Let us be clear–this post is about making your own nixtamalized hominy, your own boiled maize kernels that have been soaked in an alkaline substrate, which will not only make processing them easier, but will also enhance their flavor. If you simply want to soak your dried corn in water then grind/cook it, this is not the post for you. You may argue that this is hominy just the same, but I’m taking a historical perspective–for centuries, hominy was nixtamalized, maize and alkaline treatment married in a prolific foodway. This may not be the hominy you know, but this is the hominy you will soon learn to make if you keep reading.
I also believe there’s an art to preparing and cooking hominy. While there are only three basic ingredients–maize, water, and an alkaline substrate–the variety of maize, the kind of alkaline substrate, even the quality of water all affect the final product. And there are plenty of places you can go wrong. Your kernels may be too old (several years). You may not have soaked your kernels in a strong enough alkaline solution to loosen the pericarps, or too strong a solution which removes not only the pericarps but also the germ, you may not have cooked your hominy long enough…and so on. While you may be used to working with other dried grains as well as legumes, many of us are not accustomed to working dried corn, and certainly not with nixtamalizing it.
Which Maize is Hominy Maize
According to Anthony Boutard, author of Beautiful Corn, most corns are hominy corns. In other words, you can use a dried flint, flour, pop, even dent to make hominy. The only kind you might want to avoid are sweets–you want to use mature, dried kernels, and sweets develop an unappealing texture if they are left to mature after their milk stage.
In the Eastern Woodlands, flints were the preferred variant for making hominy, while flours were also cultivated and nixtamalized. During the historic period, this selection was expanded to also include dents, a late introduction to the area. In the Southwest and Mesoamerica, flints, flours, dents, and even pops are all nixtamalized, and used to various ends. Depending on where you live, you may have a bounty of dried corns to choose from. As for the rest of us, I recommend visiting your local tienda or even farmers market for a good dried corn (which will likely be flour or dent). Or you can always turn to the Internet.
Choosing Your Own Alkaline Substrate
Just like you have your choice of maize, you also have your choice of alkaline substrates to use. Today, the most commonly used alkaline substrate is pickling lime, typically available at your local hardware store or farming/gardening supplier. Pickling lime was developed and is marketed for just that–pickles. It’s guarantee is that you’ll have crisp dills when you’re done. Pickling lime is relatively safe and easy to use, and a great choice if this if your first time making hominy.
Commercial, food-grade lye is far more dangerous (simply because you’ll be handling commercial lye, and not because the final product will in any way be toxic). You should wear rubber gloves when handling it, and store it in a very safe place away from little hands and paws. Also, I find of all the alkalinizing agents I’ve tried, this has the least appealing taste. However, if you already have it, for whatever reason (soap making, pretzel making, drain cleaning…), then use it, but if you’re going to have to make/buy your alkaline substrate, then consider passing on commercial lye and opt instead for either pickling lime or slaked lime.
There is even a rumor that you may be able to use baking soda. Yes, baking soda. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, and was developed as an alternative to artificially derived potash. Potash is a general term that refers to any number of salts that contain potassium, either natural or artificial. An easy way to produce potash was to place hardwood ash in a pot with water and boil it until salts were left behind. Potash was a very early and very popular Eastern North American export, used to make soap, glass, and also as a fertilizer. Though it is possible to use potash as an alkaline substrate to make hominy, traditionally, it was not. Many Euro-Americans did not nixtamalize their corn, while ethnohistoric sources indicate Indians overwhelming preferred hardwood ash or hardwood ash lye to either potash or baking soda.
Of course, you can also always use hardwood ash or hardwood ash lye. If you use hardwood ash, you need a place you can easily drain and wash the corn after soaking it–some place outdoors works well. You can use your sink, but beware that the ash may build up in your pipes (it has the consistency of mud). I have several quarts of my own homemade lye, both hickory and water oak, that I use. Not only are they less caustic than commercial lye, but they have subtle flavors that differ from both pickling lime and lye. You’ll have to make your own hardwood ash lye–I’ve yet to find anyone who sells it. But it’s a relatively easy and painless process if you have the materials.
Non-Reactive Pots and Pans
Because you’ll be working with a relatively caustic alkaline solution, you need to use non-reactive materials through this entire process–no aluminum or zinc pots. Instead, stainless steel, glass, or ceramic. The same goes for your colander as well as your spoon.
Whole Kernel, Coarsely Ground, Fine Meal, or Masa?
Before diving in, you need to decide what kind of nixtamal you want to make and what you plan to do with it. (Nixtamal refers to the prepared corn product, that have been soaked and otherwise processed in an alkaline substrate.) The maize you’ll use partially decides this for you–flints and pops make very good whole kernel or coarsely-ground hominy, while flours and dents make fine cornmeals and flours. Cornmeal or flour requires grinding your maize; coarsely cracked hominy also requires grinding, but less so. Whole kernel requires no grinding. Masa is nixtamalized corn dough, made from dried corn kernels that have been soaked overnight.
If you plan to make coarsely cracked hominy or fine, dry cornmeal, you should soak 1 quart of kernels in 1 1/2 quarts of spring water with about 4-7 tablespoons of hardwood ash lye, or 1 cup of hardwood ash. This concentration loosens the hulls from the kernel, but does not soften the kernel so much that it falls apart during grinding. For either whole kernel or masa, use closer to 1 c. of hardwood ash lye, or 1/3 c. culinary lime/pickling lime. You want to dissolve the skins as well as soften the kernel enough so you can easily turn it into a dough.
