hopi pink corn in all shapes and sizes
Though corn is pervasive in our modern diets much as it was in traditional American Indian diets, our relationship with this plant, as well as the plant itself, has changed profoundly. Corn, or maize, was first domesticated from a wild grass called teosinte. The earliest corn cobs were found at archeological sights in Tehuacan and Oaxaca valleys in southern Mexico around 1500 BC. By then, agriculture was well established and reliance on wild plants had diminished greatly. Maize became the main crop for many American Indians. As they relied on it as a dietary staple, they developed an intimate physical and spiritual relationship with the grain that supported their livelihood. The seeds were carefully planted, the plants grown and harvested with intent, the grains processed and prepared by hand, and the food consumed as a source of nourishment. American Indian civilizations thrived on corn such that it became intrinsic to their cultural identity.
By the time of the new world discovery, American Indians had selected and developed many different varieties of maize. Unfortunately, many of these varieties became extinct with the introduction of Yellow Dent corn, which dominated all other corn varieties for no reason other than its outstandingly high yield. Today, corn is valued mostly for its ability to produce in quantity. Genetically modified varieties, government subsidies, and modern farming technology have made corn easily the foremost seed and industrial grain in North America.Although modern Americans consume corn in substantial amounts, the grain in its whole, raw form is essentially obsolete to the consumer. Corn is no longer sought after as a nourishing food, rather it is something that is highly processed and manufactured into questionable food products. Corn is the most widely grown genetically modified food, with an estimated 90 % grown in the United States genetically modified for insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, and high yield. Only recently has there been elevated awareness and concern surrounding the inescapable, yet virtually unrecognizable presence of corn in our modern diets. Despite our dependance on corn, most of us, including the corn farmers themselves, would not know what to do with the grain if we encountered it in its whole form. In today’s world, we rely on heavy machinery to grind our corn into edible forms, high-tech chemical processes to mutate it into highly palatable sweeteners, and animals to convert the grain into corn-fed meat, eggs, and dairy. The same variety of corn is grown for the production of ethanol, which is required to be mixed into our fuel by federal laws originating from the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
While it is undeniable that corn is an amazingly versatile plant, the true reason that these highly processed corn products exist at all is that corn is heavily supported by government subsidies. These subsidies guarantee that farmers are given a fixed amount of money for each unit of crop they grow at the expense of the tax payer’s dollars, disregarding typical market forces such as supply and demand. The original intent was to help small farmers, and to provide a financial buffer for the risks involved in farming. But today, these government handouts are predominantly benefiting the larger, wealthier commodity producers. Furthermore, farming technologies and genetically modified plant varieties have made farming much less risky, and much more profitable. Farmers are successfully producing more and more, collecting government payments directly proportionate the quantity they’ve grown. The result has been a massive overproduction of corn—twelve billion bushels of it. Our dependence on the health devastating high fructose corn syrup, the nutrient stripped corn starch, the sickly corn-fed animals, the energy negative ethanol, and many other process intensive corn products, was essentially invented as a way to dispose of this massive surplus. In other words, we don’t grow more corn because there is a demand for more high fructose corn syrup, we make high fructose corn syrup because we have too much corn. And as we no longer grow corn for direct human consumption, we have forgotten how to simply eat the grain without further industrial processing.
Of course, corn was successfully grown and eaten far before the support of government subsidies, the invention of industrial machinery, and the rise of modern food processing technology. A process known as nixtamalization developed along side increased maize cultivation. This process yields an intricate host of synergistic benefits-unlocking the corn‘s flavor, digestibility, nutritional content, and grindability, rendering it viable as a staple food source-in its whole form. When the kernels of corn are steeped in either calcium hydroxide or wood ash lye, the alkaline solution dissolves the pericarp, the hard outer layer of the kernel, allowing the grain to more readily absorb water. As the corn swells and softens, it becomes easier to grind—an important consideration for populations relying on hand processing food without the assistance of modern industrial machinery. On a nutritional level, the calcium hydroxide solution significantly increases the calcium content of corn. Both alkaline solutions reduce levels of the antinutrient phytic acid contained in the pericarp and destroy harmful mycotoxins that can be present in moldy corn. Most notably, the process selectively improves the quality of corn protein available for human enzymatic digestion.
