Outside of Mexico and Central America, masa harina substitutes are often necessary, as the ingredient can be hard to find. Latin markets will carry it, but it is not commonly stocked at average supermarkets. Having a knowledge of masa harina substitutes makes preparing Mexican and Central American meals easier where ingredients from those regions are rare.
Masa Harina Substitutes
A staple ingredient in Latin American cuisine, masa harina is a dried corn flour. Also known as maseca, after the most popular brand, this fine flour comes from hominy – corn that has been cooked with slaked lime (calcium chloride). This process, called nixtamalization, releases more nutrients from the corn and allows masa harina to be made into a sticky dough when mixed with water. This dough, called masa, is the basis for tortillas, tamales, and pupusas. The dried flower is also used to thicken soups and sauces.
It is difficult and even dangerous to make at home because slaked lime can cause chemical burns, lung damage, and even blindness if handled improperly. Fortunately, there are many substitutes for masa harina that are readily available, including cornmeal and flour, hominy, ground tortillas, polenta, corn grits, and cornstarch among others.
Cornmeal and Flour
For making homemade tortillas, this is the easiest replacement. Mix two parts all-purpose flour with one part fine-ground cornmeal and use this mixture as the basis for your dough.
Available canned or sometimes dried, this is the treated corn that is used to make masa harina. Mashup canned hominy, or cook and mash the dried version.
If you have corn tortillas and are making a different recipe, simply grind the tortillas in a food processor and use this hardy mixture in place of maseca.
Although it is coarser than masa harina, polenta is made from corn and can be substituted in certain recipes, such as soups. Polenta can also be ground more finely using a food processor or grain mill.
These are similar to polenta, and can sometimes be found in a more finely ground form.
If masa harina is needed as a thickener, cornstarch will work in its place. However, the flavor will be less distinct, so use this cautiously if the recipe has a delicate flavor balance.