How to Make Tamales

by Ann Marie Michaels on December 21, 2010

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Tamales

It’s Christmas time, and to me that means tamales. It is traditional to eat tamales on Christmas Eve in Mexico. Tamales are also traditional in Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, and many other Latin countries.

Unfortunately, almost all the tamales that can be found in the United States today are made from genetically modified corn and they typically use modern industrial oils — either Crisco, soybean oil or margarine. These oils are not traditional and are very bad for you. (If you want to know why, read The Oiling of America.)

Lard is the traditional fat used in tamales. If you don’t have a good source for lard (I recommend buying pig fat directly from the farmer, and rendering it yourself), you can use refined expeller pressed coconut oil. Although it doesn’t have the delicious flavor of lard, coconut oil is very healthy and it works great in tamales (I don’t recommend unrefined coconut oil, however — the coconut flavor is too strong).

My housekeeper, Carla, is from Honduras. She taught me how to make tamales. In Honduras, they make a slightly larger tamale and they wrap them in plantain leaves. We’re doing the Mexican version, which uses corn husks.

We soaked the corn first and made masa, which is a cornmeal dough used for tamales and tortillas, I following Sally Fallon-Morell’s instructions in Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats for soaking corn in lime water.

Click the links below to read my recipes for making masa from scratch:

Part One: How to Soak Corn for Masa

Part Two: How to Make Masa

And how to render lard:

How to Render Lard

Recipe Notes
This recipe for tamales comes from Chef Rick Bayless, who is an expert on Mexican food. I revised it to use fresh organic corn or cornmeal instead of the GMO masa harina that you buy at the store.

If you don’t have time to soak your own corn, you can use cornmeal (instructions for both methods are included). The advantages of soaking your own corn instead of using cornmeal are: (1) it’s cheaper and (2) it’s much fresher, which means it tastes better and it’s much more nutritious. But not everyone will have the time or inclination to find and soak field corn so I offer both methods. If you do buy cornmeal instead of making masa from scratch, make sure it’s organic.

This recipe produces about a pound and a half of fresh masa. It will be enough to make a lot of tamales (you need one pound), plus a little extra. I recommend freezing the extra masa dough. You can use it later for tortillas (click here for my corn tortillas recipe). Or you can make extra tamales and freeze them. They make a delicious, easy-to-prepare dinner any night of the week. Just pop them in the oven or toaster oven!

You do need to find corn husks. If you can’t find them locally, I have found them online on Amazon.com — here’s a link: EL GUAPO Shelled Corn Husks 24 Oz

Lastly, this filling is made from ground beef or pork. This is the classic beef or pork tamale. You can also stuff the tamales with cheese or vegetables. Dessert tamales stuffed with chocolate or fruit would also be delicious. Be creative and have fun!

How to Make Tamales

Ingredients

Masa
Pickling Lime (1 TBS)
Organic field or dent corn (1 1/2 pounds) — available online — Yellow Dent Corn – Certified Organic Gluten-Free – 2LB ; or organic cornmeal (1 1/2 pounds)
Filtered water
Optional: A little extra dry cornmeal just in case you need it for the correct consistency of dough

Filling
Butter or lard (2 TBS) — where to buy grass fed butter or how to render lard
Large yellow or white onion (1/2)
Ground pastured pork or grass-fed beef, or a combination (1 pound) — where to buy meat
Sea salt to taste — where to buy sea salt

Tamales
A few packages dried corn husks (get a few packs because you will want to make this again & they don’t go bad; available at Hispanic markets or online)
Fresh masa (1 1/2 pounds)
Lard (home-rendered or from a trusted source; not partially hydrogenated) or refined expeller-pressed coconut oil (3/4 cup or 6 ounces) — where to buy coconut oil
Sea salt (1/2 tsp) — where to buy sea salt
Baking powder (1 1/2 tsp)
Sour cream , from grass-fed cows if possible (1 container) — where to buy starters
Salsa, lacto-fermented if possible (1 container) — click here for recipe

