The Role of Corn in Mexican Cooking: From Tortillas to Tamales 

Corn has been a fundamental ingredient in Mexican cuisine since pre-Hispanic times. It is often called the “grain of life” due to its significant role in the diets of indigenous communities. In modern-day Mexico, corn continues to play a vital role in cooking, with numerous dishes and products derived from it.

Discover how to make Mexican corn and the most popular dishes that incorporate them.

The History of Mexican-Style Corn

Corn, or “maíz” in Spanish, was first domesticated in Mexico around 4,000 BCE and quickly became a vital source of nutrition for indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans.

The crop originated from a wild grass called teosinte and through selective breeding, evolved into the large, plump kernels we know today. As maize spread across Mesoamerica, it adapted to the various climates and soils, resulting in hundreds of varieties.

Mexican corn was not only a dietary staple but also had cultural and religious significance in ancient Mexican societies. It was used to make offerings to deities and featured prominently in traditional ceremonies.

Mexican Corn Varieties

While most people are familiar with the yellow dent corn used to make tortillas and other masa-based dishes, 60+ varieties of corn are found in Mexican cooking. Some popular Mexican corn varieties include:

  • White Corn: This type of corn is used for making tamales and pozole and has a sweeter taste than yellow corn.
  • Blue Corn: Known for its vibrant color, blue corn is used to make tortillas, chips, and even drinks like atole.
  • Purple Corn: This variety is mainly used for making beverages, such as the traditional drink chicha morada.
  • Elote corn: A sweet, juicy corn that is often boiled or roasted and covered in toppings like mayo, cheese, and chili powder.
  • Giant corn: A larger variety of corn often used for making soups and stews.

The Different Prep Methods

Three main forms of corn are used in Mexican cuisine – fresh, dried, and ground. Each has its unique characteristics and is used to create specific dishes.

Fresh Corn

Also known as “elite,” fresh corn is typically boiled or grilled and served as a side dish or as an ingredient in soups, stews, and salads. It can also be eaten off the cob, known as “esquites,” a popular street food in Mexico.

Dried Corn

Drying corn was a common method of preservation used by indigenous communities. It can then be rehydrated to make dishes like pozole, a hearty soup made with hominy (dried corn kernels).

Ground Corn 

Ground corn or hominy is used to make masa, a nixtamalized corn dough used in many traditional Mexican dishes like tortillas, tamales, and sopes. Nixtamalization is a process that involves soaking corn in an alkaline solution to make it more nutrient-dense and easier to grind.

Masa can also be mixed with water or broth to create a thick drink called “stole.”

Iconic Dishes Made With Corn

Corn has always been revered for its versatility in Mexican cooking. You can have it fresh, cooked, or dried and ground into flour for various dishes. Here are some of the most popular corn-based Mexican dishes:


The most well-known use of corn in Mexican cuisine is for making tortillas. These thin, round flatbreads are a staple in the diet and can be filled with meats, beans, cheese, and vegetables to create tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.


Another iconic dish made with masa dough is tamales. Steamed in corn husks, these pockets of savory goodness can be filled with various meats, vegetables, or cheeses. They are often served during special occasions and holidays.


A traditional soup made with hominy corn and meat (usually pork) cooked in a fragrant broth and topped with shredded cabbage, radishes, lime juice, and other toppings.


A warm, thick drink made with masa or corn flour, water, or milk and sweetened with sugar or piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar). Atole can be flavored with vanilla, chocolate, fruit, and other ingredients of your choice. 


Elote, or Mexican street corn, is a popular street food in Mexico. It is typically made by grilling whole ears of corn and then slathering them with mayonnaise, chili powder, cotija cheese, and lime juice. The result is a delicious combination of creamy, spicy, and tangy flavors that will have your taste buds dancing.


One of the most well-known Mexican dishes is tacos. These handheld treats are made of a corn or flour-based tortilla filled with various ingredients such as beef, chicken, pork, fish, or vegetables. They are typically served with fresh cilantro, onion, salsa, and lime wedges for added flavor.

Visit Benito’s for an Authentic Taste of Mexico

Good, authentic Mexican food starts with high-quality ingredients. At Benito’s, we take great pride in using fresh, locally sourced corn to create our signature dishes, from handmade tortillas to savory tamales.

Visit us today or order at (817) 332-8633 to experience the delicious flavors of Mexico in every bite.