Corn contains four types of proteins, classified by their solubility characteristics-albumins and globulins, extractable in slightly saline solutions, zein, extractable in ethanol solutions, and glutelin, extractable in alkaline solutions. Although steeping in an alkaline solution diminishes the nutritional content of corn, it significantly improves its nutritional quality, decreasing the solubility of zein, which is deficient in proteins that break down into the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan, and increasing the solubility of glutelin, which is rich these proteins.
Nixtamalization further converts the bound niacin (vitamin B3) into a form that is bioavailable. Niacin is an essential human nutrient, meaning it cannot be synthesized by the body in a quantity sufficient for normal functioning, and must therefore be obtained through dietary means. Aside from consuming niacin rich foods, this can also mean consuming foods high in tryptophan, which can be synthesized by the liver into niacin, and is incidentally released during the nixtamalization process. Deficiency in niacin leads to pellagra, a disease characterized by dermatitis, gastrointestional disorders, dementia, and eventual death. European colonists unknowingly interpreted the steeping of corn in an alkali solely as a means of milling the corn by hand. As they had access to more powerful grinding machines, they dismissed this process entirely. It was only following the pellagra pandemic in the early 1900s, which resulted from populations worldwide adopting the cultivation of corn as a staple without embracing the traditional processing technology, that nixtamalization gained its recognition as an essential component of processing corn for sustenance-based human consumption. The wisdom and artistry of the nixtamalizing process is further reflected in its refined palatability: nixtamalizing corn enhances its flavor and unleashes its characteristic nutty and earthy aroma.
THE CORN :::
GENERA / SPECIES : ZEA MAYS
Corn seeds of different varieties all have the same basic anatomy consisting of the germ, the endosperm, and two outer layers, the aleurone and the pericarp. The pericarp is a thin outermost protective coat containing most of the seed’s fiber. The aleurone exists under the pericarp, and encloses the endosperm. Though it is typically only a single layer of cells thick, it contains a large portion of the corn’s proteins. It also contains anthocyanins responsible for the red, purple, and blue pigmentation of many colored corn varieties. The germ contains the embryo as well as the majority of the seed’s oil. The endosperm, comprising of the largest tissue in the seed, is made of two different types of starch- hard starch and soft starch.
The proportion of these hard and soft starches varies depending on the variety, providing a basis for the modern nomenclature used to describe corn. Flint corns have mostly hard, “flinty” endosperm, enclosing only a small portion of soft endosperm. Flour corns have mostly soft, “floury” endosperm surrounded by a thin layer of hard endosperm. Dent corns were originally a cross between flour corns and flint corns, and have a relatively proportionate amount of both hard and soft endosperm. Unlike flint and flour corns, however, the soft endosperm exists as a column surrounded by hard endosperm, rather than being completely enclosed by it. As dent corn seeds dry, the soft endosperm contracts more than the hard endosperm, giving the kernel its dent. The soft endosperm is always white, while the hard endosperm can be white or yellow, resulting from the production of the carotenoid pigments. Flint corn, flour corn, and dent corn are all types of field corn, meaning they are intended to be harvested in the mature dry kernel stage.
Flint corns are extremely tough and difficult to process without nixtamalization or modern technology. They are also easier to grow, displaying superior disease, insect, and weather resistance, as well as shorter growing seasons. Flour corns are much easier to process by simply grinding, but along with being less hardy, can also be more difficult to dry (and store). Dent corn is the only commercially grown field corn variety, and by far the most widely available. However, the dent corn grown today, called Yellow Dent Corn, is relatively flavorless, having been bred for high yield and disease resistance rather than nutritional quality and palatability. Yellow Dent Corn is used to make everything from ethanol, to high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners, oils, emulsifiers, thickeners, and extracts in our processed foods, to cheep corn-fed meat. Only a tiny portion, an estimated 2%, is grown to be consumed as a cereal grain- mostly in the form of corn meal. Unfortunately, many Indian corn varieties became obsolete when the prolific Yellow Dent Corn was introduced.
