Mexican Tamales

Shredded Pork with red sauce (recipe below

Ingredients for the dough:
  • 2 cups Maseka (aka Masa harina)
  • 1 – 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth (or chicken broth)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 2/3 cup lard
  • 8 ounce package dried corn husks


Soak the corn husks in a bowl of very hot or boiling water for at least 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the lard and 1 tablespoon of broth until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. 

Combine the masa harina, baking powder, salt, cumin; stir into the lard mixture and beat well with an electric mixer. 

Add more broth as necessary to form a very soft dough. Beat on high speed for several minutes. 

To test if the masa tamale dough is ready, place a tiny ball of dough into a glass of water— If the dough floats, it’s ready. If the dough sinks to the bottom of the glass then beat it for longer and add a little more broth. Test again. It should spread like creamy peanut butter and be slightly sticky.

Lay a corn husk, glossy side up, on the counter with the wide end at the top. Scoop a big rounded tablespoon of masa (or more if you want bigger tamales) and place it towards the top-half of the corn husk. 

Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and use your hands to press and spread the masa into a thin layer, about ¼ inch thick, along the top half of the corn husk.

Spoon a tablespoon of filling in a line down the center of the dough.

Fold in one long side of the husk about 1/3 over dough and filling. Fold in the other long side, overlapping the first (like folding a business letter). Fold the bottom of the husk up. 

Add water to the bottom of your steamer or instant pot. (about 1 cup water, or enough to cover the bottom of the pot and not go above the wire rack. 

Place tamales on rack in steamer or instant pot, standing upright, with the folded end down and open end up. Don’t over-pack the pan, just pack them tightly enough to keep the tamales in an upright position.

Steam for 50 minutes – 1 hour in the steamer, or, if using an Instant Pot, cook on Manual for 18-20 minutes, depending on how big you made the tamales. Allow pressure to naturally release for 10 minutes, and then quick release.
To test if they’re done, remove one and try to pull the husk off. If it comes off easily and cleanly, they’re done.

Pork filling:

Ingredients for the pork:
  • 1 1/2 pounds pork loin shoulder or butt
  • 1 large onion, chopped1 bay leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Red Chile Sauce:
  • 4 dried California chile pods
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 Tablespoon oil (vegetable or canola oil)
  • 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flou
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
Instructions for the pork:

Cut the meat into 1-inch squares. Place pork, onion, bay leaf, garlic, oregano, cumin and salt and pepper in a large pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until pork is tender, 2-4 hours.

Meanwhile, make the red sauce

Use rubber gloves to remove the stems and seeds from the dried Chiles while rinsing them under cold water. 

Place Chiles in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, then remove from heat. 

Transfer the Chiles and water to a blender. Add oregano, cumin, chili powder, onion powder, garlic and blend until smooth. Set aside.

In the same saucepan you used to cook the Chiles, add oil and cook over medium heat. 

Add flour and salt and stir for 1 minute. Strain the Chile sauce from the blender and add it to the saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
Drain the cooked pork (reserve the broth for use in the tamale masa dough, if desired) and shred the meat with a fork. 

Add Chile sauce to the meat, reserving 1/4 cup sauce, and stir in enough of the reserved broth to form a moist, spreadable mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

1. The corn husks: 

It is usual for corn husks bought here to be trimmed and flattened, ready for use. But if by chance you have some in their rough state (just as they were when removed from the ear), cut off the cupped part at the bottom of the leaf, and trim off the pointed tip. When you get them, the husks will be dried out and papery. To soften them for use, pour plenty of very hot water over them and leave them to soak for several hours. Shake them well to get rid of excess water and pat them dry with a towel.

2. Making the tamales:

Smear a thin coating of the masa dough over the broadest part of the husk, allowing for turning down about 1 1/2 inches at the bottom broad part of the leaf and about 3 inches at the pointed top. Let us say, for a good-sized tamale, spread the dough over an area approximately 3 inches wide and 3 1/2 inches long.
Spread the filling down the middle of the dough. Fold the sides of the husk together firmly. Turn up the pointed end of the leaf and fold the broader end over it. Tear some of the husks lengthwise into narrow strips and use one for tying each tamale across the top flap. The husks are water repellent, and since the dough is to be steamed, the idea is to form a water-tight package so that when the dough is cooked through it will be light and spongy. If moisture gets in it will be soggy.

