In Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate (New Society Publishers 2012), author Anthony Boutard, shares his passion for corn. Corn is a staple of the North American diet, but while today we consume huge amounts as synthetic sweeteners and cheap meat, it was historically valued as a fresh vegetable and a wholesome grain. More than a simple how-to book, Beautiful Corn explores the origins and biology of this much-maligned plant, fostering new appreciation for America’s original grain. Have you ever wondered, “What is hominy corn?” In this excerpt from Chapter 12, ”Preparing Grain Corn for Cooking,” we learn how to make hominy corn as well as understanding its historical and cultural background.
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Alkaline Steeping of Corn
Tortillas and tamales are made from whole kernels of dry grain corn that have been steeped in a hot alkaline solution, left to soak in the solution as it cools, and then washed the next day. The process is called nixtamalization, and the treated kernels are called nixtamal. The Tortilleria Nixtamal in New York is named for this process. The nixtamal is ground wet to make masa, the wet flour used to make tamales and tortillas. Corn does not contain gluten, the family of proteins that create the strong dough used to make yeast breads. Nonetheless, the steeping partially gelatinizes the starches and the wet grinding breaks the corn down into very fine particles, which adhere to one another through sur- face tension. The masa makes a weak, paste-like dough that, with skilled hands, can be molded into tortillas. These are cooked rapidly on a very hot clay surface called a comal. Whole nixtamal is also cooked until the kernels are tender, at which point it is once again called maíz, or corn. Masa and the whole treated kernels are also available in a dry form.
In Mexico and Central America, slacked or hydrated lime, or cal in Spanish, is used to make the alkaline solution. This form of lime is made from limestone (calcium carbonate) that is put into a limekiln and baked at 1520°F (825°C). The result is quicklime (calcium oxide), which is then exposed to water, or slacked, to form calcium hydroxide or cal. Slacked lime is ground into a dry powder. Archeologists have unearthed limekilns in the settlements of both the Olmec and the Maya, early Central American civilizations. The lime was also used for mortar and plaster.
Steeping the grain in an alkaline solution makes it more digestible and, most important, more nutritious. In untreated corn, the niacin (vitamin B3) it contains is bound to a large molecule that does not break down in our gut. The alkaline treatment splits off this molecule, making the niacin available in the human digestive tract. In addition, corn steeped in slacked lime has a higher calcium content than raw corn, especially important in the pre-Columbian culture without any dairy animals providing this essential mineral in the form of milk and cheese.
As a farmer who works with the grain, I suspect the tradition of alkaline steeping evolved from the practice of dusting the kernels with wood ash or slacked lime to protect them in storage. Various insects, especially weevils and mealworms, attack corn kernels, as do rodents. In many places, the seed corn ears were hung near the fire so that they would build up a protective layer of creosote, making them unpalatable. Storing the kernels with a dusting of wood ash or lime helps to ward off pest attacks, and may also mask the aroma of the grain from insects and rodents. Lime is still used in this manner in Mexico.
The North American variant of nixtamal, hominy, is produced commercially using lye instead of slacked lime in the alkaline steeping process. Originally, lye extracted from wood ash was used, contributing calcium, potassium and trace minerals to the corn. The use of wood ash in the preparation of corn was well established in pre-Columbian North America, especially where limestone was unavailable. There were several methods of incorporating the lye into corn’s preparation. As mentioned earlier, the Hopi people of the Southwest used ground blue corn mixed with small amounts of willow wood ash to prepare piki, a thin, crepe-like, blue bread. The Iroquois mixed wood ash with corn and pounded them together, forming a meal, which they then cooked. The Hidatsa and other tribes of the Great Plains steeped the whole kernels in a lye solution made from hardwood ashes, then rinsed the lye and hulls from kernels. Early European settlers adopted the practice of steeping corn in lye made from wood ash.
Modern hominy made from food-grade lye lacks the mineral contribution from the wood ash, but still makes the niacin available. Industrial food-grade lye is sodium hydroxide, and the hominy prepared from it is high in sodium. Its flavor has the bite of soda, and it lacks the rich corn chip fragrance of corn steeped in slacked lime.
In years past, fresh hominy was a wholesome, cheap food avail- able from street vendors in cities across our country. In his musings on food, James Beard recalled the hominy man of Portland, Oregon, and his distinctive call. From the first quarter of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, the call of the hominy man was part of the urban street cacophony from Portland to New Orleans to Philadelphia. The tinny, monotonous rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” coming from ice cream vans is the last vestige of this type of street vending.
Hominy is cooked and used whole or dried and coarsely ground to make hominy grits. It has remained a traditional food of the South. The porridge made from ground hominy is called grits, hominy, hominy grits, or white hominy depending on the county where it is served. Where hominy refers to the porridge, “big hominy” is often used to identify the whole kernel form. For the most part, Southern hominy, either big or grits, is made from a white hominy corn variety with a large kernel, such as Hickory King or Boone County White.
