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I often buy fresh prepared masa from Mexican markets in order to make tamales and pupusas. Mexican cookbook authors stress getting the correct masa for the recipe, either masa for tamales or masa for tortillas. However, the masa at the market is in an unlabelled bag and is identified by the proprietor as just "masa". Questions:

  1. is this more likely to be tamale or tortilla masa?

  2. is there a real difference? What?

  3. if there's a real difference, is there a way you can modify one type of masa into the other?

Clarifying: the above question is about fresh corn masa, not dried flour. Prepared masa, in particular, has at least oil and salt added to the fresh-ground corn.

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Interesting question. I've never seen types of masa differentiated either. –  Sobachatina May 4 '12 at 12:24
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5 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I found a link that will provide the explanation you are looking for:

http://www.mymexicanrecipes.com/ingredients/masa-harina.html

Here is a direct quote from the site:

Masa is dried corn that has been cooked in limewater (cal), soaked overnight, and then ground up while still wet. Sold in this form, it's called fresh masa, and it makes the lightest, fluffiest tamales. In Mexico, it can be purchased at tortilla factories in two ways: with smooth consistency for making tortillas and, upon request (if you are lucky), with a coarser consistency for making tamales. (Be careful to differentiate between masa para tamales and masa preparada para tamales; the latter, available at some tortilla factories and large Mexican groceries, is the coarse-textured masa mixed with lard and flavorings.

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Typically when you post a link, you want to put in the important direct quote that is relevant for the answer. If it is too long as you seemed to suggest in your original answer, then summarize. But that paragraph is no way too long to quote. –  Jay May 9 '12 at 1:36
    
So the difference is how finely the cornmeal is ground? –  FuzzyChef May 9 '12 at 6:23
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This might be an old question but I still stumbled on it and figured others would too, so it's still worth answering.

Difference: The grind makes all the difference.

Pre-made masa for tortillas doesn't have lard mixed into it. It's just finely ground and mixed with water to make the dough. Great for tortillas.

Pre-made masa for tamales is very light and fluffy because whipped lard is added to a coarse ground masa. It may also have spices added to it, depending on who made it. I get it from a mexican market and they each have their own recipe.

If you make a tamale with masa for tortillas, it will be much denser/heavier, and not in a good way. The taste will be off because lard gives a lot of flavour.

The other trick is adding broth or some of the sauce you'll use to stuff the tamale to the masa dough and mix it in well. It just gives that extra oomph. You don't have to.

How to altar it if you buy the wrong one: I just ask the employees if the unmarked bag is "masa preparada para tamales", and I never have to alter. If you end up with the wrong type, it may be the wrong coarseness but the taste may be greatly improved if you add about 1 cup of heavily whipped pork lard to 1 1/2 lbs of prepared masa plain masa dough. Add in your spices and other flavourings if you like but the basic is just adding the lard. You have to whip it until it turns lighter in colour, then mix it into the dough. Normally, you don't mix lard into dough, but this is the only thing I can think of to get that ingredient back in.

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Tamales and tortillas could be made using the same ingredients: Maseca flour and water.

Tamales are always made with Maseca flour, but there are four types of tortillas:

  • tortillas de harina or Maseca flour tortillas,
  • tortillas de maíz or corn flour tortillas,
  • tortillas azules or blue tortillas, made with blue corn flour,
  • tortillas moradas or purple tortillas, madre with purple corn flour
  • Flour tortillas are whiter, bigger and more flexible. This is why burritos are made with flour tortillas. Flour tortillas are used for tacos, quesadillas, ...

    Corn tortillas are yellowish, smaller and less flexible. They are usually used for little tacos, tostadas, nachos, ...

    You should try to buy Maseca flour and just add water. It will be cheaper and fresher, you can do it the moment you want to start cooking because it is a masa with no rising time.

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    I think the OP was really asking about the masa used in plain ol' corn tortillas; obviously flour tortillas and colored corn tortillas are not made with the same masa. –  Jefromi May 5 '12 at 2:14
        
    I was asking about fresh corn masa, not masa harina (dried corn flour). –  FuzzyChef May 5 '12 at 5:16
        
    I think I may write something wrong.. 'Fresh corn masa' for tamales is made with Maseca + water. –  doctoraw May 5 '12 at 19:48
        
    So tamal masa = tortilla masa. But there are more than one tortilla masa. And <a href="en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruma">Maseca</a>; is corn flour. –  doctoraw May 5 '12 at 19:54
        
    doctoraw, I still don't understand your answer. I was looking for the difference between fresh masa for tortillas and fresh masa for tamales, and as far as I can tell you haven't answered that question at all. –  FuzzyChef May 6 '12 at 18:14
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    Fresh masa the type you buy at your local molino is basicalltly the same. The masa for tamales spreads easier on the cor chuck than the masa fo tortillas. Same holds true with maseca for tortilla or for tamales. Maseca is dried corn flour. Fresh masa is made in a molino (tortilla factory).

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    When you are reading the labels on the fresh masa: one has the slated lime soaked corn coarsely ground plus lard or shortening, salt, and baking powder. The other has the ground corn without the other ingredients.

    One way of making a tortilla is to use the the masa without lard etc. and add just enough masa harina (ground corn flour)until the wet masa is stiffer. Dry fry it in a hot skillet until it is lightly colored and not dry. Note: the tortillas have a nutty, corn texture to them. Roll into a ball and put between a pieces of a heavy plastic bag or use tortilla press.

    Hope this helps.

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    Which masa is which? –  SAJ14SAJ Dec 18 '13 at 7:51
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