So, I’ve had a few requests to do a tamale tutorial. Let me preface by saying that while I have extensive experience in Mexican food, I had to teach myself to make tamales, so I just do it how I think is right. Plus, I don’t have a tamale steamer (honestly, I hate making tamales, but I love to eat them so I make them once or twice a year!), so my methods are unorthodox, but again, they work, which is all that matters, right?
First, you cook the chicken, beef, or pork for your tamale filling. I always use chicken, and I’m too lazy to buy the bone-in chicken, so I just use boneless skinless chicken breasts. If you wish to save some money or want a moister chicken filling, it is best to include dark meat in your filling. To cook my chicken, I just throw a few chicken breasts (3-4) in a pan with some water to boil and add a couple chicken boullion cubes, a teaspoon of chile pequin (crushed red pepper), a Tablespoon of garlic, 2 teaspoons of salt, a 1/2 tsp. of ground red pepper (cayanne), and about a Tablespoon of onion powder. These are all estimates, folks, because I don’t measure when cooking (especially not with Mexican food-it’s just second nature to me). After an hour or two of boiling, the water should’ve boiled down to a nice yellow broth, like this:
I then take the chicken out of the pan, saving the broth to the side, and use two forks to shred my chicken. If your chicken breasts are well cooked, this should be sooooo easy, but if you’re using meat on the bone, this would be the time to debone defat and shred your chicken. Mine looked like this:
Next, I put the shredded chicken into a saucepan or skillet with about a half cup of water or so, and I simmer the chicken in more spices. This is to give your chicken filling a good spiciness, because masa is quite bland, so a good portion of the flavor of your tamales come from the filling. I use liberal amounts of chili powder, garlic, onion powder, salt, ground red pepper, and a little chili pequin, but you can easily just use a packet or two of taco or fajita seasoning from the store. Even enchilada sauce seasoning (the dry packets found in your Ethnic food section-not the canned sauce) will work, anything to give it some kick. Here’s how mine looked while simmering. I simmer for about 10 minutes or until almost all of the liquid is gone, stirring occasionally.
Next, we put the tamale husks to soak in some water. For this I use a really large bowl filled with warm water as pictured, but you can use anything, the idea is to wet and soften the husks while you are preparing your masa. Please note that it looks like I only have four husks in the water, but there are actually several in each section of husks, so as you’ll see a bit later, it wouldn’t be prudent to throw the whole bag of corn husks in the water, because you would end up with hundreds of husks!
Next up is a photo of the Maseca (the stuff in the flour-type bag and in the bowl) as well as the chicken broth I saved from the chicken I cooked earlier. The recipe calls for either water or chicken broth to be used in the making of the masa dough, but always, always, always try to use chicken broth with some flavor to it. Remember mine has those red pepper flakes and all those other goodies in it which will serve to give the blah Masa dough a little lift.
I’m a simple girl, I use the recipe on the side of the package to make my masa dough:
2 cups Maseca
2 cups lukewarm water or broth
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2/3 cup lard or vegetable shortening
Combine maseca, baking powder and salt in a bowl, work broth or water with your fingers to make a soft moist dough, like this:
Now, remember those corn husks that were soaking? Now is a great time to try to seperate them. Think of them like an onion, with many layers. Gently peel them apart from the outside working in. Many times on the very inside layer, you will find some corn silk, remove this and rinse corn husks well before using them. Here’s what mine looked after they were taken apart and rinsed. See how many that made?
Now, we’re ready to assemble our tamales. To do this, simply lay the corn husk down on a clean work surface, with the pointy end facing away from you and the curved sides curling up towards you, and take a few Tablespoons of the Masa dough and place it in the center of the tamale. Try to spread the dough out as evenly as possible, and yes, it will stick to you and make a mess. Some people prefer to use spacklers to spread the masa out, I just use a rubber spatula. You want to spread very close to the edge, but you don’t want your edges to be so thick with masa that they are hard to fold. Here’s an example of one of mine. Far from perfect, but they don’t have to be:
Next, fold the corn husk’s pointy end towards you, then fold the RIGHT side of the corn husk over to the center, then you may fold the bottom (wide end closest to you) up to the center. At this point you should have three sides folded in towards the center, so while holding the “flaps” down, begin to roll the filled section towards the un-tucked left edge. At this point, when fully rolled, your tamale may look something like this:
Now fill a pot with water, and put EITHER a double broiler on top OR some kitchen cooling racks on top of the pan with the water in it. Turn the heat on your stove to medium and wait for it to begin boiling.The idea is that the tamales need to be steamed, and really, the cooling racks work best if you can do it, but if not, here’s what the tamales would look like in a double boiler setting:
If using the double boiler, then place a damp towel over the standing tamales, and cover with a lid, like this:
If using the cooling rack method (preferred), then just lay the tamales down on the rack in the area directly above where the steam will come up, and cover with a damp towel like before, only this time, put an oven safe bowl over the area that has the tamales in it, like this:
This method (not using an actual tamale steamer) will take two to three times as long to steam, and you may need to replace the water occasionally to keep the steam going, but if you don’t want to buy a steamer and only make tamales occasionally, it’s not that bad. One warning, when removing the bowl to check your tamales (just try to open one after 3 hours and see if the masa has “set”), be careful to avoid steam burns. They hurt, a LOT. Trust me. Now my tamales took a total of 5 hours steaming, but most recipes say 2 hours, the difference is in the method. A tamale steamer is kind of like a pressure cooker, and we’re using a pan, so that is where the difference comes in. When finished, here is what a good tamale looks like, and a bad one. It was perfect that I had a bad tamale this time so that I could show you the difference. The “bad” tamale is still edible of course, but I hadn’t spread enough masa on the husk when preparing this one, so it didn’t make a thick wall around the filling like it should’ve, and it just fell apart right out of the husk. The good tamale should have ridges from the corn husk where it has hardened during the cooking process and molded to the husk, and should easily come away from the husk-no sticking. If your tamales are sticking really badly to the husk, they aren’t done! Anyway, here’s the photo: