I personally taste-tested a variety of masa harina substitutes to find the best one for every occasion. Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry substitute, or want a swap that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
The best substitute for masa harina is to find hominy (whole nixtamalized corn kernels) and grind them into a powder or paste yourself. You can also use cornmeal as long as you don’t expect authentic results. Crushed corn chips are great if you need an alternative thickener.
I tested a few of the substitutes by making tamales with them (my friends loved the leftovers), and a few I just tested as thickeners.
Masa harina is made from nixtamalized corn, which is corn that has been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, and then ground into flour. It’s earthy and nutty, and makes a distinctive dough. Masa harina is a staple ingredient in traditional Latin American dishes like tortillas and tamales, and you can also use it as a thickener.
It’s very unique, so it was hard to find a decent substitute, but I did find some options. Here are the substitutes I tested and my verdicts:
|Hominy||Whole nixtamalized corn||10/10|
|Cornmeal||Okay in a pinch||10/10|
|Corn Tortillas||Processed into a powder||8/10|
|Corn Tortilla Chips||Crushed||9/10|
|Cornstarch or Roux||For thickening||7/10|
|Masarepa||Makes Colombian tamales||9/10|
|Homemade Masa Harina||If you have time||10/10|
Hominy are whole nixtamalized corn kernels, which is what masa is made from, so hominy is essentially the un-ground form of masa and by far the best substitute. It’s also the only real substitute option that works if you’re making tamales or corn tortillas because you need nixtamalized corn.
You can find hominy in both canned and dried forms. Canned hominy is pre-cooked and ready to use, so it’s the more convenient option and it’s easy to grind into a paste. If you’re using canned hominy in a recipe that calls for masa harina, add any liquids slowly to make sure to get the correct texture.
If you’re outside of the US, look for hominy in the international section of big supermarkets (although you might also find masa harina there too).
How to substitute: Replace masa harina in a 1:1 ratio with ground hominy.
Cornmeal is another potential substitute for masa harina, though it has notable differences – the key one being that it’s made from regular dried corn instead of nixtamalized corn.
This means cornmeal has a grittier texture than masa harina, and it doesn’t have the distinctive lime-treated flavor. It also doesn’t behave the same when mixed with liquids. Because of this, lots of people will tell you that you can’t use cornmeal instead of masa harina.
But I decided to try anyway and think that as long as you’re willing to accept you won’t get a perfect match, cornmeal is an acceptable substitute. To make cornmeal more like masa harina, you can grind it to achieve a finer consistency and if you’re making tamales, make sure to add some baking powder to the dough as well.
How to substitute: Find a recipe for the dish you want to make that uses cornmeal instead of masa, then follow that. This isn’t a simple swap.
Corn tortillas are primarily made from masa harina, making them a convenient substitute in certain recipes (not tamales).
To use corn tortillas as a substitute for masa harina, you need to process them into a flour-like consistency. Tear the tortillas into smaller pieces and pulse them in a food processor until you have a fine powder.
Since the tortillas have already been cooked, the powder you have won’t absorb liquids in the same way as masa harina, which is why it’s not suitable for making tamales. But you can use this substitute for thickening or as a base for tamale pie.
How to substitute: Replace masa harina in a 1:1 ratio with blended corn tortillas.
Corn Tortilla Chips
Corn tortilla chips, like corn tortillas, are made from masa harina and so can be used as a replacement. Again, you need to grind or crush them until you have a fine powder (or as fine as you can get). But first I recommend you wash the chips to get rid of all the salt or flavorings, then dry them out in the oven so you can crush them effectively.
Even after washing the chips, I would still refrain from adding any extra salt to your recipe until you’ve tasted it. Most corn tortilla chips are heavily salted!
Crushed corn tortilla chips are an excellent thickener for chili and other similar dishes. Alton brown even suggested that corn chips would be his first choice as a chili thickener!
How to substitute: Replace masa harina in a 1:1 ratio with crushed tortilla chips (for thickening).
Cornstarch or Roux
Another option if you’re using the masa harina as a thickener, is to simply swap it for another thickener. Popular ones (that you might have on hand) include cornstarch or a roux made with flour and fat.
Cornstarch is very effective at thickening, but it can make your food glossy and give the sauce a slick texture which isn’t always desirable. To use cornstarch, mix equal amounts of cornstarch and cold water to form a slurry. 1 tablespoon will thicken 1 cup of sauce.
A roux is made by cooking equal parts flour and fat (like butter or oil) until the raw flavor of the flour is cooked out. It’s ideal for creamy or hearty dishes like stews, where it provides a rich base.
Pro tip: For thickening chili, another alternative is using mashed-up beans.
How to substitute: Use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch or flour to thicken 1 cup of sauce instead of masa harina.
Masarepa is a pre-cooked corn flour that is used to make arepas, a type of corn cake popular in Colombia and Venezuela. It’s not really a substitute for masa harina because it’s not made from nixtamalized corn. But you can use it to make ‘Colombian style’ tamales (they were yuuuummy).
The dough has a moister texture than Mexican tamales and the fillings tend to be more varied with a mixture of meats and vegetables.
Psst… you can find masarepa online or in Latin markets.
How to substitute: Find a recipe for the dish you want to make that uses masarepa instead of masa, then follow that.
Homemade Masa Harina
If you’re really after an authentic substitute and can’t find hominy, then your only real option is to nixtamalize your own corn. It’s a ‘rewarding’ process, which in other words means it’s not that easy!
- 2 cups of dried field corn (also known as maize)
- 2 tablespoons of calcium hydroxide (also known as cal or pickling lime – handle with gloves)
Once you have the ingredients, you need to simmer the corn with calcium hydroxide for 30-45 minutes before leaving it to soak overnight. Then you can dry the (now nixtamalized) corn and grind it into a fine powder – although note that getting as fine a grind as store-bought masa harina can be difficult.
Field corn is preferred for making masa harina. Avoid using sweet corn! You can get field corn from local farmers, health food stores, or online.
Psst… here’s a detailed and easy-to-follow recipe.
How to substitute: Replace masa harina in a 1:1 ratio with homemade masa harina.
Substitutes To Avoid
While I was researching for possible masa harina substitutes, I came across flour mentioned. This is not a good replacement for masa harina.
Flour is made from wheat, not corn. And this fundamental difference means the two aren’t interchangeable. Flour contains gluten, which means any dough you make will be stretchy and elastic – nothing like dough made from corn.
Best Masa Harina Substitutes + 1 To Avoid
- 1 portion Hominy
- 1 portion Cornmeal
- 1 portion Corn tortillas Processed
- 1 portion Corn tortilla chips Crushed
- 1 portion Cornstarch or Roux
- 1 portion Masarepa
- 1 portion Homemade Masa Harina
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen masa harina substitutes at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.