Fillings are often made from shredded chicken or pork flavored with chile and spices, but once you become familiar with them, or have traveled in Mexico, you can find as many meat or vegetable fillings as there are cooks. One of the most luscious and satisfying is a stuffing of fresh corn, green chiles, and cheese, but other fillings include beans, pumpkin and winter squash, quinoa, diced cooked potatoes, mushrooms, roasted peppers, or shrimp. There are versions with fruit, coconut, and nuts, even blackberries, although savory ones are the most common. My local Mexican restaurant does a filling of lima beans, black beans, green beans, potatoes, and mixed frozen vegetables. It is delicious.
Tamales are formed into little individual packages and cooked by steaming to make a plump cylinder wrapped in dried corn husks. You can also use fresh banana leaves (they are made into big squares), plantain leaves, or fresh corn husks for wrapping if available. Your choice of wrapping will contribute to the flavor of the tamale, as well as serving as part of the covering during storage and keeping the tamale warm while serving. You will discard the covering when eating.
Tamales can be perfectly steamed by laying down tightly side-by-side (not standing up; the insides of the tamale will drain out during the steaming into the water) in the steamer baskets of the large 10-inch rice cooker, well above the simmering water bath.
Tamales were made by the Aztec Indians and served for religious celebrations, but most of the North and South American Indians, including the Incas, all have steamed cornmeal breads. There is carbon dating putting the steamed sandwich as early as 8,000 BCE. Tamales were considered portable food, so that means for travelers, hunters, and warriors. The Spanish ate tamales when they first arrived with the Conquistadors and missionaries.
Today, tamales are an essential food for the Christmas holiday parties, weddings, fiestas, and family gatherings. One of my favorite feasting memories is of being invited to eat homemade tamales, guacamole, and fresh salsa for Christmas Day brunch at her friend chef Oscar Mariscal’s house, laid out picnic-style on the living room floor, complete with lace tablecloth and silver candelabra. Consider it an honor being invited to a tamalada, the tamale fest where a group of family and friends make the tamales together.
Tamales have a reputation for being tricky and time-consuming. The tricky part comes from mastering the technique for rolling and tying them, and the time-consuming is from the process being made in a logical sequence over a few days. Making tamales is a task often done in groups of seasoned tamale veterans where the atmosphere is spontaneous and jocular. It is an opportunity to make dozens of tamales, which keep well in the freezer.
The Tamale Schedule
- Assemble the ingredients and purchase pure masa (wet masa dough) or dried masa harina (the flour) from a Mexican grocery or tortilla factory.
2. The day before, make the meat filling and sauce. If making a vegetable filling, the filling and assembly can happen on the same day.
Prepare the desired tamale filling according to your recipe. After making, place in a container, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. The day of making the tamales, start by soaking the corn husks.
Corn husks come in plastic packages available in specialty food stores or the Latin food section of your supermarket. Carefully remove the brittle husks from their package and separate the individual husks; there may be dust and grit. You will usually be using 2 husk per tamale (plan on 3 to 5 tamales per person depending on the size), so plan on a few extra in case some are too small. Dried husks need to be soaked to become pliable. Place in a large bowl or the sink, and cover with hot water; place a plate on top to keep the husks submerged. Soak for 1 to 3 hours, until the husks have absorbed the water and are pliable. Drain in a colander and lay out on layers of a clean tea towel or paper toweling. Tear a few of the husks into long, thin strips for the ties if not using twine.
4. Prepare the masa dough.
Prepare the masa dough according to your recipe. While masa tamale dough is best used the day it is made, it can also rest overnight, covered, in the refrigerator, then resoftened by whipping in a food processor or electric mixer. Use home-rendered or top quality lard, never hydrogenated manteca, the lard sold in red boxes in the supermarket; it has no flavor. In place of lard, you can use a combination of butter and hydrogenated vegetable shortening.
5. Fill and roll the tamales according to your recipe.
6. Steaming the tamales.
Fill the rice cooker bowl with 5 inches of water. Use the steamer baskets atop the 10-inch model rice cooker or fit a metal rack into the rice cooker bowl high enough so that the rack is not submerged in the water. Place the tamales in the top steamer basket and leave the bottom basket empty. If using a metal rack, fill water to just below the level of the rack. You should always have at least 2 inches of water. It is important that the tamales do not touch the water during steaming or they will be soggy and that there is some space between the racks and water to give room to create the steam for cooking. There will only be one layer.
