Fresh Whole Hominy
Pre-Columbian Americans regarded everything they grew and cooked as sacred and alive, and they considered everything within their cooking sphere to be bound by nature and magic. At the moment a breeze swept ashes into a pot of corn simmering in spring water on the fire, magic became a prime ingredient. The water that cooked this corn, known as limewater today, gave the kernels fresh dimensions beyond the familiar flavor of sweet corn—it brought forth floral notes and layers of mineral and clove. But that’s not all. The corn ground easily into meal and made flatbreads that were soft and pliable, not brittle. And those who ate the corn felt like a million bucks. That’s how we like to tell the story.
Today, corn cooked by this method is called both nixtamal (a Mexican Spanish adaptation of an Aztec term) and hominy (anglicized Algonquin). (Since you asked.)
Its precise origins aside, early nixtamal cookery involved wood ash, water, and maize. Properly concentrated, wood ash and water form a naturally caustic chemical called potassium hydroxide (colloquially, potash) that dissolves pericarp (the cellophane stuff that gets stuck in your teeth when you eat popcorn) straight off the kernels. The kernels are left plump, naked as a baby, and infused with an intoxicating flavor that is part corn, part exotic spice, and part mysterious scents that seem to alert your primal sensors to anticipate exceptional nutrition. It is an authentic American flavor very few of us have experienced. But you can experience it now.
Fresh hominy can be used whole, as in hominy fried in brown butter and herbs, or ground into masa to make tortillas. It can be included as a bright accent in soups and stews or deep-fried to a supple yet crisp result. It also freezes well, maintaining its unique and exceptional character.
Native Americans perfected the art of slow cooking. The delicacy of their clay pots demanded an equal delicacy of technique, one that kept things well under the boiling point. When we began working on this recipe, we had a tough time keeping our stovetop consistently supportive: the water alternately crept up to a boil or languished below a simmer. Unexpected evaporation required constant vigilance and fresh infusions of water. Cooking times were unpredictable. After a point, we went American old school and bought a slow cooker. Suddenly, everything we’d been fretting over came down to a single, simple formula: limewater and corn cooked on low heat for 5½ hours. No stirring, no liquid adjustments, no problems. With a ceramic insert and high and low heat settings, the slow cooker is a modern day clay pot, and its timer function makes it babysitter extraordinaire.
Subsequently, we’ve learned that some older slow cookers appear to have compromised thermostats and thus, longer cook times. Don’t worry: unless your slow cooker is truly geriatric—or simply broken—it will, in our experience, produce success in the end. Watch for that subtle little simmer.
Lime is caustic and should not come into prolonged contact with your skin. If you touch culinary lime in dry or liquid form, rinse the area with cold water. Rinse utensils and pots and clean the sink and counters where culinary lime has been present.
In its earliest Native American form, culinary lime (aka culinary lye and potash) was a mixture of water and wood ash in which corn was cooked to remove the clear outer cellophane-like coating of each corn kernel (that coating is called pericarp, and you’ll recognize it as the stuff that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat popcorn). Simply put, wood ash and water mixed together form potassium hydroxide, a naturally caustic chemical that makes hard proteins in the corn pericarp soluble—it literally eats the pericarp away. Today, more often than not, taking the place of the water-and-ash brew is culinary lime, a white powder purified from natural calcium deposits, that is stirred into water to make limewater.
Dried corn simmered in limewater is called “hominy” (a North American colonial frontier term) or posole or nixtamal (both Central or Native American words); the last also names the cooking process. Native Americans favored nixtamal preparation because it allowed—and still allows—dried corn to cook quickly and promoted, in their view, its digestibility and nutrition. Modern nutritional assessment of the nixtamal process confirms Native American instincts: nixtamalization makes niacin and other micronutrients in corn accessible in ways that simmering dried corn in plain water does not. Nixtamal corn is America’s first nutraceutical, and it tastes damn good.
In the American South, hominy preparation during the Great Depression came to be known as “bucket lye hominy” for the farm bucket used to prepare it: wood-fire ash was collected in a bucket, the bucket filled with rainwater, and the mixture steeped like tea. Today, a handful of talented and dedicated restaurant chefs employ similar old-time techniques, taking ash leftover from hardwood grill fires to make limewater, which they then use to make hominy and masa. The rest of us, though, use culinary lime, whose demand is preserved by stalwart home canning cooks—e.g., Southern cooks who traditionally use it to keep their pickles crisp and green. Some supermarkets still carry culinary lime—at Walmart, for instance, it is available under its Latin American name, cal. If you prefer to have culinary lime appear on your doorstep, Anson Mills offers it as well.
equipment mise en place
For this recipe, you will need a medium nonreactive pot, such as an enamel- or porcelain-lined campfire pot (known as graniteware); a fine-mesh strainer; a 4- to 7-quart slow cooker; a wooden spoon; and a footed colander.
10cups spring or filtered water
1.6ounces (⅓ cup) culinary lime
9ounces (1½ cups) Anson Mills Henry Moore Yellow 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 so you can decant the limewater into 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 clear, and a layer of cloudy lime solids will be 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). Allow the solids to settle again, and then decant more limewater into the slow cooker. Repeat this process until only about 1 cup 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 5½ 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 2 or 3 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 (the cellophane-like skin that encases the kernels when they’re raw), stirring with a wooden spoon, for about 5 minutes. Turn the hominy into a footed colander and rinse under hot running water, rubbing the kernels between your palms. If you’re using the hominy to make Spring Water Masa Tortillas, go straight to the recipe, as the hominy must be used while it’s still hot. Otherwise, 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.