Tamales are it. If you’ve eaten one, you know it.
Simple. When ready and steaming hot, unwrap the edible bundle and eat swiftly, no fork, no knife, bite by bite. So good.
Yet as simple as it may sound to write a post about tamales, I could dedicate an entire series of cookbooks to their endless possibilities, and in the end, not have covered them all.
Ancestral, iconic, yet humble, is each single tamal. And the tamal universe, immense, imagine: tamal refers to anything wrapped and cooked in a husk or leave. Usually made with masa, typically corn masa, either mixed with or swaddling ingredients, or both! As you move through Mexico, and increasingly outside, you find them in different shapes (round, square, flat, puffed up, even triangular like Michoacán corundas); with different wraps (corn husks, either fresh or dried, banana leaves and even fresh edible leafy greens like chaya in Chiapas); with an infinity of ingredients, from savory, like chicken, meat, seafood, vegetables, beans, all sort of grains, salsas and cheese…to sweet ingredients, like fresh and dried fruits, nuts, chocolate, cajeta…
The consistency and texture vary greatly, too, from thin and dense like tamales found in Oaxaca; to sticky and gelatinous from Yucatán; to spongy and cakey like the ones from northern and central Mexico, where I grew up.
Tamales are so big in our kitchens that entire meals are devoted to them: the famous Tamaladas! Festive get-togethers we all get very excited about, where all you eat are different kinds of tamales, from beginning to end. Trust me, where there is a variety of tamales, you want to eat them all.
Aside from Tamaladas, tamales are present in all sorts of celebrations and holidays including Quinceañeras, Posadas, Christmas Eve and New Years parties: they have been fiesta food since pre-Hispanic times, when they were considered gifts from the Gods.
But tamales are also everyday food, for an entire country, an entire culture. Accessible to everyone and anyone who can get to the corner stand and has 10 pesos (less than a dollar) in their pocket for a quick breakfast, a filling lunch or an easy merienda (light dinner).
See photo below…. I was with my school friends eating tamales at the tamal stand on the street right outside our middle school. I used to day dream about those tamales; they were so alluring we used to sneak out of school to eat them…
Tamales are as fascinating and varied as the stars above. So to land this philosophical rambling about tamales somewhere practical and edible, for you, I will focus on my favorite tamal of all time. The Tamal de Pollo con Salsa Verde.
The easiest way to make tamales is to prepare your filling(s) first. In fact you can make it a day or two in advance. For the ones I feature here, make your cooked salsa verde, pictured in the molcajete below. Combine it with cooked shredded chicken to make a wet mix. No, you don’t want it dry! The tamal masa will soak up some of that salsa. After the tamales cook for almost an hour, you want to bite into a tamal that has a saucy, moist filling.
Then get your hands on dried corn husks, pictured below. You can get them in the Latin aisles of your supermarket, at many a Latin or international store, or online. No excuse. Soak those husks in warm water, so they will become malleable and pliable. You don’t want them to crack as you use them to wrap the dough and roll the tamal. You will also need to place some of the leaves in the tamalera or steamer.
Get the tamalera ready. Pour water and drop a coin in there. That’s a passed down trick from endless generations. It works as an alarm for when the tamales may be running out of water, so you won’t need to open up the pot and let all that precious steam come out: if the water is running out, the coin will start jumping up and down and make loud clinking noises.
Then you work to make your masa. Or let the mixer help you out! I have the complete recipe below, but let me just highlight a few things…
In Mexico, you can go into the tortillería and buy fresh masa, made from scratch. And wouldn’t it be heavenly if there were tortillerías in all towns and cities in the US, so we could all indulge? But the truth is many, if not most, people in Mexican kitchens make their own masa at home from the instant corn masa flour, and you can get fabulous results.
Traditionally, tamal masa is made with lard. If top quality and fresh, it adds a delicious taste and texture and doesn’t have as much cholesterol as people think. If you ask me, I think it is a matter of moderation. Yet, many people prefer vegetable shortening and you can use it too. Now, vegetable shortening has, as of late, been questioned even more than lard.
If you don’t want to use either, I have a wonderful solution: use vegetable oil, substitute exact amounts, but to maintain depth of flavor and dimension, season the oil by heating it over medium heat and cooking a slice of onion and a couple garlic cloves in it for 15 minutes. Then remove the onion and garlic before using. Great trick for vegetarians as well. In fact, before the Spanish arrived to Mexico, and there was no pork, oils extracted from fruits, vegetables and seeds, were used to moisten and season tamales, so feel free to play around with oils you like!