3. Cooking the tamales: 

The most convenient way to cook tamales is a conventional steamer. You can, of course improvise, but improvisations are not usually as efficient – a lot of good steam escapes and the cooking is not as even.

Fill the bottom of the steamer with water up to the level indicated and bring to a boil. Line the top of the steamer with corn husks, covering the bottom and sides well. Stack the tamales upright, with the tied-down flaps upwards. For the best results, they should be packed firmly but not too tightly, because the husks swell out as the dough cooks. Cover the tamales with more corn husks. Cover the top of the steamer with a thick cloth–a piece of old toweling is best  – to absorb the condensation from the lid of the steamer. Cover the steamer with a tightly fitting lid.

As the water in the bottom part comes to a boil, put a coin into it, put the top part of the steamer on, and let the tamales cook for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours over a medium flame. Keep the water bubbling, but not boiling violently. That is the reason for the coin. You will be able to hear it dancing about, and it will tell you if the water goes off the boil or is getting dangerously low. If the water is allowed to go off the boil the tamales will be heavy. Keep a kettle of water simmering so that you can refill the steamer when necessary.

To test the tamales for doneness, remove one from the center, and one from the side of the steamer. As you open the husks, the dough should come away easily from the husks and be completely smooth. To make doubly sure, open up the tamales and see if they are spongy and cooked throughout.

4. Serving and storing the tamales:

Once cooked, tamales are very good tempered. They are wonderful eaten right away, straight out of the husks, but after they cool they are also extremely good heated through very gently in their husks in an ungreased heavy frying pan, or on a griddle. Just keep turning them so that they heat through evenly and the husk gets slightly browned but does not burn. They can be refrigerated and will keep well stored that way for about a week. It is best, however, to freeze them. To reheat, they can be wrapped in foil, put into a 350 degree oven still frozen, and heated through for about 30 minutes. (1 inch= 2,54 cm)(350 fahrenheit = 176 celsius)

The tamale is recorded as early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. Initially, women were taken along in battle as army cooks to make the masa for the tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, the demand of readying the nixtamal (corn) itself became so overwhelming a process, a need arose to have a more portable sustaining foodstuff. This requirement demanded the creativity of the women, hence the tamale was born.
The tamales could be made ahead and packed, to be warmed as needed. They were steamed, grilled on the comal (grill) over the fire, or put directly on top of the coals to warm, or they were eaten cold. We have no record of which culture actually created the tamale but believe that one started and the others soon followed.

The tamale caught on very fast and eventually grew in variety and diversity unknown in today’s culture. There were plain tamales, tamales with red, green, yellow and black Chile, tamales with chocolate, fish tamales, frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. There were white and red fruit tamales, white tamales, yellow tamales, dried meat tamales, roasted meat, stewed meat, bean and rice tamales. There were sweet sugar, pineapple, raisin, cinnamon, berry, banana and pumpkin tamales. There were hard and soft cheese tamales, roasted quail tamales, ant, potato, goat, wild boar, lamb and tomato tamales. Well, you get the idea.

The sizes, colors and shapes varied almost as much as the fillings. They were steamed, oven-roasted, fire-roasted, toasted, grilled, barbecued, fried and boiled. The wrappings were cornhusks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark, and other edible, non-toxic leaves. The most commonly used were corn husks, banana and avocado leaves.

Over the millennia, the varieties were minimized to the most common now being red and green chili, chicken, pork, beef, sweet, Chile, cheese, and of late, vegetables. Also changed was the everyday occurrence of making the tamales. With the preparation being so labor and time intensive, tamales became holiday fare, made for special occasions. This tradition remained for thousands of years, with the women of the family working together to make the sauces and meats, preparing the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day, the preparation often starting one or two days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales. In most cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time. Everyone, young, old, family and friends, is invited to tamale feasts where they are enjoyed, savored and loved by all.

Tamales have always been loved by the Hispanic people and in the 1900’s they have become known and loved by all cultures as much as sushi and dim-sum, which were, in the past, also holiday and celebration foods.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: