Nixtamalizing Corn to Prevent Pellagra

Nixtamalizing corn

First let me explain that most corn you buy in today’s market has not been nixtamalized. Nixtamalization refers to a process for the treatment of corn, in which the corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually lime water.  This is done to liberate the B-vitamin niacin, the lack of which was the underlying cause of the condition known as pellagra. Pellagra and How to Treat Corn to Prevent It.  As long as you are not using corn for a staple food using it untreated is fine.  Most of the corn meal that you purchase has not been treated.  Nixtamalizing corn is mainly done to hominy or masa, the flour that is used to make tortillas.

Where they run into the problems from pellagra was when it was eaten in large amounts at almost every meal.  This was quite common in the poorer parts of the south during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures were heavily dependent on corn in their diet and avoided nutritional problems by the use of lime and wood ash.

In Aztec and Mayan cultures they still use slacked or hydrated lime, or cal in Spanish, to make limewater.  This form of lime is made from limestone (calcium carbonate) that is put into a limekiln and baked at 1520° F.  The result is quicklime (calcium oxide), which is then exposed to water, or slacked, to form calcium hydroxide or cal. You can buy cal at a Mexican store.  Slacked lime is ground into a dry powder.  Archeologists have unearthed limekilns in the settlements of both the Olmec and the Maya, early Central American civilizations.  They also used the lime for mortar and plaster.

Here is a recipe for Nixtamalizing Corn 


  • 2 pounds clean, dried flour-corn kernels (about 1 quart)
  • 1/4 cup pickling lime (food-grade calcium hydroxide)
  • 3 quarts water


  • In a large, stainless steel (nonreactive) pot, dissolve the lime or cal in the 3 quarts of water.
  • Immediately wash off any lime that gets on your hands.
  • Add clean corn and discard any floating kernels.
  • Bring to a boil over high heat.  Allow the water to boil then reduce the heat to a simmer.  If you are making the dough for tortillas, allow it to boil for 2 minutes. If you are making tamale dough simmer for 12 to 15 minutes.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and allow the corn to soak.  For tortilla dough, allow it to soak, covered, overnight.  For tamale dough, allow it to soak for an hour.
  • Pour the corn into a colander in the sink.  Under cold water, rub the kernels with your hands to rub away the softened hulls.
  • Rinse thoroughly and drain well.
  • To finish making masa you must now grind the corn.  The inexpensive Corona mill is made specifically for grinding corn to make masa.  Here is a link to a Corona Style Mill.   Just grind the wet corn on the finest setting so it comes out smooth like dough.  You can let this dry into masa flour or use wet.
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Although I have never tried it, I understand that in areas where limestone was not available the Native Americans used wood ash in place of the lime.  The Navajos for example mixed Juniper wood ash with their corn, it is my understanding that they used it in two different ways, one making a water and using it like lime water and the second involved mixing it directly in the corn.

There seems to be no set recipe, it was done differently in different parts of the country, but it all seemed to have worked.  In the next few days, I will put up instruction on making hominy which is another method of Nixtamalizing Corn.


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