Hominy is a food made from kernels of corn which are soaked in an alkali solution of either lime (the mineral, not the fruit) or lye. The corrosive nature of the solution removes the hull and germ of the corn and causes the grain itself to puff up to about twice its normal size.
Hominy can be made with either white or yellow corn, specifically maize, also called field corn, which is the type of corn used in making corn meal, corn flakes, and other grain products — as opposed to sweet corn, which is the vegetable that can be eaten on the cob and so forth.
Nixtamalization: What Is It?
The process of soaking the kernels is called nixtamalization, a word that is derived from the Nahuatl language spoken by the pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica who invented the process.
Nixtamalization produces a number of changes in the corn. Perhaps most significantly, it alters the structure of the proteins and carbohydrates in the corn, allowing the ground grain to stick together when combined with water. The resulting dough, or masa, is what tortillas are made of. Without nixtamalization, the ground corn would not form a dough, and thus tortillas (and tortilla chips, and tamales, and taquerias) would not exist.
Another benefit of nixtamalization is that it frees the niacin (vitamin B3) in the corn and allows it to be absorbed by human digestive tracts. Thus, nixtamalization unlocked a source of essential nutrients, allowing Mesoamerican civilization to thrive.
Nixtamalization removes the husks of the corn, making it easier to grind. And finally, it combines to form new flavor compounds, which is is why grits taste better than polenta.
Another property of hominy is that the starch in the kernel of the corn, in addition to swelling up as a result of the nixtamalization, also takes on a uniquely gelatinous texture, which despite the connotations of the word gelatinous, is quite pleasant.
The nixtamalized hominy can be dried and then ground and simmered to make grits (also called hominy grits). Alternately, the processed hominy can be cooked until soft and then used in soups, stews, and casseroles. Posole is a traditional Mexican soup made with hominy.
Hominy is available in dried and canned form. The process for preparing dried hominy requires soaking the hominy grains for about eight hours and then simmering for an additional hour or two. Canned hominy has already been cooked and is ready to use, making it a good time saver, although the texture will be slightly different.