Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tamales (Masa and All)

Finally, I'm taking the time to type out this recipe. We've been making tamales at Christmastime for about 9 or 10 years now, I think. I never did this in California, but once I moved to Iowa near a sister-in-law, it seemed the thing to do one Christmas, and it became a tradition. My sister-in-law dated mostly Latinos in high school, so she had actually participated in the Mexican tradition of holiday tamale making before. I, on the other hand, had only enjoyed restaurant tamales and the occasional one I'd get from an adult student or in Mexico when our church youth group was working down there.
At any rate, this past year, sister-in-law found out she is allergic to pork, so we had to forego the store bought masa because it contains lard, which is pork fat. This was a good thing though, because it forced me to face my masa fears and to just go for it and make my own. I googled "tamale masa recipe" and found the one you see below at
I was going into it blind, hoping for the best, and I have to say, I think I really prefer this fresh homemade masa over the store bought. The cooked masa is relatively light in texture, flavored just right, and compliments the meat nicely. It's just good masa--hard to explain if you've never eaten a tamale. 
So there you go. My reasons for making masa, and here you go with the entire recipe. Now go make some tamales.

Beef* Tamales
      --masa recipe from

  • 4-5 pound chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt

     Masa Ingredients:
  • 3 1/2 cups instant corn masa flour
  • 3 cups very hot water
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 4 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup juice from the beef roast (fat and all) and/or chicken stock
  • 60-70 dry corn husks
Special Equipment:
  • large stock pot with a steaming basket or rack (or a special tamale pot available at most Mexican markets)
  • spoons
  • tongs
  • friends to help assemble tamales
The day before or early in the morning of the day you plan to assemble the tamales, preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place chuck roast in a roasting pan and sprinkle with chile powder, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, and salt. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil and roast for about 3 hours, or until meat is pull-apart tender. Carefully pour pan juices through a strainer into a heat proof container (preferably a glass measuring cup). Set aside meat and juice and allow to cool.
When meat is cool, shred, discarding fat and gristle. Refrigerate until ready to use.

About 8-10 hours before you plan to assemble tamales, place corn husks in a large bowl or smallish plastic bin and cover with hot water. Allow to sit in water so that husks soften.

To make the masa... Place the masa flour in bowl of stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.  Mix on low as you slowly pour in the very hot water. Mix on low until dough comes together and almost forms a cohesive ball (which it won't really do because you're mixing it). Add the shortening and butter and mix on low to incorporate. Increase speed to medium and slowly add the salt and baking powder. Beat on medium high for about two minutes. Reduce mixer speed, and slowly pour in the beef juice. Beat for another two minutes until dough is creamy and looks like a loose cookie dough (Picture 1 below). If it really seems too loose, you can add a little more masa flour (probably up to a quarter cup). Place dough in a gallon size zip top bag, or in a bowl. Cover/seal the dough and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to two days. If it's in the refrigerator for more than a couple of hours, remove from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to assemble the tamales.

Now for the tamales... Drain a stack of husks and place in a bowl at your tamale assembly station. Place a husk on a plate or other surface with the narrow end on top. Scoop about 2 tablespoons of masa dough onto the husk and spread with the back of the spoon so that your margins are 1/2 to 1 inch on each side, 3 to 5 inches on top, and 0 to 1/4 inch on the bottom (see Picture 3 below). Place about 2 to 3 tablespoons of meat in the center as shown below (Picture 5). Now this next part is tricky. I think everyone does it differently, but here's what I do: turn the tamale a quarter turn so that the length of the husk is going left to right. Grab both sides and bring them together at the center, smooshing the masa from one side together with the masa from the other side. You should end up with about a 1/4 inch to 1 inch flap of corn husk that you just fold over. Take the narrow end and fold it up against the tamale (Picture 7). Tear a strip of husk from one that is too narrow to use for a tamale and use it to tie a little belt around the tamale to keep it compact (Picture 6). Stack up tamales as you go. When you think you have enough to fit inside the pot snugly, but without crowding and cramming, start cooking/steaming your first batch. 

To cook/steam tamales, place the steaming rack/basket in the bottom of your stock pot (tamale pot) and fill with water to just under the steaming rack/basket. You want as much water as possible, but you really don't want it touching the tamales directly. Place tamales in the pot, folded end down and open side up. Cover and place over high heat on the stove. Steam tamales for about 1 hour, adding a little water occasionally. Make sure the water does not go dry or else the bottom of your pot will burn and your tamales will pick up the burned flavor. Not good. While tamales steam, finish assembling the rest of the tamales. 

After about an hour of steaming, turn the heat off and remove one tamale. Let it cool for about 5-10 minutes. Gently open the husk up to see if it's cooked through. If the husk comes off easily, and there are no parts that look like the raw masa dough, they're done. Remove remaining tamales to a plate, bowl, cookie sheet, or something else, and either serve them or allow them to cool. Once cool and you're done eating all you want, seal leftover tamales in a zip top freezer bag and refrigerate or freeze. They will keep in the fridge for a few days, but if you know you won't be eating them within that time, go ahead and freeze them.

Makes about 50-60 tamales

To reheat frozen tamales, place in a steaming situation again (either the stock pot with the steaming rack or basket or a smaller version for fewer tamales). Steam for about 20 minutes, or until heated through. You can microwave them, but I don't recommend that method, as some parts of the tamale will over cook and get hard while other parts remain cool. 
If you're reheating them from the refrigerator, it's safer to microwave them: about 40-50 seconds on high for one tamale. Microwave ovens vary, though, so start off slow, and see how it goes. You can also steam them from the refrigerator too. About 10 minutes in the steamer should do it.

*You can use whatever filling you'd like in tamales. For one recipe of masa, you'll need about four cups of cooked filling.

Picture 1: Masa looking like cookie dough
Picture 2: Masa (lots of it) going to the fridge
Picture 3: masa spread on damp husk
Picture 4: the meat
Picture 5: meat on masa on husk--ready to close it up
Picture 6: uncooked tamales ready to be steamed
Picture 7: cooked tamale, ready for inspection

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