Sweet corn refers to corn that is intended to be eaten straight off the cob. It is also the most widely eaten form of whole corn, as it is juicy and sweet and can be easily cooked by roasting, steaming, or lightly boiling. Sweet corn is actually a type of flint corn, the difference between the two in a more technical and traditional sense being the time of harvest. All corns start out “sweet”, meaning that the carbohydrates are mostly in the form of sugars. As the plants mature, the sugar is converted into starch, and the kernels become hard and dry. Some corns were traditionally eaten in both stages—a portion of the crop was harvested early in the milk stage and eaten as sweet corn, while the rest was left to mature and harden as field corn. Of course, certain corns have more sugar in the green stage than others. Although many heirloom sweet corns are plenty sweet, newer hybrid varieties as well genetically modified varieties have further enhanced the sugar content. Though exceedingly sweet, these varieties allegedly lose some of the distinctive corn flavor. Native Indians generally did not grow corn to be eaten as sweet corn, as sweet corn varieties tended to be less productive, less resilient, and difficult to store without modern inventions such as canning and freezing. Further, it is less practical for subsistence gardeners to grow sweet corn, which is essentially a novelty summer vegetable, rather than a reliable, staple source of food.
Popcorn is a type of flint corn that can pop when exposed to heat. This modern convenience food was also valued by American Indians for its ease of processing—the corn could become edible simply upon the application of heat, and did not require the intensive soaking, grinding, and cooking. Popcorn has a hard endosperm that is impermeable to moisture and a soft endosperm that holds a certain amount of moisture. As the kernel is heated, the moisture expands, building up pressure in the soft starchy interior until it pops. Some heirloom varieties of flint corn will pop, but modern popcorn usually refers to the types of corn that are cultivated specifically for improved pop-ability.
Parched corn, like popcorn can become edible simply upon exposure to heat. Any flour corn can be parched, although some parch better than others. Parched corn does not burst open like popcorn, rather it expands only slightly, improving in flavor as it cooks. American Indians recognized the benefits of parched corn, as this technique concurrently preserved and flavored the corn. The parched corn was sometimes pounded into flour to be mixed with water and eaten on long trips.This pounded parched corn, called pinole or rockahominy, was prized for its high nutritive value and ability to expand in the stomach, providing a feeling of fullness. Corn nuts are a modern version of parched corn, although they are coated in oil and salt, unlike traditional parched corn which was simply heated.
Corn tortillas are made using field corn. These can be flint, flour, or dent corn varieties, all imparting unique and individual flavors and textures on the finished tortilla—some superior and more “authentic” than others. Corn, being so inherently variable and genetically pliable, displays an immense range of plant diversity. Unfortunately, the only field corn you’ll be able to buy in the store is Yellow Dent Corn, which is likely to be genetically modified, or at least contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Corn is wind pollinated and can therefore easily cross with each other within a radius of about 2 miles. Technically, the “Organic” label on corn means it is a not genetically modified variety, but this does not account for potential, and likely contamination (an estimated 5% of all “Organic” corn is contaminated). If Yellow Dent Corn is all you have access to, however, it is entirely possible to successfully nixtamalize it, although the flavor and nutritional quality is incomparable to the many heirloom Indian field corn varieties more suited for tortilla making. You’ll have to grow or creatively source those yourself.
THE ALKALI :::
There are a few variations on the alkali used to nixtamalize corn. All achieve a similar purpose of making the corn more digestible, grindable, healthful, and palatable.
LIME : Calcium Hydroxide, Ca(OH) 2, cal, pickling lime
The use of lime as a means to process corn was historically found in southwestern parts of North America, and Mesoamerica (central America and Mexico). American Indians would burn sea shells, or limestone to make calcium hydroxide, depending on what they had available to them.
The many different forms of lime has caused quite some confusion. Understanding the different types will hopefully make it easier for you to source or even make your own. Lime undergoes a chemical cycle during which it takes three different forms : calcium carbonate, calcium oxide, and calcium hydroxide. The raw material of lime is calcium carbonate, either in the form of limestone, sea shells, chalk, marble, or coral. When burned at high temperatures, these naturally occurring materials form Calcium Oxide, or quicklime. Calcium Oxide can then be “slaked” by adding it to water, resulting in a highly exothermic (heat releasing) reaction that forms Calcium Hydroxide, or lime putty. The lime putty can then reabsorb carbon dioxide from the air to form Calcium Carbonate, and as this is the same chemical formula as its raw material, the entire process referred to as a cycle.
