Hot tamale!

by Steph Weber - January 11th, 2010
Categories: cook

When I saw the tamales article in the last December/January issue of Fine Cooking, my first thought was, “Okay, I have to try this.” I’ve always loved tamales, and the sheer length of the directions intrigued me.

Tamales are made all over Latin America in various forms. Generally, they’re made with a corn-based dough, stuffed, wrapped, and steamed.

When I think of tamales, I think of Mexico, where tamales are often eaten on special occasions like Christmas, El Día de los Muertos, and Mexican Independence Day. The version of tamales in this article is in the Mexican style – masa (corn dough), stuffed with pork and chile sauce, wrapped in corn husks, and steamed.

Sounds delicious, right? That’s why I decided to unload a big batch of tamales on my family for Christmas this year since they keep well in the refrigerator for several days (or in the freezer for a few months).

The ingredient list for the pork filling, chile sauce, and masa is quite long, but don’t let that intimidate you! The majority of ingredients is just seasoning, and actually, I already had most of it in my pantry.

But I did have to order a few of the ingredients online. I was able to get the guajillo and ancho chiles, the masa harina, and the corn husks from (Good prices and quick shipping; I’d recommend them.)

Masa harina

Guajillo and ancho chiles

The tamale-making process is pretty lengthy, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to make them. Instead of roasting the pork shoulder in the oven, I saved myself some trouble by cooking it in a crockpot until it was cooked through and falling apart. Just place all of the pork filling ingredients in the crockpot and wait it out. When the meat is tender, remove it and let it cool briefly before pulling it. Strain the broth, let it cool, skim off the excess fat, and set it aside. I did all this a day ahead of time.

Shredded pork shoulder

You can also make the chile sauce ahead of time. For this, first soak the dried chiles in hot water for about 15 minutes, then drain them. Sauté one chopped onion and two-heads-worth of peeled garlic cloves in a little oil until lightly browned. Add the onions, garlic, chiles, puréed tomatoes, and a little of the reserved broth to a food processor and purée until smooth.

Cook 1 tbsp masa harina in ½ tbsp of oil for about a minute. Add the puréed chile mixture to the pan and cook for a few minutes. Add the remaining ingredients for the chile sauce to the pan, along with enough of the pork broth to thin it to sauce consistency, and simmer for about 15-20  minutes.

The chile sauce

The final components to the tamales are the masa and the corn husks. The corn husks need to be soaked beforehand, either in hot water for 30-45 minutes or in cold water overnight. For the masa, start by mixing the masa harina with hot water, cover, and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or refrigerate for up to two days.

The masa, before being whipped

On the day that you assemble the tamales, you have to whip the masa with fat. I chose to use butter. Start by whipping the butter until it’s fluffy, then add salt. While beating, add the masa to the mixer in golf-ball-size chunks until about half of the masa has been added. Then alternate adding chunks of masa with 2 cups of the pork broth. Finally, add ¼ cup of the chile sauce and continue to whip until it’s light and fluffy.

Whipping the masa

To make sure the masa is fluffy enough, drop a small piece of the dough into a cup of cold water. If it doesn’t float easily, continue to whip the masa for a few more minutes and repeat the test.

The final step before assembly is to mix the shredded pork with 2 cups of the chile sauce for the filling. Now you’re ready to assemble the tamales.

Take one soaked husk, wipe away the excess water, and place it on a work surface. Spread about 1/3 cup of masa evenly over about half of the husk on the widest portion, leaving a ½-inch border on the edges. Put 2-3 tbsp of the filling in the center of the masa.

Spread the masa and the filling on the corn husk

Fold the husk in half lengthwise.

The first fold (from left to right)

Fold the seam back the opposite way.

The second fold (from right to left)

Fold the tail of the husk up to cover the seam, making sure it reaches at least halfway up the tamale.

The final fold

To make the tamale more secure, rip a long, thin strip of corn husk and tie it around the tamale to secure the tail underneath. Repeat these steps until all of the masa and filling are gone.

Assemble tamales, before steaming

Once all of the tamales are assembled, it’s time to steam them. For this, you’ll want to use a deep 8-quart pot with a pasta insert. Fill the pot with water, up to just below the insert, and boil. Arrange the tamales in the insert with the open end upwards, leaving enough room in between for steam to circulate. Cover the top of the tamales with extra corn husks. Place the insert over the boiling water, cover with the pot lid, and steam for 1-1 ½ hours. You’ll have to adjust the heat so that the water is only just boiling, and frequently add more water to the pot so it doesn’t go dry.

Arrange the tamales in the pasta insert

To check if the tamales are done, remove one from the pot and let it cool for a few minutes. If the masa is set and easily pulls away from the wrapper, the tamales are done. Remove them from the pot, let them rest for 5-10 minutes, and serve them in the husks with the remaining chile sauce.

Mmm, tamales...

To give these as gifts, place the cooled tamales in a large freezer bag and either refrigerate or freeze them. You can pack them in a styrofoam cooler if you like, or just give them as is. The Fine Cooking article suggests steaming the tamales to reheat them, but I found that microwaving them does the job just fine.

Tamales are a lot of work, but so worth it in the end. The flavor of the filling in this recipe is just fantastic, and the recipients of your tamale gift will be impressed. Alternatively, you can just be greedy and eat them all yourself. I wouldn’t blame you!

4 Responses to Hot tamale!

  1. Steph,

    Thanks for this article. I love tamales, and have wanted to make them myself. This is some definite inspiration…

    A question on the ‘stuffing’ – do you think the flavor is nuanced enough to make it worthwhile for me to smoke the pork shoulder? If the flavor profile is dominated by the chile sauce, I won’t bother. But I would love to add a smokey dimension to the pork if you think it might come through.

  2. Smoking the pork shoulder sounds like an excellent idea! The chile sauce doesn’t really dominate, it just adds a nice chile flavor and a little heat. You can serve the extra chile sauce alongside the tamales if people want more of it. The flavor of the pork really comes through in this recipe, so I think smoking it would be fantastic!

  3. Fantastic. I will keep you updated once I bite off this project.

    Suggestions for a beer pairing?

  4. I would say something fairly malty. A flavorful American-style brown or amber ale with a good amount of hop bitterness. The maltiness would go great with the sweetness of the chile sauce and would compliment the pork as well.

    If you like the IPA/spicy food combo, go for a maltier IPA, perhaps an Imperial.

    Let us all know how it comes out!