Corn has been a central part of the Mexican diet and culture since ancient times. Not only is it eaten fresh in its many varieties, its dried kernels are used for an infinity of things, including masa to make everything from tortillas to tamales. It’s husks are also treasured as an ingredient to wrap and cook food in. Tamales, of course, have remained the wrapped and cooked food par excellence in Mexico. Methods have varied from steaming, to cooking over comales or the open fire, to cooking in underground pits.
Now, the use of fresh or dried leaves for wrapping and cooking foods is not exclusive to Mexico. Grape leaves were used since ancient Greece and banana leaves in the Philippines, to name some. In Mexico, there has been a large variety of ingredients for this use like banana leaves, avocado leaves, chaya, hoja santa leaves, large spinach leaves and even some exotic flower leaves. Still corn husks, fresh or dried, have been and remain a crucial one.
Corn husks not only help keep the food in place, they also keep it moist, seal in the flavor, and impart their own essence, fragrance and taste. The flavor and aroma vary depending on whether the corn husks are fresh and tender, fresh and mature or dried.
To assemble, fresh corn husks are carefully taken from ears of corn, washed and used to wrap some types of tamales, usually those made from fresh corn like the famous Michoacán uchepos. However, most tamales that use corn husks use them dried, as they can be stored for a long time – as long as they are not stored in a sunny or moist area – and are available year round.
To use dried corn husks, they need to be soaked for about 10 minutes in warm water to make them pliable, thus preventing tears or breaks and making them more flexible for folding around the masa. I usually start soaking them as I begin to make my tamales, and they are ready by the time I am ready to form my tamales. Nothing happens if you soak them for hours on end. The husks are also used to line the tamaleras or steamers to keep the water away and steady the tamales.
Corn husks are most commonly sold dried, stacked together in plastic packaging. In Mexico, you will see them in abundance hanging from market stands. They are becoming more available in the U.S., as well. Look for them in the Latin aisles of your supermarket, at your local Hispanic or international market, or online. If you happen to get more than you need, you can give some to your kids, for them to fashion puppets or dolls…