Nearly everyone who cooks runs into this situation: A recipe requires one key ingredient, but the cupboard contains none. Experienced cooks devise substitutions and often find their innovative solutions produce better results than the original recipe. Enterprising cornbread bakers replace all or a portion of the cornmeal in a recipe with masa harina -- an erstwhile kitchen emergency turned into a bit of serendipity.
Cornmeal vs Masa Harina
These two milled corn products are similar, though cornmeal is more coarsely ground than masa harina, resulting in a gritty texture. Cornbread recipes typically call for a finer grind of cornmeal in the batter, while dusting the pan with coarser meal produces a slightly gritty crust. In contrast, masa harina resembles baking flour. The special processing of masa that uses a weak lye solution to remove the grain's outer hull, contributes to it distinctive flavor.
Replacing some or all of the cornmeal with masa harina does not require extensive alterations to a recipe. You can follow the general rule of three parts cornmeal or masa to one part liquid. In recipes based on masa harina, adding wheat flour provides gluten, a protein found in most grains and required for adequate rising and good crumb structure. Some recipes note that a small amount of additional liquid may be required when incorporating masa harina. Masa's finer milling creates more surface area to absorb liquid. In contrast, cornmeal's coarser grind leaves fewer surfaces in contact with liquid.
The resulting cornbread tends to have a more "corny" flavor when it's made with masa instead of cornmeal. Additionally, cornbread made exclusively with masa tends to be crispy and hearty when baked in a skillet. Recipes using a combination of masa and cornmeal, then baked in the oven result in cornbread closer to the fluffy, cake-like products.
Put drained canned corn into a food processor and pulse it for a few seconds, and add the corn to the cornbread batter. For even more flavor, remove the seeds from a small hot pepper and chop the flesh, incorporating it into the cornbread batter. To retain a crispy bottom crust, remove baked cornbread from the pan or skillet after it cools slightly.
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