Once you have all your ingredients and materials handy, the first step is to soak your maize overnight in an alkaline substrate. When using culinary lime, it’s best to boil your solution, decant it, then pour it over your kernels before letting it sit for the night. (It is possible to skip soaking all together, and simply boil your kernels in your alkaline solution–this works best if you’re making whole kernel hominy or masa, and not so well for cornmeal, flour, or cracked kernel hominy. If you choose to boil instead of soak, you’ll want to let the kernels cook for between 15 to 30 minutes. Personally, I prefer to soak, but it’s up to you.)
The next day, rinse your kernels several times with cold water. If you soaked your kernels in woodash, remember that you may want to rinse them outside–your solution will have the consistency of mud, and may clog your sink. Once rinsed, process your kernels for your desired product. If you don’t want to cook your hominy right away, you can freeze it for a few months.
Beware that it takes a while to cook cracked kernel or whole hominy–at least two to three hours, but usually four to five. You want to cook it low and slow, with a gentle simmer. Your kernels will begin to get soft and even smell like hominy after about an hour, but they typically still have a somewhat crunchy germ. Cook the pot until the entire kernel is soft. Through the process, you’ll be amazed at how much water your hominy will absorb. Be sure to use a ratio of at least 4:1 (water:hominy) and keep an eye on it.
Like the processed corn you made, hominy can also be frozen and keeps for several months in the freezer, or about a week in the refrigerator.
Finally, Some Sample Recipes
Just in case you prefer to follow a recipe, I’ve included a few below. The first two use woodash lye and were recorded during mid-twentieth century by Muriel Wright; they have not been updated. The third recipe, from Anson Mills, is a modern recipe and for some may be much easier to follow.
Both of the following are mid-twentieth century Oklahoma Cherokee recipes, taken from Muriel Wright 1958. The first is a whole kernel hominy, while the second is a cracked kernel hominy.
Materials and Ingredients for both:
- non-reactive pot
- hardwood ash lye
- dried flint, pop, or dent maize
- wooden spoon
- fine-mesh strainer
- butter or bacon drippings
Cover one-half gallon of shelled white corn with a solution of water and ash-lye in a large kettle, and boil until the husks are loosened. Pour off the lye water, and wash the corn thoroughly and clean out the husks, in clear water. Cover the corn with two gallons of water, and boil four hours until tender. Keep plenty of water on the corn, adding water when necessary during the boiling. The boiled hominy can be further prepared as a dish by seasoning it with butter or bacon drippings; or it can be fried in bacon drippings.
Cover a quart of shelled, white corn with cold water to which three tablespoonfuls of ash-lye solution have been added, and soak for two or three hours. Pour off the solution, and pound the corn into small pieces in a mortar. Sift out the meal, and fan off the husks from the larger pieces of broken grain (these should be about 5 or 6 pieces to the grain). Place the large pieces of grain in a gallon of water, and boil for three hours, skimming off any pieces of husk that might rise to the top and adding water as needed. Then add the sifted meal, and cook another hour letting the mixture simmer until done. Add water if needed, and cook slowly.
Fresh Hominy (whole kernel hominy recipe from Anson Mills)
Materials and Ingredients:
- slow cooker
- non-reactive pot
- fine-mesh strainer
- wooden spoon
- footed colander
- 10 c. spring or filtered water (tap water should not be used)
- 1.6 ounces (1/3 c.) culinary lime
- 9 ounces (1 1/2 c.) hominy corn
Pour the water into a medium enamel- or porcelain-coated pot and bring to a simmer over high heat. Add the culinary lime and stir with a wooden spoon until the powder dissolves. Remove the pot from the heat and let stand. (It’s best to set the pot next to the slow-cooker without agitating the solids that settle on the bottom.) Cover the pot as soon as the water cools a bit.
After 4 to 5 hours there will be a thin, crisp lime skin on the surface of the water. The liquid beneath will be clean, and a layer of cloudy lime solids will hover over the bottom of the pot. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a 4- to 7- quart slow cooker. Lift the pot with limewater, tilt it gently, and pour the liquid through the strainer, leaving the cloudy solids in the pot (the lime skin will remain in the strainer). All the solids to settle again, and then decent more limewater into the slow cooker. Repeat this process until only about 1 c. of cloudy solids and water remains at the bottom of the pot. Pour the lime skin and solids down the drain and rinse the sink well. Add the corn to the slow cooker. Let settle, then skim off and discard any floating kernels. Cover the slow cooker and soak the corn overnight at room temperature.
Set the slow cooker on low and cook the corn for 5 1/2 hours. (The liquid should climb to the gentlest simmer very slowly–so slowly you won’t even notice it happening.) To check for doneness, using a wooden spoon, lift a few kernels out of the water, rinse them under cold running water, and taste them. If done, they will be soft and ever so slightly chewy with a gel-like texture, but with no hard, starchy centers.
Turn off the slow cooker and, using potholders, set the ceramic insert in the sink. Run hot tap water into the pot to flush out any bits of pericarp or hulls, stirring with a wooden spoon, for about 5 minutes. Place the hominy into a footed colander and rinse under hot running water, rubbing the kernels between your palms. Let the hominy cool to room temperature, turn it into an airtight container or large zipper-lock bag, and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months.