All About Hominy


It was a dreary, rainy day and I craved a steaming, spicy bowl of pozole from my favorite Mexican restaurant in Chicago. I spooned up the soft golden nuggets swimming in the hot bowl of the chile-steeped stew. Nothing better than a bowl of comfort on a cold day. “What’s in your soup?” asked one of my kids. “Are those chickpeas?” Nope, not chickpeas—but an ancient ingredient called hominy. 

Hominy is field corn (known as maize) that is processed by nixtamalization. (Say that five times fast.) This process changes hard, inedible field corn into the puffy kernels floating in my favorite pozole. Nixtamalization is a way of preserving maize to keep the corn from sprouting when stored. The whole-corn kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkali solution (with lye or slaked lime—which has no connection to the green citrus fruit we put in margaritas).

Here’s how it works: Nixtamalization softens corn’s tough, fibrous exterior hull for easy removal. The kernels then swell to double their size. The “giant corn” is rinsed to remove the solutions, the hull and the germ, which is the reproductive part of the corn plant. What remains is hominy and it can be used as whole kernels, like in pozole, or ground into the fine flour called masa harina

Hominy is field corn (known as maize) that is processed by nixtamalization … and can be used as whole kernels, like in pozole, or ground into a fine flour called masa harina.

Nixtamalization changes the structure of the corn’s proteins and carbs. The corn now contains emulsifying agents creating a ground grain that can stick together by simply adding water. This is the magic that creates the masa for tortillas. This kind of dough is not possible without the transformation of nixtamalization. Try making dough out of plain cornmeal and water, and you will see the difference.

Thank you, Mesoamerica, for Nixtamalization

This process goes way back. The Mesoamerica people, circa 1,500 B.C., developed the nixtamalization process. Hominy comes from the Powhatan word for prepared maize chickahominy. The word nixtamal derives from the Nahuatl language. The earliest known use of the nixtamalization process is from southern Mexico and Guatemala. The Lacandon Maya from the tropical lowland regions of eastern Chiapas toasted freshwater shells over a fire for several hours. They created a powder from these shells to form the lye. The lye and corn were then boiled to create hominy.

The Aztecs and Mayans used a different method. They heated limestone and then rehydrated it to create slaked lime. The lime was then combined with wood ash to create the hominy alkali solution.

Not only did this process help preserve the corn kernels, it boosted the health of early Mesoamericans. The body cannot absorb the niacin in unprocessed maize. Nixtamalization breaks down the maize’s hemicellulose, allowing the body to easily access the niacin. Niacin deficiency can lead to serious health problems such as pellagra or kwashiorkor, linked to mental delusions, skin sores, severe malnutrition and even death. The introduction of nixtamalization helped safeguard these early civilizations.

Canned, Dried or Ground? Finding Your Perfect Hominy

If you are in search of hominy to add to your pozole or make your own masa, it is readily available in supermarkets. Hominy comes dried or in cans. You may see it labeled as mote pelado: mote (corn) and pelado (“bare” or without its husk). The canned version is ready to use and easiest to cook with. Starting with dried hominy involves the same process as cooking with dried beans: soaking and boiling the kernels.

The ground version of hominy, masa harina is another easy-to-find supermarket item. It can also be used as a thickening agent, made into grits, or turned into dough.

As I sat in my Chicago pozoleria, I marveled at how hominy came to be a staple in so many Latin American cultures and their cuisines. Without this nixtamalized ingredient we would not have pozole, tortillas, tamales, arepas, some types of empanadas, and pupusas—to name just a few of our favorite dishes.

If you find yourself in need of comfort food, on a day cold or hot, to fill your belly and warm your heart, think of this ancient ingredient so key to making Latinx recipes come together in perfect hominy.

Ready to Make a Batch of Hominy-Starring Pozole?

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Main Photo: Michelle Lee Photography

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