Cornbread made with nixtamilized corn dough. (Mary Lowther photo)

Cornbread made with nixtamilized corn dough. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther Column: The wonders of corn nixtamilization

A more varied diet corrected this deficiency but nixtamalization didn’t catch on

By Mary Lowther

Well, that didn’t work. I was trying to nixtamalize last year’s corn since I had more than needed to sow this year’s crop. I had read that processing corn in a calcium hydroxide solution, a process called nixtamilizing, releases niacin and other nutrients. One could also use wood ashes.

The difference between corn that hasn’t undergone this process and that which has is so profound that people who unknowingly ate the former as their mainstay diet developed pellagra, a lack of niacin, or kwashiorkor, the absence of amino acids that maize is deficient in. Beans contain these latter amino acids so eaten together, beans and nixtamalized corn form a complete protein.

In the United States for example, populations dependent on corn that hadn’t undergone nixtamilization for most of their nourishment developed endemic pellagra throughout the southern states in the early 20th century.

A more varied diet corrected this deficiency but nixtamalization didn’t catch on.

Since I have a glut of corn, my freezer’s full and I wanted to see if I could make this nourishing product. I found a recipe on the internet and started with leftover seed corn from last year.

The recipe said that dent corn works best and not to bother with sweet corn, but since I only have sweet corn, I figured I’d give it a whirl.

I got out my old corn, went to Home Hardware and bought some hydrated lime, which I read is a good source of calcium hydroxide.

I followed the recipe but the outside hull, or pericarp, didn’t come off, so I just continued with the grinding to make a sticky dough that I intend to use for cornbread. Next year I plan on growing dent corn, but I’m going to dry all the rest of this year’s corn and use this process to make tortillas, cornbread and other wonderful corn products, because even if the hulls didn’t come off, the corn became soft and blended well and it was quite easy to do.

Here’s the recipe:


2 cups dent corn

1 T. calcium hydroxide

8 cups water

1 tsp. salt

½ cup water (to grind the dough)

¼ cup masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour)

Directions: rinse the corn, discarding shriveled kernels. Put water and calcium hydroxide into a non-reactive pot, like stainless steel. Stir well and add the corn. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let sit for 6 to 8 hours or overnight. If the corn isn’t submerged, add enough cold water to cover. Drain corn and massage it under running cold water, rubbing off as much of the outside hull as possible. Change the water a couple of times until it runs clear.

Drain the corn, put it in the food processor with the salt and ½ cup water and grind it until it forms a sticky dough. To make tortillas you’ll probably have to add the masa harina and maybe more to get the right consistency.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.