Equipment

Large glass bowl or enamelware Dutch oven (for soaking)
Food processor (or better yet, a grain grinder — one that can handle grinding corn)
Large stockpot with steamer insert
Tongs

Directions

Soaking Dent Corn (Longer But Fresher)
1. Rinse 1 1/2 pounds corn in a colander.
2. Add 2 quarts of filtered water to a stock pot or saucepan.
3. Mix in 1 tablespoon pickling lime and turn heat on high.
4. Pour the rinsed corn in. Remove any kernels that float to the surface.
5. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Let it cook for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and let cool.
6. At this point, you can transfer it to a glass mixing bowl and cover it with a dish cloth to let it soak (I used an enamelware Dutch oven with a lid). It’s best to soak in glass or enamelware — or stoneware. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ferment in stainless steel.
7. Mix well, cover, and let the corn soak for a minimum of 12 hours. Preferably longer, up to 2 weeks. The longer you soak, the more digestible and more nutritious the corn will be.

Soaking Cornmeal (Quicker, Not As Fresh or Nutritious)
1. Add 1 tablespoon pickling lime to one quart of filtered water. Stir well.
2. Add 1 1/2 pounds of cornmeal to a large glass bowl or enamelware Dutch oven (do not use stainless steel or other metal). Thoroughly mix in 3/4 cup lime water.
3. Cover and let sit in a warm place for 12-24 hours.
4. Rinse thoroughly with water and drain.

Making Masa from Dent Corn
1. Rinse the soaked corn thoroughly in a colander.
2. Add the corn to the bowl of your food processor, 1 cup at a time.
3. Pulse a few times, then let it run.
4. Add anywhere from 1-4 tablespoons of water per cup of corn. You just have to feel it out. Keep adding water 1 tablespoon at a time and blending until the dough is very soft and is no longer crumbly.
5. Keep pulsing and scraping down until the dough is done. You will know when it’s done when the dough is very smooth and it forms a ball on one side of your food processor. Note: you’re never going to get the corn as finely ground as it needs to be with a food processor. If you have a good quality grain grinder (make sure it can handle corn — not all grain grinders can), that’s your best bet.
6. Be very conservative about adding water. If you add too much water, the dough will be overly sticky. That’s OK though. Just add more corn and make it a little dryer, then mix it with the wetter one. If you need to, add a little dry cornmeal flour to get the right consistency (yes, it’s unsoaked but a little won’t hurt).
7. Form the dough into a few large balls and wrap in plastic and store in the fridge until you are ready to make your tamales.

Making the Filling
1. Chop up the onion.
2. Add the butter or lard to a skillet and turn the heat on medium.
3. Add the onions and cook until soft.
4. Add the ground meat and cook until done.
5. Add sea salt to taste.
6. Set aside until ready to fill tamales.

Making the Tamales
1. Soften (not melt) the lard or coconut oil. A good way to do this is to put it in the dehydrator on very low heat.
2. In a food processor or by hand with a wooden spoon, mix together the masa dough, lard or coconut oil, sea salt and baking powder.
3. Tear one dried corn husk of into small strips to use as ties for the tamales. Set aside.
4. With the tapering end of the husk facing you, place a scant one-eighth cup of dough onto the husk, leaving at least a one and one- half-inch border of husk at the tapered end.
5. Make a divet with your fingers and add a small scoop of the meat filling.
6. Press the masa around the meat to cover it.
7. Fold the two long sides of the corn husk in over the corn mixture.
8. Fold the tapered end up, leaving the top open.
9. Secure the tamale by tying with a strip of the husk.
10. Do all the tamales in this manner and set aside. It’s good to have a friend or family member helping.
11. Measure 1-2 inches of water in a large stockpot. Set steamer insert into pot. Set on low to medium heat.
12. Stand tamales in prepared steamer. Cover and steam for 1-2 hours, checking water level occasionally and replenishing with boiling water as needed. Tamales are done when they pull away from the husk easily.
13. Serve with sour cream and/or salsa (ideally lacto-fermented salsa).

Photo credit: Mexicanwave on Flickr
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