Making Tamales-A Picture Tutorial

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:
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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:
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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:
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In a small bowl, beat lard or shortening until fluffy like this:
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Add masa and beat until dough has a spongy texture, like this:
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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?
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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:
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Next add about a tablespoon of the meat filling to the center of the dough, like this:
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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:
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A picture of my rolled tamales:
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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:
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If using the double boiler, then place a damp towel over the standing tamales, and cover with a lid, like this:
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and this:
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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:
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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:
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Published in: on October 10, 2007 at 4:42 pm  Comments (18)  
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18 CommentsLeave a comment

    That is awesome and makes me want to go and make tamales right now LOL….Hm….i think I know what will be in the grocery cart this weekend.
    Thankyou for an awesome tutorial, Jessica. I really appreciate it!

  2. Excellent Tutorial! Thanks for sharing!
    You know what this means now??? I’ve just got to have some tamales!

  3. Great tutorial! Interesting folding method, new to me. We usually fold with pointy end away, right and left sides in and lastly pointy end towards you. I like your method, will keep the darn things from unfolding!

  4. Hehe, well no one actually taught me how to make tamales, so I just figured out what worked, I had the same problem you described of not being able to keep them rolled when I tried it other ways, so I started doing this, and it worked. I’m glad this tutorial has helped you!

  5. I feel soooo much better! I went my own way with tamales, just by feel and taste…timing was always a gamble! Our “good” ones look comparable, and it’s coming nigh onto Christmas, which is tamale time at this anglo-saxon-melting-pot house!

  6. Add me to the list…Dec. 23rd and time for tamales! In the past I’ve purchased masa, but I’m going with your recipe this year. Chile verde is starting on the stove now…can’t WAIT!

  7. Growing up we ALWAYS had a Mexican food buffet at Christmas and I miss it sooooo much, but alas I married a man who thinks that a peppered steak is “spicy” food and he hates spicy food, so no more tamales for Christmas for me, but we are doing a massive Christmas breakfast buffet this year, which I’m really excited about. We’ve been planning it for months!

  8. Have you ever tried mixing the chicken and beef? My grandma used to make tamales when I was young, and she like you made them very rarely. But I remember that she had a meet grinder and would grind the chicken and beef together. It is an excellent mix.

  9. I haven’t ever tried that, but it sounds promising! Hopefully I’ll remember this when the time comes to make them again, thanks for the tip!

  10. This looks so yummy! I love tamales, but living in a very American household we rarely get past the tacos and burritos. I’d love to give these a try, except that it looks like SOOOOO much work.
    Love the pictures, like a cookbook, online.

  11. They are a lot of work, and honestly, if we had a good Mexican cart around here, legal or not, I’d buy from them, but we don’t, so once or twice a year I make my own. Where I used to live, there were Latino children running around Walmart parking lot selling tamales and while I always feared for those poor kid’s lives-darting around a busy parking lot like that-they had the BEST tamales in town! Tamales are best made with a group…if you can make it a production line sort of thing, then it goes quickly, but if you are on your own, it’s a pain!

  12. Thanx so much for posting. We got mad at our local tamale lady months ago and I decided I also wanted to be more frugal and make them myself. I forgot to thank you for posting this as it gave me the courage to try these myself.

  13. Thank you soooo much for the pictures and clear step by step instructions. My sister and I are going to try making our own in a few days. I’ll keep you posted on how they turn out.

  14. Yes, please let us know. I really want tamales this year, but I’m up to my nose in canning and other Christmassy things, so I guess I’ll just have to wait.

  15. I have been looking for a step by step guide and this was amazing. very articulate and eloquent instructions, i cant wait. I knew making tamales were involved. thank you for your guidance

  16. I’m not clear on whether or not you can stack them for steaming or only one layer. If only one layer and it takes five hours, it would take a week to make a couple dozen! I’m trying it now. It’s 3 a.m. I’m nuts. I guess I will get up every hour to check the water level. Thank you for the easy step-by-step guide.

  17. Thank u

    • Thank you for your great tutorial. I, like you, never had recipes and would put a little of this and that. Now that I’m 73 years old I am trying to make recipes for my grandchildren of the many traditional dishes that I cook. When I make tamales I usually do two huge pork roasts (veined with fat) and lace them with lots of cloves of garlic and pan brown the exteriors and completely submerge them in water in two separate roast pans at 225 degrees for 4 to 5 hours in the oven. That then gives me lots of broth to add to my meat mixture and for my massa. I also used a spoon to spread my massa for years and one day saw my cake spatula laying the drawer. It’s about 1 1/2″ x 8″ stainless steel and very flexible and is absolutely wonderful to spread the massa the same thickness very fast.
      I solved the steaming problem by using my large electric roaster which cooks with water between the inner and outer walls. Put the meat rack in the bottom and fill the pan with water up to the rack. Place the tamale down on rack and fill to the top if needed. Add more water to bottom, if needed, and steam at 350 for about 3 hours. Always test a tamale from on top to make sure they are done. Thanks again. I have a receipe to share with all of you when I can figure out how to do it.

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