Have you ever tried hominy, or its cousin grits? How about corn tortillas or tortilla chips? If so, you have enjoyed the flavor and nutrition that comes from the cooking technique called “nixtamalization”: soaking corn in lye or pickling lime, a process that has been used for over 3500 years. The resulting corn product, called regionally by the names of hominy, big hominy, posole, or nixtamal, is loaded with benefits that normal untreated corn can’t provide.
Nixtamalization loosens the hulls to make the kernels easier to digest and releases the vitamin Niacin so that our bodies can utilize it. Traditionally, it had the additional perks of preventing spoilage from insects and mold, and keeping the kernels from sprouting in storage. Plus, it just makes corn taste fantastic.
Making hominy is a time consuming but worthwhile process. There are countless variations of the process we’ll describe here, and you may need to make adjustments while you prepare it depending on what type of corn you use, how hot your lime water is when cooking, etc.
Step One: Gather Your Corn
- If you grew your own dry corn, such as Hopi Blue Dent or Glass Gem, start by shelling the kernels and removing any chaff.
- Discard any broken kernels as well, because they will swell too quickly when soaked in the lime water.
- You can also purchase dry corn, and even popcorn kernels can be used to make hominy. The bigger the kernels the better.
- In the South, white corn is most commonly used, whereas in other parts of the world yellow and blue are popular choices. Use what you can get, any color will work.
- Whatever variety you choose, do NOT use seed corn. Kernels intended for your garden have not been stored or treated in a way that is safe for eating, and sometimes are treated with toxic chemicals.
Step Two: Get Your Lime
No, we don’t mean a yummy little green citrus! Nixtamalization requires lye or lime dissolved in water. Traditionally, this lime water was made by adding ashes – which contain lye – to a bucket or clay pot full of water. Another traditional method, still commonly used in Latin America, is to use slaked lime which is made from limestone. Slaked lime is available in hispanic markets where it is called “cal.”
Nowadays, though, you can most easily find a different kind called pickling lime or food grade lime. It is usually available wherever canning supplies are sold, or online. This is the kind of lime the following steps utilize.
Safety First when Using Caustic Materials
Before you proceed, make sure that you have all the equipment you’ll need.
- Lye (and pickling lime) is extremely caustic and can burn your skin, so it is a good idea to wear gloves and goggles when handling it.
- It also will react with aluminum, so you will need to use non-reactive pots and tools, such as an enamel or porcelain coated pot and wooden or plastic spoon.
- It is best to use an oversized pot for the volume you’ll be making, so that you don’t accidentally splash yourself when stirring the lime water.
Step Three: Soak Your Corn
This step is the most controversial for which way is best. Traditionalists prefer the slow method, which takes a full extra day (sometimes three!). Most people, though, don’t have that sort of time to devote to the art of hominy and prefer a quicker approach.
Making the Lime Water
For the slowest process, make the lime water first.
- Simmer 10 cups of water to a non-reactive pot, then stir in 1/4 cup of lime.
- Once it is dissolved, cover and remove from heat.
- Allow it to sit for five hours, at the end of which there will be a skin on the top of the water and solids settled to the bottom of the pot.
- Place a mesh (not metal) strainer or a large paper coffee filter over another non-reactive pot (or a crockpot, if you’ll be cooking the hominy this way).
- Slowly decant the lime water through the filter to remove the solids.
Most people do not make the lime water first, but this ensures that you don’t have any undissolved lime solids in your final hominy, which could result in an off flavor or upset tummy.
Adding the Corn to the Lime Water
- Add 2 cups of corn kernels.
- If you choose not to pre-make the lime water, heat fresh water with the lime, stir to dissolve, then immediately add the corn.
- Traditionally this was left to soak without heat for a day or two, until the tips turn dark and the kernels swell up. However, you can speed up the process by bringing the corn and lime water just to a boil, then removing from the heat and letting rest, covered, for two hours or overnight.
- Don’t let the corn actually cook at a boil, or it will result in a bitter off flavor.
- Some cooks don’t bother with taking the time to soak their corn before cooking, but doing so will reduce the cooking time needed and improve the flavor of the hominy.
Step Four: Cook Your Corn
The key to cooking hominy is to slowly simmer the corn until it is done. You cannot rush this step, or the flavor will be off.
Traditionally, this was done in a clay pot or (post-colonization) a cast iron kettle over a fire. You will probably want to try a more modern approach, either in the over, on the stove-top, or in a crock pot.
Whichever method you choose, you will bring the corn and lime water up to a slow simmer. You should just barely see movement in the water or a few small bubbles, and if you check the water temperature it will be around 190°F.
Simmer the corn until it is done. Depending on the variety, whether (and how long) you pre-soaked it, and how hot your lime water actually gets during this process, this could be as little as a half-hour and as much as five hours.
When you see the cellophane-like hull fall away but the tips are still attached, it’s time to check for doneness. Use a wooden spoon to lift out a few kernels, then rinse them well to remove the excess lime water before tasting. The kernels won’t all cook evenly, so you should taste several kernels to determine if it’s done. If they’re done, the texture will be slightly chewy but with no hard centers. Undercooking is better than overcooking if you’re not sure, because you can cook them a little more when you’re ready to eat them. Don’t overcook the kernels, because they’ll become over-limed and may even dissolve in the water.
Step Five: Rinse Your Hominy
Once you’ve decided your kernels have cooked enough, you have successfully made hominy! However, it cannot be eaten until it is well rinsed to remove the excess lime. Otherwise, it will taste bad and may even upset your stomach.
- You can simply set the hot pot in your sink and slowly run water in it to flush away the hulls and lime.
- Or, you can pour the hominy into a non-aluminum colander and rinse.
- You may want to also soak the hominy in clean water for five minutes.
- The amount of rinsing and time for soaking (if any) is hotly debated by hominy aficionados, but generally speaking more rinsing and the full five minutes of soaking is best in terms of flavor and safety.
- At this point, some cooks will remove the darkened tips from each kernel; this is generally accepted as not being necessary but will improve the aesthetic appearance of your hominy, especially if you will be eating it whole.
Step Six: Store or Prepare Your Hominy
If you will not be eating your hominy right away, let it cool to room temperature and then store it in an airtight container or bag. It can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or the freezer for 3 months.
You can also dehydrate the kernels until you are ready to cook them. To rehydrate, just simmer them in fresh water until soft.
Making Grits, Masa, Corn Nuts and More!
To make grits, run your dehydrated kernels through a food processor until they are coarsely ground.
To make masa, or corn meal, you can grind the hominy freshly cooked if you will be using it right away for tamales or tortillas, or you can grind the hominy once you’ve dehydrated it for long term storage.
To make corn nuts, fry the freshly cooked hominy until they’re golden and crunchy.
There are many other wonderful ways to eat your hominy or masa as well, such as tamales, tortillas, atole (and atole de chocolate), champurrado, pozole stew, hominy bread, mote, Jamaican polenta, rockihominy, and tlacoyos.