Question of the Week
What are some good corn varieties for producing tortillas and tamales that I can grow in Northern California?
Answer: Any grain corn variety can be used to make nixtamal (the whole corn that has been soaked in slacked lime). Most varieties used to make nixtamal are equally good for tortillas or tamales with the difference being how it is ground and prepared. Flint and popcorn varieties have more structure and are thought to hold up better to the soaking process, making them superior for making tortillas and tamales. Dent varieties are thought to be less suited to tortillas and tamales because of a more neutral flavor.
The "best" varieties for these application are subjective because regional, cultural, and climate differences across the Americas have determined the varieties traditionally used to make nixtamal , and, in North America, hominy. The color you want in the end product, as well as your markets, are also important in determining variety.
Since flour corn has not traditionally been grown in northern California, climate is the biggest factor in choosing the varieties you experiment with. In San Mateo, you have a large frost-free window of over 300 days each year, but the average high temperature is only in the mid 80s. Short-season varieties (95 days or less) like Painted Mountain, Mandan Bride, Hickory King White, Leaming’s Yellow, and Oaxacan Green might be good choices to take advantage of the warmest three months of your season.
According to author and cook William Rubel, Floriani Red Flint corn has been grown successfully in Northern California. Also, a hybrid variety called Pioneer 33Y74, known for its high yields, is used for making polenta and is grown successfully in California.
For additional information, consult the book Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate, by Anthony Boutard, New Society Publishers (2012). This book offers a historical look at the cultivation and use of corn in the Americas. It offers some insight on varieties best suited to a particular use.
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