Is corn flour and masa the same thing?

Quick Answer

Corn flour and masa are similar, but not exactly the same thing. Masa is a type of corn flour made from nixtamalized corn, while regular corn flour is usually made from dried corn. The nixtamalization process changes the nutritional profile of masa and gives it a unique flavor compared to regular corn flour. Both can be used for baking, but they are not always interchangeable.

What is Corn Flour?

Corn flour is a finely ground powder made from dried corn kernels. To make corn flour, the corn kernels are dried and then ground into a fine powder. Corn flour comes in a few varieties:

  • White corn flour – Made from white corn.
  • Yellow corn flour – Made from yellow corn.
  • Blue corn flour – Made from blue corn.
  • Masa harina – A type of corn flour made from nixtamalized corn.

The variety used depends on the flavor and color desired. Most mainstream corn flour is made from dried yellow or white corn. Due to the lack of germ and hull, it has a mild flavor compared to whole grain cornmeal. Corn flour has a fine, almost silky texture that can help create tender baked goods.

Some key characteristics of regular corn flour include:

  • Very finely ground – Almost powdery texture
  • Made from dried corn kernels
  • Lacks corn germ and hull
  • Mild flavor
  • Color varies based on corn variety used

Corn flour is used in many recipes as a substitute for other wheat flours. It brings a sweet, delicate corn flavor without being overpowering. Some popular uses for corn flour include:

  • Tortillas
  • Tamales
  • Corn bread
  • Muffins
  • Pancakes
  • Waffles
  • Cookies
  • Corn tortilla chips

It can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for all-purpose or cake flour in many recipes. The fine grind helps create light textures in baked goods. However, corn flour lacks gluten, so it may need to be combined with wheat flour for leavened breads.

What is Masa?

Masa is a special type of corn flour made from dried corn kernels that have undergone an alkalization process using slaked lime, known as nixtamalization. It has a richer corn flavor and aroma compared to regular corn flour. Here is an overview:

  • Made from nixtamalized corn kernels
  • Dried corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution
  • Removes hull and germ
  • Made into a dough then ground into flour
  • Rich corn flavor
  • Used to make masa dough, tamales, tortillas, pupusas, and more

The nixtamalization process dates back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztec and Mayans. It became a popular technique to improve the nutritional value of corn and make it easier to grind into masa.

The process involves soaking and cooking the corn in an alkaline solution, usually limewater or slaked lime. The corn kernels are left to soak for several hours, which helps loosen the hull.

The kernels are then washed and ground while still wet. This creates a pliable dough known as masa. The wet masa can then be pressed into tortillas or shaped into tamales.

Once dried and powdered, masa can also be used as a corn flour called masa harina. It has a sweet, nutty corn taste and aroma. The slaked lime treatment allows the ground masa to bind together and hold its shape for making tortillas.

Compared to regular corn flour, masa has some key differences:

  • Made from nixtamalized corn
  • Contains corn hull and germ
  • Richer corn flavor
  • Nuttier aroma
  • Slightly sweet taste
  • Better binding properties

Masa is an important ingredient in Mexican and Central American cuisines. It is used to make staples like:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Tamales
  • Pupusas
  • Arepas
  • Gorditas
  • Sopes
  • Pozole
  • Chilaquiles
  • Tlayudas
  • Corn chips

Fresh masa can be found at some Latin American grocery stores and specialty markets. Masa harina corn flour is also widely available in the baking aisle of major supermarkets.

Differences Between Corn Flour and Masa

While both are made from corn, there are some key differences between regular corn flour and masa:

Processing Method

  • Corn flour – Made from dried corn kernels ground into flour.
  • Masa – Kernels are nixtamalized before grinding into masa dough.


  • Corn flour – 100% corn kernels
  • Masa – Corn kernels nixtamalized with slaked lime or limewater

Flavor and Aroma

  • Corn flour – Mild corn flavor
  • Masa – Bolder, sweeter corn flavor with a hint of nuttiness

Corn Components

  • Corn flour – Lacks germ and hull
  • Masa – Contains corn germ and hull, adding flavor and nutrition


  • Corn flour – Very fine and powdery
  • Masa – Doughy and more cohesive texture

Binding Ability

  • Corn flour – Does not bind well due to lack of gluten
  • Masa – Nixtamalization improves binding properties


  • Corn flour – Tortillas, breads, pancakes, pastries
  • Masa – Tamales, tortillas, masa chips, pupusas

While their uses overlap in some areas, masa works better than corn flour for making tamales, tortillas, and other Latin American staples.