When nixtamalizing corn with “lime”, you need Calcium Hydroxide, or Calcium Oxide, which, as you may recall, dissolves into Calcium Hydroxide when added to water. Calcium Hydroxide is an alkaline solution, meaning it is basic and caustic. It has special chemical properties capable of breaking down the outer layer of corn, allowing the seed swell, and releasing bound nutrients. Both Calcium Carbonate, from ground shells or limestone, and Dolomite, from ground high magnesium limestone are sold as dietary supplements and agricultural amendments. Ground limestone rock, however, is insoluble in water, rendering it inert for the purpose of processing corn. If you buy lime for nixtamalization at the store, you’ll need to look for “cal” or “pickling lime”. Both are food grade white powders. Cal (found most easily in Mexican grocery stores) is supposedly quicklime, while pickling lime (used in the pickling process to ensure crispness) is calcium hydroxide partially hydrated to a powder form. Most likely these products have degraded somewhat by the time you get them, as they can react slowly with the moisture and carbon dioxide in the air and become less chemically active. I use the lime putty that I make at home from sea shells, which is in a liquid “putty” form. Because it is freshly slaked from burned sea shells and kept under water (unlike pickling lime, which is partially hydrated so it stays in a powdered form that can be more easily packaged and shipped), lime putty is more potent than the powdered forms you can buy at the store. You can make your own too → homescale.wordpress.com/makinglime. Cal and Pickling lime work fine, but you will just have to use a little more of it, and be aware that it will most likely degrade in potency over time. I have also used Builder’s Lime (also known as Type S/N lime or hydrated lime) from the hardware store which, like pickling lime, is compositionally calcium hydroxide. I would not exactly advise it though as it is not food grade and may contain all sorts of impurities you do not want in your food.
WOOD ASH SOLUTION
Wood ash lye, or pot ash, is made by leeching ashes from burning wood. The use of wood ash was historically found mostly in corn-centered societies in the southern and eastern parts of North America, as well as Mexico.
Depending on many factors including the type of ash and the burning temperature of the material, wood ash lye can contain an number of different compounds contributing to its alkaline nature, including potassium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide, and sodium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide has a higher solubility than calcium hydroxide. Whereas calcium hydroxide only dissolves so much in solution, potassium hydroxide has the potential to dissolve further, increasing the alkalinity of the solution. Less concentrated wood ash lye is relatively safe, but precaution should be taken to rinse the skin well after handing and to avoid contact with the eyes.
In general, hardwood ashes are preferred, as they make for a more potent solution. When using ashes, make sure you use clean ashes, from a wood only burning fire, and to sift them through a fine screen to discard of the charcoal and other byproducts from the fire. Wood ashes can be used directly in the pot when nixtamalizing corn, or you can make wood ash lye first. To make lye, mix wood ashes with some water to form the consistency of a thin paste. Let it steep at least overnight, and probably longer, and then leach out the liquid. If you use hot water, you can speed up the process. A commonly recommended leaching method is drilling a few small holes in a bucket, covering the bottom with a layer of straw, or some other natural material that can act as a filter, and placing the bucket on top of another bucket. You can then pour the wood ash paste into the first bucket on top of the filter and let the lye leach out into the second bucket. You can make wood ash lye and keep it around, so it is ready to use when you want to make a batch of nixtamal. The stronger your wood ash lye, the faster the corn will nixtamalize. You’ll have to experiment with your own recipe proportions based on the strength of the lye you’ve made. Be careful of using a solution that is too strong or steeping corn in ashes for too long, as the entire kernels of corn can completely disintegrate.
LYE : Sodium Hydroxide, NaOH 2
If you buy lye at the store, it will most likely be Sodium Hydroxide. Though it most highly soluble of the three, it is made today through various industrial processes as a fixed percent saturated solution and has accordingly replaced wood ashes and lime in many commercial nixtamalized corn products. I have never used store bought lye, but if you do, make sure you buy food grade lye and not the kind used for cleaning agents, soap making, etc. as they can contain other harmful toxins you do not want in your nixtamal. Arguably, steeping in sodium hydroxide does not have the same nutritional enhancements of calcium hydroxide or wood ash lye processing, as these naturally occurring compounds contain other beneficial dietary minerals.
