LOS ANGELES – One afternoon while preparing a Southern meal for friends who were coming over for dinner, I realized I forgot to make the cornbread. But since I keep all the ingredients handy at all times, I knew I wouldn’t have a problem cooking a quick round. However, as I was rummaging through my pantry, I saw that I had no cornmeal left, but in its place on the shelf was a single bag of masa harina. “Corn for corn” I thought and decided to use it to make my cornbread.
The recipe—my grandmother’s, which I’ve made countless times in my life—using masa harina produced cornbread that was decidedly different from what I was used to but just as delicious. It had a much stronger corn flavor and was sweeter. It was one of those little experiments that turned out to be much more significant in hindsight – the chance of its creation opened my mind to what cornbread could be.
Masa harina in cornbread isn’t new, but it’s still not as common as I think it should be. But to understand the brilliance of the ingredient in this application, we must first define what it is and what it is not. Typically, the cornmeal you and I buy at grocery stores is made from dried corn ground to varying degrees of coarseness. It is usually made with dent corn, a variety of “field corn” coated with a hard starch exterior covering a soft starch center. (Polenta, a coarsely ground cornmeal, is made from flint corn, which is mostly hard starch.)
Masa harina, however, is made by first soaking corn kernels in an alkaline solution like slaked lime or lye, which dissolves the hard outer shell and leaves the soft starch center behind. This center is then finely ground and dried to produce masa harina. The soaking step makes the corn more digestible, but it also has the added benefit of making the corn taste more, well, cheesy.
Masa harina’s softer, finer texture is precisely why it is suitable for making pasta for tortillas and tamales. But it’s also good for making even softer Southern-style cornbread when used in place of coarse cornmeal. That I was using locally produced heirloom masa harina – from Masienda, located in West Los Angeles – surely didn’t hurt; it produced such a fantastic and mind-altering flavor.
Along with this revelation, my partner and I were battling — as is our eternal predilection — over whether to add sugar to cornbread. I grew up in a household that didn’t use it, and our cornbread was flatter and had a crispy bottom. My partner, however, grew up on the Jiffy cornbread mix and therefore prefers a sweeter, cakier texture.
If you’re from the South, you might know that the debate between sweet and unsweetened cornbread is drawn almost exclusively on racial lines. In her award-winning 2017 Charlotte Observer article “Why Is the Sugar in Cornbread Race Dividing in the South?” author Kathleen Purvis writes:
“Until the turn of the 20th century, Southern cornmeal was made with sweeter white corn and ground in water. When industrial milling arrived, that changed. Steel roller mills used yellow corn that was harvested before it was ripe, so it had less sugar. They removed the germ so (the corn) kept longer, but it had less corn flavor. And they ground it better. You had to add a little flour to help it rise and some sugar to give it flavor.
Purvis goes on to posit that because this new yellow cornmeal was cheaper than that made with white corn, “black cooks who had little money may have changed their cornbread to match the cornmeal they could afford.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I used masa harina instead of cornmeal in my cornbread, I noticed a distinct corny sweetness that I had never tasted in American cornmeal. ordinary before – and I wanted more. So, I gave in to my partner’s wishes and added a spoonful of sugar to my next batch of cornbread, then a second spoonful the next time, and so on until I landed at the perfect amount for my recipe.
The sweetness made the cornbread taste like corn, just like the masa harina. And so, what started as a happy accident produced a cross-cultural bread that offered me a chance to learn from it as I worked on it. In my often jaded mind when it comes to cooking, it was refreshing to see my earlier notions of my most nostalgic food shatter and rebuild even better than before.
CORN BREAD MASA HARINA
Duration: 45 minutes
Yield: For 8 people
This cornbread recipe is pretty standard, except for using masa harina instead of cornmeal, which gives the bread a softer texture and corny flavor. Regular granulated sugar is used to sweeten the cornbread, but feel free to use honey, maple syrup, or even light brown sugar instead. The amount requested is not so great that alternative sweeteners will affect it significantly beyond a slightly darker color when cooked.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing and serving
106 grams (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
155 grams (1 1/4 cups) masa harina
52 grams (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups whole milk
2 large eggs
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round or 8-inch square cake pan with butter and flour.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together flour, masa harina, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the melted butter, milk and eggs until smooth. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and stir until combined (don’t try to remove all the lumps from the batter).
3. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Place the pan in the oven and bake until golden around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 minutes.
4. Remove pan from oven and allow cornbread to cool for 10 minutes. Invert cornbread and remove from skillet or cut into wedges and serve in skillet. Serve with more melted butter on top of each wedge.