Both corn flour and masa contain carbohydrates, fiber, and small amounts of fat and protein. However, the nixtamalization process boosts masa’s nutritional value compared to regular corn flour:


The alkaline solution helps make protein in corn more bioavailable in masa.


Masa contains significantly higher levels of niacin, an essential B vitamin, due to increased bioavailability during nixtamalization.


Limewater adds calcium to soaked corn kernels used to make masa.

Overall, masa offers a more nutritious corn product compared to regular corn flour. The nixtamal process efficiently unlocks nutrients in corn.

Can Masa and Corn Flour be Used Interchangeably?

Masa and corn flour can substitute for each other in some recipes, but they are not always interchangeable.

Here are some considerations when deciding whether to substitute masa for corn flour:

  • Flavor – Masa has a stronger corn flavor that may not be desirable in all recipes.
  • Binding – Corn flour lacks masa’s binding properties which can affect texture.
  • Dough – May need to decrease liquids in a recipe since masa creates a more cohesive dough.
  • Availability – Masa may not always be easy to find.
  • Appearance – Substituting masa changes the color from white to yellow.

And when substituting corn flour for masa:

  • Texture – Corn flour may create a drier, crumbly texture.
  • Flavors – Nuanced masa flavors will be missing.
  • Bind – Corn flour does not bind well, so the dish may fall apart.
  • Moisture – May need extra moisture to account for masa’s wetness.
  • Appearance – Color will appear whiter.

For recipes like tamales, tortillas, and masa chips, masa is required to get an authentic texture and flavor. Other baked goods may work with corn flour instead of masa, but keep the differences in mind. Consider doing a test run first.

Masa and corn flour work best in their intended applications. While substituted in a pinch, expect some variations in the final recipe when swapping one for the other.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is masa the same as cornmeal?

No, masa and cornmeal are different. Cornmeal is made by grinding dried corn kernels into a coarse, grainy flour. It has a gritty texture and comes in different grinds like fine, medium and coarse. Masa is made from nixtamalized corn that has been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution.

Can I make masa from corn flour?

No, authentic masa can only be made starting with whole dried corn kernels that undergo the nixtamal process. Simply adding water to corn flour will not replicate true masa. However, in a pinch, a dough can be made from corn flour, water, and baking powder that mimics some properties of masa.

What’s the difference between masa harina and corn flour?

Masa harina is a finely ground flour made from masa dough. It contains all components of the corn kernel and has higher nutrition than corn flour. Corn flour is more processed, made from just the dried ground corn kernel without the hull and germ. Masa harina has a richer corn flavor while corn flour tastes more neutral.

Is masa harina the same as masa?

While related, masa harina and masa are not exactly the same thing. Fresh masa is a wet dough made from nixtamalized corn. Masa harina is masa that has been dried and ground into a fine powder to produce a flour. Masa harina is used for convenience, to make masa dough without starting from scratch with dried corn.

What can I substitute for masa harina?

Some options to substitute for masa harina include:

  • Regular corn flour plus baking powder
  • Half corn flour, half all-purpose flour
  • Fine cornmeal
  • Instant masa flour

No substitute will match the exact properties and flavor of true masa harina, but these options can work in a pinch. Consider adjusting other ingredients like liquid to account for differences.


In summary:

  • Corn flour is made from dried, ground corn kernels.
  • Masa is made from nixtamalized corn and contains the hull and germ.
  • The nixtamalization process boosts masa’s nutrition compared to corn flour.
  • Masa has a richer corn taste and binds better than corn flour.
  • The two can substitute for each other in some recipes, but the final dish may differ.
  • For authentic ethnic recipes, the intended flour should be used.
  • Consider the flavor, texture, appearance, and binding properties when substituting between corn flour and masa.

While their uses overlap in some areas, corn flour and masa are not identical. Masa goes through an intensive process that creates distinct flavor and nutrition profiles. Knowing the differences allows you to pick the right corn product for your baking needs.

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