The most important thing about the masa, aside from being well seasoned, is that it needs to be as fluffy as fluffy can get. It has to be so airy that, if you take a cup of cold water and drop half a teaspoon of the masa in it, it floats! You can only achieve this by beating it for a long time at a good speed. That’s why I recommend a mixer in the recipe below, but of course, you are welcome to get a good work out from the masa mixing by hand or with a sturdy spatula.
Then, follow my detailed instructions below on how to fill and wrap the tamales, place them in the tamalera and hold your horses for 50 minutes until they are ready.
Hopefully, you make more than what you need. I can think of few foods that have as much warmth, sustenance and meaning than tamales. They are food that is meant to be shared. So I suggest you try a Tamalada gathering! Tamaladas don’t only happen on February 2nd (when according to tradition you must host a Tamalada and invite EVERYBODY, if you got the baby hidden in the Rosca de Reyes eaten on January 6th), they can happen anytime (but I am writing this post before February 2nd, just in case!).
Make many fillings ahead of time. Make your masa. Invite friends over and have a tamal-making party before the Tamalada. Everyone will have gifts to open and eat, as that is what tamales are, indeed. And the best gift of them all will be any leftover tamales that a lucky guest gets to take along. Or be a bit greedy, keep them at home.
Note: I’ve been asked for a quick casserole version in a few emails… All you need to do, is spread half the masa in the recipe below in a large baking dish, then add a layer of the chicken in salsa verde, top with remaining half masa dough. Cover well with aluminum foil, and bake in a 400 degree oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and if you want, drizzle with some Mexican crema and crumbled queso fresco. Serve in squares.
- For the tamales:
- 25 dried corn husks soaking in warm water
- 3/4 cup lard, vegetable shortening or seasoned vegetable oil (to make seasoned oil, heat oil over medium heat and cook a slice of onion and 3 to 4 garlic cloves for 15 minutes, strain before using)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt or to taste
- 1 teaspoon cold water
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pound (about 3 1/4 cups) instant corn masa for tortillas or tamales
- 3 1/2 cups chicken stock add more if needed
- For the filling:
- 1 recipe for cooked salsa verde
- 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- To make the filling: Make the salsa verde, combine it with the shredded chicken, and set aside or refrigerate, if made ahead of time.
- To make masa for the tamales: Place lard, vegetable shortening or seasoned oil in a mixer and beat, until very light, about 1 minute. Add salt and 1 teaspoon cold water, and continue beating until it is white and spongy, a couple more minutes. Add baking powder, and then take turns adding the instant corn masa and the chicken stock. Continue beating until dough is homogeneous and as fluffy as can get.
- You know the tamal masa is ready if, when you drop 1/2 teaspoon of the masa in a cup of cold water, it floats.
- To prepare the tamalera or steamer: Place hot water in the bottom pan of a steamer (only enough so the water is just under the basket with the tamales and not touching them) and bring it to a simmer. Line the steamer basket with one or two layers of soaked corn husks. Use dough to form about 18 cornhusk wrapped tamales.
- To make the tamales: Soak dried corn husks in hot water for a couple minutes, or until they are pliable, and drain. Lay out a corn husk with the tapering end towards you. Spread about 3 tablespoons of masa into about a 2- to 3-inch square, the layer should be about 1/4-inch thick, leaving a border of at least 1/2-inch on the sides. Place 1 tablespoon of filling in the middle of the masa square.
- Pick up the two long sides of the corn husk and bring them together (you will see how the masa starts to swaddle the filling) and fold the folded sides to one side, rolling them on same direction around tamal. Fold up the empty section of the husk with the tapering end, from the bottom up. This will form a closed bottom and the top will be left open.
- Prepare all the tamales and place them as vertically as you can in a container. When you have them all ready, place them again, as vertically as you can on the prepared steamer, with the open end on top. If there is space left in the steamer, tuck in some corn husks, so the tamales won’t dance around. Cover with more corn husks, and steam covered for 50 minutes to an hour. You know the tamales are ready when they come easily free from the husks. They will still be moist, and as they are released from the husks, you will see the moistness, like when you remove good moist muffins from their paper baking cups.
- Finished tamales will stay warm for about 1 to 2 hours in the steamer. They can be made ahead several days before and stored in refrigerator, well wrapped. They can also be frozen for months. In either case, reheat in a steamer. For refrigerated tamales, it will take about 15 minutes, and for frozen tamales about 45 minutes.