Masa harina is a staple in many classic recipes ranging from tamales to tortillas, lending robust flavor and unmatched texture that can’t be replicated by any other flour due to the unique nixtamalization process with which it’s made. But masa harina can also be a versatile ingredient throughout your baking: Those same characteristics that make it such an essential component of so many classic dishes can have a surprisingly great effect in unexpected places, from pancakes to cheese puffs.
Developing a masa harina shortbread recipe
“The first time I had whipped shortbread was from a baker I worked with at Baked in Brooklyn, whose recipe came from her aunt or grandmother,” says King Arthur recipe tester Molly Marzalek-Kelly. “The first bite just melted in my mouth. And I thought, these are phenomenal.” The “whipped” name refers to the cookies’ dainty lightness, a contrast to the rich, dense crumb of typical shortbread.
Inspired by that memorable cookie, Molly kept whipped shortbread on her recipe wish list for a long time. When King Arthur debuted our new masa harina, she knew it was the perfect opportunity to finally develop a recipe.
“Because the masa harina is gluten-free, it’s going to contribute more toward that characteristically fine-grained, delicate texture of whipped shortbread,” explains Molly. “Whereas making them with all all-purpose flour, the cookies have a little more structure.”
It wasn’t just texture that the masa harina added, either. Inspired by Mexican street corn, with its tart citrus and nutty corn flavor combination, Molly was drawn to the idea of pairing masa harina with lemon. “These cookies are definitely lemon-forward, but the corn is far from a background flavor. They’re pretty corn-forward, too.”
The final cookie result
What Molly wound up with was a cookie that has a consistency she calls “dissolvable,” plus layers of lemon and corn flavor.
The gluten-free masa harina contributes to the cookies’ crumbly, tender texture, but a few other recipe elements Molly added also help create a distinctively light, almost airy cookie: the choice of sugar and how long you beat the butter.
According to Molly, “Using confectioners' sugar — and its added cornstarch — instead of granulated sugar really helps to keep the texture delicate. Meanwhile, beating the butter, sugar, salt, and lemon zest at high speed for 5 minutes helps to incorporate a lot of air into the batter, which can be seen and tasted in the baked cookie's lightness.”
The result is a cookie with a signature “whipped” texture: light-as-air yet grounded in earthy, zingy flavors.
Try masa harina in other baked goods
Beyond just shortbread, masa harina adds new textures and flavors to all sorts of baked goods. Take waffles, for instance — masa harina transforms them into a hearty, savory centerpiece that can be served any time of day. Try it in doubly flavorful cornbread (even more corn!) or a delicate snacking cake with a bit of bite.
And if you’d like to play around in the kitchen, you can swap some masa harina into recipes that don’t call for it. Molly suggests starting by substituting masa harina for up to 25% of all-purpose flour in a recipe by weight, and maybe even beginning a little lower than that amount. “Because it’s gluten-free, it doesn’t behave the same as all-purpose flour,” she explains. “And keep an eye on the hydration of your recipe, too. Masa harina is super thirsty and will absorb more liquid, so even when subbing as little as 25%, you may need more liquid in the recipe.”
Keeping those nuances in mind, she recommends everyone give this flour a shot in their baking. “For bakers looking for that added layer of flavor in their baked goods, this is an easy and accessible approach.”
Cover photo by Kristin Teig.