For the Best Tortillas (and Gorditas and Tetelas), You Need Fresh Masa

This cornerstone of Mexican cuisine infuses so many dishes with depth and verve.

The chef Fermín Núñez of Suerte, in Austin, Texas, considers masa, the main ingredient in tortillas, gorditas and more, “the canvas of what Mexican cooking is all about.”Credit…Armando Rafael for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Mariana Velásquez. Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks.

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By Rick A. Martínez

A freshly ground masa tortilla, as it cooks on a comal, inflates as the steam inside pushes apart the sides and releases an intoxicating toasted corn aroma. It actually tastes like nutty, earthy corn, with a soft, chewy texture and almost custardy center. And its role is not just to transport a taco filling and salsas from your plate to your mouth, but to complement and ground the bright, acidic and spicy flavors with something rich and soothing, familiar and homey.

The chef Fermín Núñez of Suerte, in Austin, Texas, considers masa “the canvas of what Mexican cooking is all about.”

“Without masa,” he said, “there’s no tortillas, and, without tortillas, there’s no tacos!”

When it opened in 2018, Suerte was one of the few restaurants in the country making masa from heirloom varieties of corn and using it to make tortillas, tlacoyos, tlayudas, tamales and taquitos.

“I wanted to create a restaurant that was obsessed with creating the best masa from corn that was grown in Texas,” he said, adding he hoped to make “a tortilla that was unique to us but reminded you of the best ones you’ve had in Mexico.”

In the United States, we primarily eat processed, preservative-filled corn tortillas, whose flavor ranges from bland to sour and musty. But that’s not how it is supposed to be. And that’s not how it is for many people living in Mexico, who have access to handmade tortillas from freshly ground corn masa, and for whom masa is the cornerstone of the cuisine.

Recipe: Tortillas de Maíz

Nixtamalization, the art of turning corn into masa, is an ancient practice in Mesoamerica, documented as far back as 1500 B.C. To do it, one simply simmers dried corn in water and cal, or calcium hydroxide, until the kernels soften. They’re then ground into a homogeneous dough that holds whatever shape you choose to give it: thin circles for tortillas, thicker ones for gorditas and sopes, plump ovals for huaraches and triangles for black-bean stuffed tetelas. This process increased the availability of nutrients in the corn, such as Vitamin B3, calcium and iron, helping to sustain the civilizations that built great ancient cities like Teotihuacán, Tenochtitlán and Chichén-Itzá — and grew at least in part because of an energy-rich diet.

Recipe: Gorditas de Maíz

Today, corn — and masa — are still a bedrock, found in beverages like atole and the chocolate-corn drink champurrado. Masa can be crumbled into sauces and stews like mole and uliche to add body, flavor and richness. It can be shaped into dimpled balls and simmered in soups and stews to make dumplings called chochoyotes. In these dishes, the flavor of the corn receives all of the limelight. They’re also great ways to showcase heirloom colors and varieties, of which there are many.

Recipe: Tetelas de Frijol Negro (Black Bean Masa Dumplings)

Recipe: Frijoles de Olla (Homestyle Black Beans)

In the west-central state of Nayarit, corn stalks tower above the verdant valleys, while some varieties in the central state of Tlaxcala shimmer like red rubies in the late summer sun. Each of these varieties has a distinct color and flavor, and companies like Masienda are making some available as whole, unprocessed corn as well as ground masa harina (corn flour for tortillas) and ship across the United States.

To buy fresh masa, seek out tortilla and totopo makers near you. They most likely nixtamalize their own corn daily to make their corn products, so you know it will be fresh. And chances are good they’ll sell you a pound or two.

There is no reason to settle for those stale packaged tortillas when you can be eating the colors and flavors of Mexico. Using good, fresh masa will make those weekly taco nights more vibrantly colorful, beautifully delicious and, most important, more soulfully Mexican.

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