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Lay the tamales, seam side down, tightly side by side (rather than standing them upright) to prevent them from absorbing too much steam and getting soggy. If there is alot of extra space around the sides, pack with extra corn husks. Cover the tamales with a layer of 4 or 5 corn husks. Set the second steamer basket on top filled in the same manner. Cover the pot and turn the rice cooker on. Steam for 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the size of the tamale, making sure to check the water level periodically and refilling as necessary by pouring in hot water on the side of the tamales, never directly over the them. This is important since the tamales will taste scorched if the water evaporates.
After an hour, remove a tamale with metal tongs and open to check for doneness by peeling back the husk. Alternately, you can pierce the tamale with a bamboo skewer. The dough will be firm and no longer sticky or mushy, and separate easily from the husk wrapping. Break off a section to check the filling. Let fresh tamales rest 15 minutes before serving to set the dough and meld the flavors.
7. To reheat cooked tamales, fill the rice cooker bowl with 5 inches of water. Place the tamales in the steamer baskets, cover and steam for 15 to 20 minutes. You can also microwave individual tamales in their wrappers for 1 minute on high power.
8. The tamales can be cooled in the steamer baskets, then stored in Zip-loc plastic bags in the refrigerator up to 4 days. You can freeze the cooked tamales, or even freeze the raw tamales and steam later before serving.
Jacquie’s Rancho Pork Tamales
This exceptional recipe for tamales comes from food writer and Californio Rancho cooking expert Jacquie Higuera McMahan, our very own tamale princess. Rancho tamales are the grandes of the genre; nice and big. You will be buying fresh ground masa, which is a wet dough, rather than masa harina, the flour that needs to be reconstituted before making into the dough.
Be sure to buy your masa as fresh as you can get it, not masa preparada, the already prepared tamale dough, as it already has cheap lard and seasonings added, which is often in similar packaging; read the label carefully. You can get fresh masa in a specialty market, but some supermarkets carry fresh masa during the Christmas holidays. Set aside two days for preparation so that all you have to do is cook the tamales when you want to serve them. You will be using the rice cooker to steam the dried chiles for the sauce, as well as for cooking the finished tamales.
Machine: Large (10-cup) rice cooker
Yield: 30 large tamales
- 3 1/2 pounds boneless pork butt, trimmed of most of the fat
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Cold water
- 1 large yellow onion, cut into quarters
- 2 cloves garlic, cut in half
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- Freshly ground black pepper
Salsa Colorado (Red Chile Sauce)
- 15 dried California or New Mexican chiles
- 1 1/2 cup water, for puréeing the chiles
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 packages dried corn husks, the widest you can find
- 3 cups fresh leaf lard (1 1/2 pounds), or a combination of 1 1/2 cups solid vegetable shortening and 1 1/2 cups butter
- 1/4 cup fruity olive oil
- 4 pounds freshly ground masa (not masa preparada)
- 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
- 3/4 cup beef broth
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 cups pitted black olives
Prepare the tamale filling. Preheat the oven to 350º. Pat the roast dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat and brown both sides of the roast. Cover with cold water and add the onion, garlic, oregano, and pepper. Put on the lid and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 2 hours.
When the roast is cooked, cool for 1 hour in its broth. Reserve the cooking liquid and cut the meat into cubes. Set aside in the refrigerator until needed.
Prepare the chile sauce. Use kitchen shears to cut off the chile stems and cut the chiles in half.
Shake out the seeds. Fill the rice cooker bowl with 5 inches of water and turn on regular to heat the water. Place the chiles in the steamer basket in the rice cooker and steam over the simmering water for 30 minutes to reconstitute them.
Place the warm chiles in a blender or food processor and purée in batches, adding about 1/2 cup water to each batch to liquify. Set aside 1/4 cup of the red chile purée in a separate container, covered, in the refrigerator for use in the tamale dough later.
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and sprinkle in the flour. Brown the flour, stirring constantly to a light golden roux. Cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in the chile purée, garlic, salt, vinegar, oregano, and cumin seed. If the sauce is too thick, thin with more water or a bit of reserved cooking liquid from the meat. Simmer 10 minutes. Add the cubed meat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature, then transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until tamale making time.
The next day, remove the corn husks from the package and soak the in a sink filled with hot water for 30 minutes. Choose the widest and longest husks, and rinse off any corn silk. Drain the husks on several layers of paper towels.
