Cooking with EL CHAVO!

How to make your own Nixtamal!
(You know, for your own Vegetarian/Vegan tamales)

I've been meaning to post some instructions on making your own vegetarian and vegan tamales from scratch for quite awhile, so I'm just going to get started and do it in pieces since otherwise it would be way too long of a post. Does that meet with your approval? Great! Let's get started.

First things first: the reason you might want to make your own nixtamal is so that you can go through the process of making your own tamales from scratch, which means making your own masa from the base ingredients. You can use Maseca if you want to skip this step, its makes for good tamales. But if you are like me, you just have to try doing things the hard way, at least once just to appreciate the work involved in the making of our meals. Soon I hope to put up the rest of the steps to complete the tamal making process, like the sauces, fillings, and maybe some wrapping techniques, but for now, we start with nixtamal.

What is nixtamal? It's maiz that has gone thru a chemical process which makes it easier to grind, easier to digest, and increases its nutritional value. Basically, all the corn in tortillas, chips, tostadas, sopes, tamales, or huaraches that you've had have gone through this process. Its an old meso-american practice so let's just assume they knew what they were doing. But what do you care, you just want to turn these kernels into food!

I buy my dry maiz from the bulk bin at the Big Saver in Lincoln Heights, last I checked it was going for around 49 cents a pound. El Mercadito in East LA is always well stocked. For this session, we will use about 2 lbs. which should be enough for a good sized pot of tamales.

I mostly got my feet wet by reading this great book. In my family prepared masa was bought from a tortilleria. Its easier that way. Even though we had a Corona grain mill at home, I don't think I ever saw it being used to grind up some maiz. Or anything for that matter. I asked my mom about that and she said it was a complicated affair to turn maiz into masa, that only the professionals knew how to do it properly. It's not a surprising sentiment. But it turned out to be quite an easy process, one that isn't necessarily cloaked in mystique but instead just suffers from lack of practice.

In case you want an ingredient list:
  2 lbs dry maiz
  5 teaspoons Cal (aka lime, aka slaked lime)

Here we see the basic ingredient, dry maiz. I've used the maiz morado for tamales to, with good results as well. Make sure to sort through it, picking out some obviously rotten kernels or any other foreign matter you'd rather not chew, though it tends to be mostly pretty clean.

The only secret? Cal. Aka Slaked Lime. Aka Calcium Hydroxide. Available at your local grocer for just cents.

There's some measurements about quarts and such that should happen here, but I don't like/know/want to measure out quarts of water. Add some cold water to a big non-reactive pot, preferablly stainless steel, with water and start to heat it up. Throw in your 2 lbs of inspected maiz. Stir. I suggest this process be started at night, so you can let the maiz go through the faboulous process of turning maiz into nixtamal overnight, while you sleep instead of wait.

In a separate glass bowl, mix up about 1 cup of water with 5 teaspoons of the powdered cal. Pour that mix into the maiz pot.

Almost instantly the white maiz turns a bright yellow color. Keep the heat on low until you get it to a slow boil, then you can turn it off. Let the mixture rest overnight.


The next morning you will see that the maiz has started to lose its yellow skin. But you are going to have to help it by scrubbing it off, using your hands to scrub away the skins. You can do it!

After a few rinses and harsh hand scrubbings, the yellow skins start to break down. Keep hand scrubbing and rinsing until its pretty clean.

Rinse the maiz a few times to get rid of the cal solution.

Rinsed and ready nixtamal, ready to be turned into masa!

Into the hopper you go! I got my grain mill from the Big Saver for $20, its a bit of a crude machine but it does the job. I'm hoping to get some stone plates or a different mill that will grind it right the first time.
First runnings: this ground nixtamal is still a bit rough and grainy.

Here we see some milling action, in case you want to see what that looks like. Uh, some good music helps.

Running the ground nixtamal through the mill again gets you a much smoother masa, though its a pain. Maybe you have kids, here's where you can get them to "help." I actually ran it through the mill once more after this, which resulted in a nice smooth texture that will be perfect when we make our masa for tamales, but lots of extra work for the tamalero. I think next time I will try adding a bit of water as I mill, that might make it easier.

So now we've turned our maiz into nixtamal and finally into ground nixtamal, the base ingredient for so many awesome Mexican treats like tortillas, tamales, and sopes. Congrats on getting this far! But what to do with this glop?

Coming up soon, the rest of the instructions to turn this into tamales. Uh, hopefully before tamal season gets in full swing!

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