THE TOOLS :::
Nixtamalized corn was traditionally ground from the whole kernel into fine masa by hand with the use of a stone mano and metate. The metate was slightly concave to retain the masa, and sloped, with a high end and a low end to complement the downward grinding motion. The kernels were placed at the top of the metate and ground down with the mano. Once ground to the low end of the metate, the partially ground kernels were gathered and moved to the top of the mano, ground down again, and the process was repeated until the desired fineness was reached. Tortillas were also portioned out by moving the right amount of masa to the bottom of the metate with the mano; then it was gathered with the hands and rolled into a ball ready to form into a tortilla. Metates have to be extensively prepared when new, through various soaking, grinding, and seasoning techniques. The most labor intensive portion involves grinding rice and other cereal grains until the pulverized grain comes clean, meaning it is free from residual pieces of stone.
I use a hand crank grain mill to grind nixtamal. The one I use most is the Corona mill, which was made specifically for grinding nixtamal, but you can use any other plate style grain mill. I grind the corn wet on the absolute finest setting so it comes out already smoothed into dough. It works well enough for my home-scale purposes, although it doesn’t grind the corn as fine as stone mills do. I have also used a food processor, which is extremely fast and easy, although the masa often comes out a bit more uneven. For best results using this method, grind the corn in small batches, and use the pulsing motion to get more even grinding exposure to the whole kernels first; then proceed with grinding continuously to smooth.
The tortilla press is simply a tool made of metal or wood, with two flat hinged elements that press balls of masa into perfectly flattened round tortillas. The press is lined with plastic to prevent the tortilla from sticking. You don’t need a tortilla press to make tortillas, however. The first time I learned how to make a tortilla was from a Guatemalan woman who [not-so]-simply patted them between her palms with impressive speed. The tortillas come out thicker and smaller in diameter, more like corn cakes, but equally delicious. I have also seen hand patted tortillas as perfect and thin as the pressed ones. If patting tortillas by hand, it is useful to have a small bowl of water on hand to keep the hands moist, which prevents the tortillas from sticking them. Another method I use frequently is two cutting boards lined with plastic or parchment paper. Simply place the ball of masa on the bottom lined cutting board, place the second piece of plastic on top of the ball and press with the other cutting board. I’ve also seen people use the bottom of a pan to press. Be creative—or, enjoy the character of your hand pat tortilla.
A comal is a smooth, flat griddle used for cooking tortillas, and often other foods to eat with it. Traditionally they were made from clay, slightly concave in shape, and heated on three stones over an open fire. Clay comals are seasoned with cal (Calcium Oxide/ Calcium Hydroxide). A layer of diluted cal is rubbed on the comal and heated until it turns slightly cream colored. Then, the excess powder is brushed off. This is repeated each time the comal is heated for making tortillas. Many comals you will find today are steel. Make sure your comal is well seasoned, as the tortillas are cooked with no oil, and will burn and stick to the griddle without proper seasoning. To season your steel comal, burn a thin layer of oil on your cooking surface until it polymerizes to form a non stick coat. Do this each time you use your comal. You can also use a cast iron skillet, or any other griddle, but be sure not to use aluminum cookware, as it may react with any residual lime or lye in the masa.
THE PROCESS :::
As nixtamalization was employed across an expanse of corn-centered societies, the historic accounts of how the process was conducted vary substantially. Aside from using different alkali, corn, and tools, there are many subtle variations in cooking methodologies. Some involve cooking the corn with the alkaline solution until the corn is fully nixtamalized (this takes hours). While others involve cooking the corn in the alkali solution just for as long as it takes for the skins to disintegrate. The kernels are then washed clean and cooked further until tender. Both of these methods will yield nixtamal within a day. Some methods don’t involve cooking at all, rather the corn is simply soaked in the alkaline solution for a period of weeks until the skin loosens and the kernels swell. The method I currently prefer, and the one I have outlined, involves cooking the corn in the alkaline solution for a short period, and then letting it steep overnight. I like it because it seems to be a good balance between conserving time and energy. I encourage you to experiment and find a method which yields the most satisfying results for you.