The alkaline steeping and wet milling of corn for table use remain distinctly American practices. Although corn has spread across the globe, the preparation of nixtamal and hominy has stayed in the Americas.
Nixtamal is easy to prepare in the home kitchen. Any type of corn can be made into nixtamal. We use both Roy’s Calais Flint and Amish Butter with excellent results. We have also made it from dent and flour corn. Flint corn and popcorn have a bit more “chew” to the kernels, and I think the flavor from the higher oil and protein content of those types of corn stands up better to the lime. Mexican markets have the cal (Spanish for “lime”) in stock, often in a small 2-ounce (55-g) package, which is all you need for a recipe. Slack lime is also sold for pickling during the summer pickling season. It is caustic and should be handled with caution, especially around children.
In an enamel or stainless steel pan, combine about 1.5 pounds (675 g) of corn kernels with 2 heaping tablespoons (25 g) of slack lime and cover with water by about 2 inches (5 cm). Simmer gently for 30 minutes, to soften the pericarp. Do not boil: you don’t want to cook the kernel. Boiling will result in a bitter off-flavor. You will notice that the lime imparts a familiar flavor and fragrance to the corn; many popular snack foods, such as corn chips and corn nuts, use nixtamal as the primary ingredient. Remove from the heat and let the mixture steep overnight at room temperature.
The next day, pour off the lime solution into the compost bucket and rinse the kernels vigorously in clean water to get rid of residual lime. Rub the kernels between your fingers as you wash them and the pericarp will slough away, leaving the yellow or white endosperm. Sometimes the pericarp is hard to remove entirely, especially in dark-pigmented flint varieties. If you want “clean” nixtamal that will shed its pericarp, use a white or yellow kernel and stay away from the red and purple types. The pericarp remnants do not affect the flavor or cooking quality of the nixtamal — removing it is purely a visual consideration.
Some cooks recommend dislodging the embryos from the kernels. As far as I can determine, this is an aesthetic call, and certainly not necessary with regard to flavor. In fact, you will discard a good deal of nutritional content in doing so. It is possible that some types of corn have a bitter embryo, and if that is the case, ridding the corn of the embryo makes sense. Taste the corn with and without the embryo and decide for yourself rather than leaving it to the dictates of custom.
Put the kernels in the pan and add enough water to cover them by about 1 inch (2.5 cm). Put the pan on the burner and simmer for about 30 to 45 minutes until soft. Salt the cooking broth to taste. Allow the corn kernels to cool. This recipe will produce about 3 pounds (1.4 kg) of nixtamalized kernels ready to eat.
You can dry the kernels on a screen or in a dehydrator before the final cooking step. When you are ready to use them, cover with water and soak overnight. The next day, cook until soft as described above.
How to Make Hominy Corn
In the Southern United States, people make hominy corn using food-grade lye as the alkalizing agent. Lye (sodium hydroxide) in its pure state is extremely caustic, much more so than slack lime; it will eat away your skin as a reward for carelessness. The lye comes as dry crystalline beads. In the lutefisk and pretzel belt of the Midwestern United States, food-grade lye is available at the grocer. In other places, it can be ordered for delivery to your house. When opening the container and measuring it, wear gloves and goggles as a safety precaution. I open the container and measure the lye outdoors so if some does fall to the ground I can hose down the area easily. The unused lye must be stored in a dry, safe place well out of reach of children. There is no need to be fearful, just cautious. Midwestern families regularly prepare lutefisk and pretzels using lye without incident.
To make this form of hominy corn, we use a large, stainless steel stock pan, 16-quart (15-liter) or larger, the deeper and bigger the better so as to lessen the chance of the lye water splashing on us. A large enameled pan in good condition is acceptable. Never use aluminum or copper pans. Although the lye dissolved in water is less caustic than the crystals, you still don’t want the hot lye water splashing on your skin.
Put 2 cups (900 g) of whole corn kernels and 2 quarts (1.9 l) of water in the pan. Carefully add 1 tablespoon of food-grade lye beads to the pan. Stir and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and cook at a low boil for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the kernels steep for 20 minutes. Dilute the cooking liquid with plenty of water, then carefully drain off the water solution into the sink. Wash the kernels several times in clean water until the washing water runs clear.
Leave the kernels in clean water for 30 minutes. Drain them and add water to cover by 1 inch (2.5 cm). Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and cook the kernels at a simmer until they are tender, usually 1 to 2 hours, depending on the corn variety.
Hominy corn made with lye has a sharp soda flavor reminiscent of soda bread. Traditionally it is served as a side dish dressed with some butter and maybe a bit of cream, which softens the flavor. If you are on a sodium-restricted diet, corn prepared with calcium hydroxide, slack lime, is the better choice.
The prepared hominy will store in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days. For longer periods of storage, thoroughly dry the lye-treated kernels after the final soaking and store in the pantry. When you’re ready to use them, soak the kernels overnight and cook until tender.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate, published by New Society Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate.