Tamales are little pieces of spicy heaven, and for any one who has ever tried one at a Mexican restaurant, it can be easy to see why most people absolutely crave these corn dumplings. To make an authentic tamale is a process though, and does take time and patience (although many cooks describe it as a labor of love).
Here is what you need to know and do to make the perfect homemade tamale.
The Components of a Tamale
There are three parts to a tamale: the wrapper, the dough and the filling. Dried corn husks that have been soaked in water are most commonly used to wrap tamales. In different regions, tamales can be wrapped in fresh corn husks or even banana leaves.
The dough of a tamale is comprised of three basic ingredients: lard, masa (or ground corn cooked in lime) and salt. Fresh masa makes the fluffiest and softest tamales. If you can’t find fresh masa, you can find masa harina in the Latin food aisle of any grocery store. Masa harina is simply flour made from dried masa. To prepare tamales using masa harina, a small amount of water is added to rehydrate the flour.
The filling of a tamale is the most diverse component. Tamale filling traditionally is prepared with pork, chicken or beef marinated in lots of spices and ground chiles. For a more healthy spin, you can prepare tamales using vegetable or seafood filling, or prepare them sweet using raisins, nuts and fruit with cinnamon and nutmeg.
How to Make a Tamale
Starting from scratch, here is how to prepare the dough. This recipe uses masa harina.
6 cups masa harina and 5 cups warm water or chicken broth
2 cups shortening (or lard)
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 ½ teaspoon salt
In a mixing bowl, combine masa harina and warm water or broth. Let mixture sit for 20 minutes to let the masa soften. Next, use an electric mixer on low speed to mix the masa into a dough. Gradually add the salt, cumin and onion powder.
In a separate bowl, whip shortening until fluffy and add to the dough a little at a time while mixing. The consistency of the dough should resemble peanut butter. If not, add more masa or broth as needed.
Although there are many different fillings to choose from, here is a traditional tamale filling prepared at most Mexican restaurants.
Beef Tamale Ingredients:
3 cups precooked shredded beef
8 large roasted chiles, skin removed and finely chopped
1 white onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 cup chile sauce
Combine all ingredients and simmer in stock pot for 40 minutes.
Preparing the Husks
Note: You will need a steamer to prepare the tamales.
Sort the husks and separate the larger pieces from the smaller pieces. Set the smaller pieces aside. Place the larger husks into a bowl and cover with warm water. Place a heavy object on the husks to keep them submerged (a large plate will do).
After the husks have soaked for about 30 minutes, remove them from the water and pat dry. Depending on the number of tamales you want to prepare, take the extra husks and store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator to keep them from drying out.
Lay a husk on a flat surface, and place 1-2 tablespoons of dough onto the husk. Leave a space of 4 inches from the narrow end of the husk and about 2 inches from the wider end. Spread the dough onto the husk, keeping the dough 1/4 to a 1/2 inch thick. Next, spread about 1 tablespoon of filling down the center of the dough.
At the wider end of the corn husk (2 inch space with no dough), fold and slightly overlap the other side so the edges of the dough meet. Wrap the extra husk around the back, fold the wide end over the top and then the narrow end over the wide end.
Next, cut 1/4 inch strips off some of the smaller husks that were set aside. Use these strips to tie across the tamale to hold the flaps down. Set tied tamales upright in a steamer and steam for about 90 minutes.
Remove tamales from steamer, let cool, and serve alone or on a plate topped with sour cream or guacamole.
Tip: There are many tutorial pictures and videos online that can show you how to do this if these directions seem confusing.