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How to Make Authentic Tamales

Making tamales is a holiday tradition in Latin American homes. Try your hand at this festive food with our step-by-step guide.

Fine Cooking Issue 102
Photos: Scott Phillips
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In Latin America, tamales are a celebration food served at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But eating tamales is only part of the fun—making them is a celebration in and of itself. It’s a social occasion, an excuse to bring family and friends together and spend the day in the kitchen. These party-like gatherings, known as tamaladas, always result in a huge batch of delicious, steaming hot tamales—enough to feed everyone, with plenty of leftovers to give as gifts.

Making tamales begins with preparing a soft, rich corn dough called masa, along with a meat or vegetable filling and a sauce. The filling can be anything from spiced shredded pork (as it is in my Pork Tamales with Double-Chile Sauce recipe) to roast chicken or simple roasted poblanos. Masa and fi lling are wrapped in corn husks (or banana leaves) and then steamed. The process isn’t difficult; the key is getting the masa right and mastering the wrapping technique. The good news: We’ve got all the tips and techniques for delicious success.

Make the pork filling

Heat the lard or oil in a heavy-duty 8-quart pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook the pork until well browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer each batch to a bowl after browning.

Return all of the pork to the pot and add the remaining pork filling ingredients and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the meat is fall-apart tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Remove the meat from the pot, cool briefly, and shred it using 2 forks. Strain the broth, discarding the solids, and let cool briefly. Skim off the excess fat and reserve the broth. (The recipe may be made to this point up to 2 days ahead; refrigerate the meat and broth separately.)

Make the chile sauce

Heat 1-1/2 Tbs. of the lard or oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onion and garlic to a blender.

Add the soaked chiles, tomatoes, and a little of the broth to the blender and purée until smooth.

Heat the remaining 1/2 Tbs. lard or oil in the saucepan over medium-high heat, add the masa harina, and cook for about 1 minute. Add the chile-tomato mixture and cook, stirring regularly, until it has darkened in color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sugar or honey, cumin, oregano (if using), allspice, cloves, 2-1/2 tsp. salt, and enough pork broth to thin the purée to a sauce consistency. Add the cinnamon stick, lower the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the color deepens slightly, the consistency is smooth, and a light sheen develops on the surface of the sauce, an additional 15 to 20 minutes, adding more broth as needed. Season to taste with salt and sugar. (The sauce may be made up to 2 days ahead; keep refrigerated.)

Masa 101

Masa is a simple dough made from corn kernels that have been dried, rehydrated, and nixtamalized, or treated with lime (calcium oxide) to remove their skins. Once the skins are rubbed off, the kernels are thoroughly washed and ground into soft, pliable masa. Fresh masa is very perishable and therefore difficult to find outside Mexico and its bordering states, so it’s often dried and powdered to make masa harina. Masa harina can then be reconstituted into masa dough by mixing it with hot water. In tamale making, masa is usually beaten or whipped with fat (preferably lard), seasonings, and liquids (like broth), resulting in a soft, fluffy texture.

Make the masa

In a large bowl, mix the masa harina with 2-1/4 cups hot (140°F to 160°F) water. Cover and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a hand mixer), whip the lard, butter, or shortening on medium-high speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 tsp. salt and continue beating while adding the masa in golf-ball-size pieces, waiting a few seconds between each addition. When about half of the masa is mixed in, start alternating the masa with the pork broth until all of the masa is used, along with about 2 cups of the broth. Add 1/4 cup of the chile sauce and whip until light and fluffy, adding more broth if the mixture seems too dry.

To test if the masa is ready, take a small piece (about 1/2 tsp.) and drop it in a cup of cold water. It should easily float. If not, simply whip the masa for a few more minutes and test again. Often, adding a bit more of the pork broth or cool water during this second mixing will help; don’t add too much liquid, however, or you’ll end up with overly soft masa and shapeless tamales.

Soak the corn husks in very hot water for 30 to 45 minutes, or overnight in cool water with a plate or bowl set on top of the husks to keep them submerged. You’ll have enough husks to make the tamales, plus extra to line the steamer and make up for any broken husks.

In a medium bowl, mix 2 cups of the chile sauce with the shredded meat and season to taste with salt.

Steam the tamales

Fill a deep 8-quart pot with a pasta insert with enough water to reach just below the insert. Without the insert in place, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Have ready a kettle or pot of almost boiling water to add if the water gets low. Arrange the tamales upright (open end up) in the insert, leaving room for the steam to circulate. Fit the insert into the pot over the boiling water. Use he extra husks to cover the tamales (this helps concentrate the heat). Cover the pot with a lid. Steam for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, adjusting the heat as needed to keep the water just boiling. Check the water level frequently and add more as needed to keep the pot from going dry.

To test for doneness, quickly remove a tamale and replace the lid on the pot to continue the cooking. Put the tamale on the counter for a few minutes and then carefully unwrap it. If ready, the masa should be set and will pull away from the wrapper easily.

Let the tamales rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving to allow the masa to firm up. For softer tamales, let them rest in the pot with the heat off and the lid and extra leaves removed. For firmer tamales, let them rest out of the pot, covered with a cloth.

Serve the tamales in their wrappers with extra sauce passed on the side, and have diners unwrap them just before eating. Once unwrapped, they cool quickly.

The Tamales Pantry

To make these authentic tamales, you need a few special ingredients, which are available at Latin American markets or online.

Dried chiles The red chile sauce gets its smoky kick from toasted ancho and guajillo chiles. Anchos have a fruity, earthy, slightly smoky quality, without much heat, while guajillos are medium hot, with a sharper, slightly bitter flavor that nicely balances the ancho.

Masa harina A flour made from specially treated ground corn, masa harina is the foundation for not only tamales but also other corn-based Mexican foods like tortillas. Be sure to look for the coarser tamale grind, as the tortilla grind is too fine for tamales.

Corn husks Tamales are usually wrapped in dried or fresh corn husks (though they can be wrapped in banana leaves, too). Dried corn husks are more commonly available than fresh; they come in 8- and 16-ounce packages.

Freeze, Pack, and Give

Perfect for serving at holiday parties and family gatherings, tamales also make a special gift from the kitchen. The tamales and sauce will keep for several days in the fridge and for up to three months in the freezer.

To freeze, put the steamed and cooled tamales in sealed freezer storage bags to keep them from drying out. Freeze the sauce in sealed freezer storage bags or covered containers.

To give, pack the tamales and sauce in a Styrofoam container with a cold pack to create a mini cooler; wrap with ribbon, if you like.

To reheat, simply steam the tamales again: 10 to 12 minutes for refrigerated and 25 to 30 minutes for frozen. The frozen ones will have a better texture if they go straight from the freezer to the steamer. Reheat the sauce on the stovetop or in a microwave.


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