deficiency in many cultures, and the resultant disease kwashkiorkor. In contrast, nixtamalized corn was eaten by Native Americans in combination with beans, which provided an amino acid balance and served as an important source of protein in the diet, making corn a nourishing staple food in the Americas for thousands of years even when other sources of protein were scarce.
The alkaline solution used for nixtamalization has been based on a number of different naturally occurring alkalis, including wood ash from cooking fires and natural calcium deposits. Most commonly, corn is nixtamalized using a natural form of lime that is produced by heating limestone in an extremely hot kiln to produce calcium oxide (quicklime), which is hydrated to form calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), a stable alkali that can be mixed with more water for nixtamalization. It is widely available in Mexican grocery stores under the name “cal” and is also used in European pickle-making.
Here at Three Stone Hearth, we regularly incorporate nixtamalization into dried corn dishes such as polenta, and next week we will be nixtamalizing whole corn from Anson Mills to make posole. It is a magical process, whereby the corn becomes sweet, tender, and delicious, and its nutrients become accessible. Enjoy!