Prepare the tamale dough. In a heavy-duty electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the lard until it looks like fluffy butter, dribbling in the olive oil when it is whipped. On low speed, add dollops of masa so that it is slowly incorporated. Stir the salt into the broth and drizzle it into the dough.
Increase the speed to medium and whip for 3 minutes. To test if the dough is made properly, drop 1/2 teaspoon of batter into a glass of cold water; if it floats to the top of the water, it is nice and light. If it sinks, continue to whip the dough for another few minutes. Add the reserved 1/4 cup red chile purée, which will turn the dough rose-pink. On low speed, sprinkle in the baking powder.
To form the tamales, spread about 1/2 cup of the tamale dough inside the curve of a husk, allowing for a 1/2-inch border along one side. Place a spoonful of the meat filling on top and 2 olives in the center. Fold over the sides into the center. Spread 2 tablespoons more of the dough on a second husk and wrap it around the filled tamale. Tie off both ends with a piece of kitchen twine. It will be about 6 inches in length. Continue to fill and wrap individual tamales. You will make about 30.
Fill the rice cooker bowl with 5 inches of water and turn on regular Cook to heat the water. Arrange the tamales in the steamer baskets, 15 in each layer, laying side by side (not standing up) touching each other. Cover the tamales with a layer of 4 or 5 corn husks. Set the second steamer basket on top filled in the same manner. Cover and steam for 60 minutes. Remove one tamale, pull back the husk. If it pulls away easily, it is done; if it sticks, continue to steam in 10 minute intervals.
Transfer the tamales with a pair of tongs to a serving platter. At this point the tamale is the most tender and delicate.
Vegetarian Green Corn Tamales
While your mother might have bragged about her meatloaf, Mexican-American grandmothers do the same about their tamales. Inspired by Jacquie McMahan, this is a vegetarian tamale and the dough is made with masa harina, the dried hominy corn flour that is usually associated with tortilla making, although tamales take a coarser grind. It is also made with oil in lieu of the lard. They are filled with zucchini, green chiles, Monterey jack cheese, and corn. Serve hot with some crema doble (Mexican sour cream) or sour cream and salsa.
Machine: Large (10-cup) rice cooker
Yield: 24 tamales
- Tamale Filling
- 1 cup roasted peeled green Anaheim or New Mexico chiles, or 2 cans whole roasted green chiles
- 1/4 cup water
- 3 pounds fresh zucchini squash, grated
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- Salt, to taste
- 1 cup fresh or frozen defrosted baby corn kernels or frozen baby limas
- 5-ounces Monterey jack cheese, shredded
- Tamale Dough
- 24 wide corn husks
- 6 cups masa harina, such as Quaker Brand
- 1 2/3 cup organic canola oil or vegetable oil
- 5 1/2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon salt
Prepare the tamale filling. Combine the chiles and water in a saucepan. Simmer until the chiles have darkened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool.
Place the chiles, zucchini, garlic, and salt to taste in a bowl. Turn into a mesh sieve and press on the vegetables to extract any liquid. Set aside and add the corn.
Remove the corn husks from the package and soak the in a sink filled with hot water for 30 minutes. Choose the widest and longest husks, and rinse off any corn silk. Drain the husks on several layers of paper towels.
Prepare the tamale dough. In a heavy-duty electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the masa harina, oil, water, and salt. It will have the consistency of a moist cookie dough. Add more water by the tablespoonful, if necessary to adjust texture.
To form the tamales, spread about 2 tablespoons of the tamale dough inside the curve of a husk, allowing for a 1/2-inch border along one side. Place 2 heaping tablespoons of the filling on top with a bit of the shredded cheese. Fold over the sides into the center. Tie off both ends with a piece of kitchen twine or some husk. Continue to fill and wrap individual tamales. You will make about 24.
Fill the rice cooker bowl with 5 inches of water and turn on regular Cook to heat the water. Arrange the tamales in the steamer baskets, laying side by side (not standing up) touching each other in a single layer. Cover the tamales with a layer of 4 or 5 corn husks. Set the second steamer basket on top filled in the same manner (you can put 12 on each level). Cover and steam for 60 minutes. Remove one tamale, pull back the husk. If it pulls away easily, it is done; if it sticks, continue to steam in 10 minute intervals.
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Transfer the tamales with a pair of tongs to a serving platter. At this point the tamale is the most tender and delicate.
Excerpted from The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2002, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.