Making Corn Tortillas:
(1) steeping in an alkaline solution
(2) rinsing to clean and remove pericarp
(3) grinding into masa flour
(4) kneading dough
(5) patting and/or pressing into tortillas
(6) cooking tortillas
(1) Put 2 lbs, about 4 heaping cups of field corn, in a wide pot and fill with enough water to immerse the kernels under 1 “ of water. The corn swells and expands significantly as it steeps in the alkaline solution, so make sure you account for this. I prefer using a wide pot as the lime or wood ash tends to settle as it sits, and a wider pot often yields a more even nixtamal. Bring the pot of corn just to a boil, turning down the heat if necessary to keep it at a gentle simmer. Meanwhile, add 1 Tablespoon of sea shell lime putty* to a small amount of water and stir until well incorporated. Add the lime solution to the pot and let it simmer, covered for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Remove the pot from the stove and wrap it in a large towel or blanket to keep it well insulated. Let it steep in the hot alkaline solution for at least 8 hours, overnight, or even a little longer. When finished, the kernels of corn should be swollen, and the skins should slip when rubbed between the fingers. Bite the corn to check hardness. The corn should not be overcooked, as it will result in a sticky masa dough, difficult to form into tortillas. Once you’ve made a few batches, you’ll start to get a feel for when the corn is “done’. The kernels can be a little raw on the inside if you are grinding it into masa for tortillas. If you are intending to eat it whole, as hominy for posole for instance, you’ll want to steep it longer, or cook it further after you rinse it until the kernels are tender all the way through. (2) Pour the corn into a colander to drain the lime solution. Rinse thoroughly, rubbing the kernels to remove the skin, until the water runs completely clear.
(3) The processed whole corn kernels are now ready to be wet ground into a fine masa dough. You can use a mano and metate, a grain mill, or a food processor. Once ground, I like to add just a touch of salt, although this is entirely optional. (4) Kneed the dough until it is smooth and pliable. If needed, add enough water to make the dough stick to itself without crumbling. (5) Roll the dough into 1-2″ diameter balls and press with a tortilla press, two cutting boards, or hand pat into tortillas. If using a tortilla press, be sure to have two pieces of plastic or parchment (a plastic bag cut open works well) lining the two surfaces to prevent the tortilla from sticking. Place the ball on the bottom plate and press firmly. If hand patting, keep a small bowl of water nearby for moistening the hands to keep the tortillas from sticking to them. Pat the ball back and forth between your palms until the desired thickness is achieved. (6) Cook the tortillas on a preheated, well-seasoned, un-greased hot comal, or other griddle. Be sure not to use aluminum, as it can react with any residual lime in the masa. To transfer a pressed tortilla to the comal, peel the plastic off the top side of the tortilla. Lift the bottom piece of plastic and flip the exposed side of the tortilla onto your palm. Carefully peel off the bottom bag, and then flip the tortilla onto the hot comal. Cook the tortilla on one side for about 10-15 seconds. You’ll know you can flip it when the sides begin to peel away from the cooking surface. Flip the tortilla and cook on the other side for another 20-30 seconds. I like to flip the tortilla once more to give it a slight browning. If you’ve cooked your tortilla correctly, it will puff up as the moisture inside is gently released from the dough. Place the finished tortillas in a basket or a bowl lined with a towel to keep the tortillas warm and moist. Tortillas are best when eaten immediately, but they can be easily stored and refrigerated for up to a few days. Freezing reportedly works well. You can also freeze the masa dough.
*You can also use cal, pickling lime, wood ashes, or lye. I’ve seen recommendations of anywhere from 1-2 T of cal or pickling lime for 2 lbs of corn. Be careful of using too much lime, as it can result in a decidedly unpleasant bitter taste in the finished masa. Wood ashes vary in recommendation from 1-4 cups of ashes for 2 lbs of corn. You can also go by double handfuls, as it was described in historic accounts—try two double handfuls for 2 lbs of corn and experiment from there.