Homemade tamales are a delight. What could be better than a cornmeal dumpling filled with flavored meat that you’ve made yourself? How about a big batch you’ve made with a bunch of friends?
I never considered making tamales myself until my brilliant friend Jessica invited me over for a tamale making party. Each guest brought an ingredient and we took turns assembling tamales and watching the gaggle of kids. Everybody left with a few freezer bags full of a variety of tamales to throw in the freezer.
Tamales are a multi-step endeavor, involving making the filling and dough, assembling the tamales and then steaming them to cook the dough. Fear not, I will walk you through each step.
Tamales require a bit of forethought — which isn’t usually my favorite thing in a recipe — but in this case it’s well worth it. You can break up the tasks over a few days so it doesn’t seem as daunting.
For Wrapping: 2 packages of corn husks (available at Mexican grocery stores or a decent sized natural goods grocer such as Whole Foods), Kitchen twine or yarn.
For the Filling: 3 pounds (or more) of chicken thighs, pork shoulder roast or beef roast – or beans as a vegetarian alternative, 4 tablespoons of spice rub of your choice (such as chili powder and cumin), 1 jar of high quality roasted salsa (or homemade) (you can get two jars of different salsas for more variety)
Recommended flavor combinations: Chicken with verde salsa, Pork with verde salsa, Beef with roasted tomato salsa, Black beans with roasted tomato salsa
For the Dough: 6 cups Masa Harina (or finely ground corn meal), 2 cups shortening (I prefer Spectrum brand, it’s non-hydrogenated and vegan. If you want to go completely authentic use lard, but then you can’t share with vegetarian friends), 5 cups chicken or vegetable stock, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 2 tablespoons cumin, 2 tablespoons chili powder, 2 teaspoons sea salt
For Garnishing: Sour cream, Cilantro, minced, Green onions, chopped, Salsa, Guacamole.
Step 1: Make the Filling
Haul out the slow cooker. You can fill your tamales with pork, beef, chicken, beans or veggies, it’s entirely up to you. You can go authentic and complicated or cheat style. My ingredients list is for the cheat style.
If you want to go authentic, look online for a recipe. I usually rub the meat with a spice mixture then dump in a jar of high quality salsa (I like Frontera) and cook on low for about 7 hours. It makes sense to do this the day before. If you’re having a party, each guest can make a batch of filling ahead of time and bring it to the party.
Step 2: Soak the Husks
If you’re going to do the assembly the same day as you make the dough, soak your corn husks before you begin preparing the dough. Basically, boil some water, put the husks in a large bowl or a deep roasting pan, pour the boiling water over them and let them sit for at least 45 minutes. If you’re making the dough ahead of time, you can save this step until about an hour before you want to assemble.
Step 3: Make the Dough
Heat the chicken or veggie broth on the stove until hot but not necessarily boiling and add it to the masa. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to soften. Use a hand mixer or kitchen to blend until it forms a dough ball. Stir in the spices and salt. Whip the shortening in a separate bowl until fluffy, then slowly combine it with the masa. You’re looking for a thick consistency, like peanut butter.
If you’re not doing the assembly right away, you can refrigerate your dough for a day or two.
Step 4: Assemble the Tamales
Set up a nice work space. You want the tamale components — husks, dough, filling and kitchen twine — within easy reach and a clear area in front of you to work. Also, sling a clean kitchen towel over your shoulder, as you’ll be frequently wiping your hands. Now turn on some Mariachi music.
Lay out a corn husk, or two overlapping corn husks if they’re small. Spread a thin, uniform layer of masa in the center of the husk. Then a dollop of filling on top of the masa.
Now, fold it over, long edges together, squeeze the dough edges together between the husks and wrap it up burrito style, as tightly as you can manage.
Ideally, the long ends of your corn husks will overlap when folded down and you can tie a string in the center to hold it together. Don’t get too bent out of shape if they’re not turning out perfectly, they’ll steam up just fine. Repeat ad nauseum. Recruit the help of small children.
Stop when you run out of something — it will probably be the filling. If you end up with extra dough, just make some tortillas! Roll out a small lump of dough and then fry it in a non-stick pan or on a griddle. Feed them to your helpers for some instant gratification.
At this point, you can throw the tamales in a freezer bag (I usually double bag it, as I’d cry if they ended up freezer burned) and freeze them for up to 3 months. Or you can freeze some of them and cook some of them now, because it’d be awfully hard to wait for a sample after all that work.
Step 5: Steam the Tamales
Fit a large soup pot with a steamer basket. I often crumple some aluminum foil and stick it under the steamer basket to create additional room for water, you don’t want to run out of water during steaming, it’s a bad scene.
Once the water is boiling, add the tamales on top and cover the pot (if my lid won’t fit because I want to make a ridiculous amount of tamales, I cover the top with aluminum foil). As they steam, check every 10 minutes or so to make sure you don’t run out of water. If starting from frozen tamales, steam for about 40 minutes, if starting with fresh, check after 25-30 minutes. To check, carefully (remember, there’s steam) pull out one tamale and unwrap it. If the dough is set, you’re good to go, if it still looks mushy, give it another 5-10 minutes and check again.
Unwrap, garnish and serve! Good side dishes include beans and rice and a green salad. If tamales don’t become a family favorite, I’ll pay the shipping to have your batch overnighted to my house. We can’t get enough around here!