As you crank the creaky handle of a molino de mano, the hand-operated grinder seen above, a flurry of ground corn cascades out the front and a gust of air rushes by. It's half the satisfaction of making your own masa, an essential building block in much of Mexico's cuisine. The other half? Consuming it. While you can buy instant masa mix at most supermarkets, fresh masa has an unparalleled sweetness and richness, as if you'd melted a pat of butter onto summer corn and transformed it into a dough that could be griddled, fried, or steamed.
I learned how to make it from Gonzalo Guzmán, my coauthor of the Mexican-focused Nopalito cookbook, out this April. Guzmán grew up on fresh masa in Mexico and now uses 300 pounds a day at his two Nopalito restaurants in San Francisco. His three-step, old-school process is the key to crisp empanadas, fluffy tortillas, and tender tamales.
Loving the Daily Grind
In Veracruz, where Nopalito chef Gonzalo Guzmán spent his childhood, making masa was a communal event.
I was born in a 400-person village in Veracruz, Mexico, where my family and I tended cornfields and dried our own corn for masa making. The community shared a molino, and masa was the basis of every meal we'd eat. For breakfast, we'd dry out tortillas in the sun, then break them into pieces and griddle them over fire with salsa or mole to make chilaquiles. We'd fry masa into little dumplings, like gnocchi, for snacks. And on weekends, the town would meet at the shops to eat antojitos—a word that means 'cravings' and a category of masa-based street foods like gorditas, panuchos, tamales, and tacos. To me, making masa from scratch is one of the most important parts of my home's true cuisine. Today, if I didn't have masa on hand at all times at home, I wouldn't feel like a Mexican.
The Essential Tools
These items are traditional in Mexico, built to last, and fun to use. Invest first in a molino, an essential, and go from there.
Molino de Mano: Moler means "to grind" in Spanish. This hand-operated grinder functions a bit like a pasta machine: Clamp it onto the edge of your countertop, then feed the nixtamal through, cranking the handle to break down the kernels.
Metate: Masa will be easy enough to manipulate after being ground in a molino, but if you want to make the fluffiest tortillas, purchase a stone metate, similar to a mortar and pestle. With a heavy stone rod, the corn is dragged along a large, concave slab to form a paste.
Tortilla Press: The easiest way to make perfect taco or empanada shells is with a tortilla press. (Opt for wood or sturdy metal.) Inside the press, sandwich a masa ball between two circles cut from a plastic bag, then clamp down firmly. Peel away the plastic liner, then griddle or fry the masa disk.
Taste the (Corn) Rainbow
Corn comes in many breeds. Each brings its own wonderful, unique character—and color—to masa.
Organic yellow corn has an intensely buttery flavor. Stock your pantry with a 6-pound bag. flowingriverfarm.com
Sourced from the mountains of Central Mexico, berry-colored heirloom Blue Cónico turns nearly black when fried. masienda.com
Ruby, pomegranate seed-like Papa's Red kernels mellow in color and create a pillowy masa. rareseeds.com
Oaxacan Green Dent takes on an earthy, sagelike hue once ground and cooked. rareseeds.com
After being nixtamalized and ground, rose-toned red corn fades to a pretty pink. kalustyans.com
A rare heirloom from Oaxaca, Olotillo has a startling sweetness and strong aroma. masienda.com
Amber Chapalote is the United States' oldest variety, having been farmed for at least 4,000 years. rareseeds.com
Masa made from Papa's Blue brightens up to a vibrant blue. It's also easy to grind into a uniform consistency. rareseeds.com
Then Tweak Your Fillings
The Fillings: We used shredded beef for these empanadas, but experiment with other hearty fillings—chopped and cooked shrimp, shredded chicken, braised pork—tossed with a complementary salsa.
The Toppings: Hot from the frying pan, empanadas are plenty delicious on their own. But you can choose to top them with sour cream, crumbled queso fresco, cilantro, thinly sliced cabbage, hot sauce, or any other Mexican garnishes.