Love and Olive Oil

August Kitchen Challenge: Tamales

August 2014 Kitchen Challenge: Tamales

Making tamales never really crossed my mind before, at least until I saw bags of corn husks in a local international market. Something lit up and since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.

I’ll admit, my experience to tamales is limited, mainly to the frozen green chili cheese tamales at Trader Joe’s. While I could eat those daily, I cannot remember ever having truly authentic tamales (related: anyone in Nashville know where to get legit tamales? For, you know, research).

Once you’ve made the dough and mastered the wrapping process (basically corn husk origami), the biggest question is, what are you going to fill them with? Pork (carnitas) is probably the most traditional, but I want to see you get creative! I know I can think of a hundred things you could fill these with, from meat to vegetables, even fruit I imagine could work (10k bonus points for anyone who does a dessert tamale!)

Let’s just say this challenge is a hot one!

The Challenges:
  • Corn husks are used to wrap the tamales and keep them from drying out. In my mind they are what makes a tamale a tamale. I’ve seen these at International food stores and Mexican grocers, but you can also find them online. One pound of husks is enough for about 70 tamales. They will need to be soaked for at least 30 minutes prior to assembling your tamales (so plan ahead!)
  • Masa is the corn-based four used in the tamale filling. It is made from dried corn that has been soaked in lime (the mineral, not the fruit), making it easier to work with and digest, and then ground into flour. If you can find a tortilleria near you that will sell you some fresh masa, that’s ideal. You can also used packaged masa flour, which is fairly common and easy to find in the international foods aisle of most major grocery stores. If you can find one that specifically says “for tamales,” even better.
  • Authentic tamales use lard in the filling. I’m obviously not opposed to this, and still have some good stuff stashed in my freezer. If you can find some fresh pork lard (check with your local butcher or Mexican grocer) as the processed stuff in the grocery often has an undesirable flavor.
  • Tamales are traditionally steamed, which means you’re going to need a big pot with a steamer basket insert tall enough for the tamales to be cooked vertically with the open side facing up. We don’t currently have a steamer (other than our bamboo one which I don’t think will work). Curious if a homemade solution like maybe a round cooling rack propped up in a big pot would work? Hmm…
Resources & Recipes:
  • At a loss for where to look, I totally googled “authentic tamale recipe”. These Pork Tamales from PBS look pretty darn amazing, and the base could be reworked for different filling flavors as well.
  • America’s Test Kitchen has a recipe for a basic Chicken Tamale (login required). Interestingly, their dough uses quick grits and frozen corn kernels for added texture and flavor. Also check out the helpful folding diagrams.
  • Better Homes & Gardens has a tutorial for an alternative folding style, which might work well for those of us without big, deep steamers. I think something like this (since there is no open end) could work well in a bamboo steamer, no?
  • This recipe from MexGrocer uses corn oil in place of lard in the filling, if you have dietary restrictions or just a general aversion to cooking with lard. Bonus: you can also buy all the ingredients you need online in a few quick clicks!

Join me!

Make a batch of tamales (any recipe/flavor, but they do need to be traditionally wrapped in corn-husks… no tamale pie!) by Friday, August 29th and send me a photo. I’ll post about my own experience the following week along with a roundup of everyone who tackled this challenge with me.

Submit Your Results »

The Kitchen Challenge series is simply about getting in the kitchen and challenging yourself to make something new; you aren’t required to have a blog to participate, nor are you required to post about it if you do. However, if you do have a blog and post about the challenge, you are more than welcome to use the above graphic.

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  1. I live in Texas and at the local grocery stores they sell packs of corn husks, masa spice mix, and meat spice mix (and a little instruction packet). I usually use less than the whole pack since there’s a lot of salt in it. Bean and cheese is a good combination and leftover meat (like boiled chicken) usually works as filling too. I don’t have a real steamer so I put an ovenproof mug upside down in the bottom of a big pot and fill it up with water so that when it boils the water won’t get above the mug. Then I set a big metal colander on the mug and put the tamales in vertically – putting foil balls in if necessary to keep them all upright – and then I put foil all over the top of the colander so it covers the rim of the pot and handles – as close to sealed as I can get. Then I just let it boil until everything is cooked.

  2. I would love to make my own tamales! I have had other’s homemade ones and store-bought but have yet to get up the nerve. If I have time I may have to join you.

  3. I looove tamales, there’s a little mexican restaurant we go to that has tamales made by this little old grandmother, I definitely need to go get some tricks from her :)

  4. Tamales are a Christmas Eve tradition at our house which we eat before attending Midnight Mass.  We always get them from a local taqueria.  ¡Qué rico!  I’ve alway wanted to try to make them myself and your challenge is a great impetus.   Happy tamale making!

  5. I have a tamalera, but if you have a canner, I bet that would work. My asparagus steamer has only about a 6″-7″ diameter, so I would probably be able to fit only a few tamales in it, and they can take up to an hour or so to cook.

    Fillings that I’m fond of include 1) one small can of green salsa with three cups of shredded chicken thighs or leftover roast turkey, 2) shredded pork in a homemade red sauce with guajillo and pasilla chiles, and 3) mashed winter squash with chipotles in adobo sauce, topped with a piece of monterey jack before tying up the husk.

  6. Tamales are not hard to make once you do it the first time. I make them with my hubby.
    My families recipe uses Red Chile & Pork. I have a new recipe using green chile & cheese that I am trying soon. I love Tamales. Have fun. 

  7. We make tamales every year for Christmas! It isn’t difficult but it is time consuming. As for desert, we make a cinnamon raisin tamale with chocolate in the middle. Yummy!

  8. My grandmother used to make tamales when I was little without any special equipment. You can stack the bottom of the pot with a thick layer of the corn husks that you didn’t use [some pieces that might have been too small, etc.] and then in the middle, stack a few small, heatproof bowls [like pyrex bowls} or even a pyrex measuing cup [2 cup+ size]. Lean the tamales, open side up, around the bowls. If you want to cook more than one layer of tamales in your pot, seperate them with a layer of husk. Use a tight fitting lid and steam on a medium-low heat until done. I recommend steaming them using the meat broth or a flavored broth you create. My family and I made tamales for the first time in 20 years this past Christmas and they were AMAZING! Try a simple mashed beans with cheese. Muy sabroso! Good luck!

  9. I LOVE tamales. I grew up with my best friend’s mom’s tamales (her mom is Mexican and makes them in HUGE batches and freezes them for us to heat and eat). Then I lived in an area with a “little Mexico” nearby where REAL tamales were always easy to get. They’re SO good. And legit, pork tamales. 
    As for Nashville, I know that seasonally, Mas Tacos sometimes has them but you have to call ahead to check if they have them that day then rush in during store hours to get them! 
    I’ve always wanted to make them BUT I know you have to use lard to have them be legit, and I don’t really want to do that (and I don’t want to make non-legit ones)

  10. Exciting! I’ve never even eaten one before – they’re not really common in the UK

  11. My boyfriend and I love making tamales! I would recommend Alton Brown’s hot tamale recipe. It has very clear instructions for any first time tamale makers out there! Also, it doesn’t require a steamer basket so if you don’t already have one no extra equipment required!

  12. I live in El Paso, where one can get authentic Mexican food, and I’ve fallen in love with it.  So I’ve done some research on good Mexican recipes and have three suggestions for places to check for really authentic recipes:
    1) Mexico in My Kitchen
    2) Pati’s Mexican Table

    There is a family we frequently spend Christmas eve with, many members of which are of  Mexican heritage.  They make a sweet dessert tamale which is very nice, also worth considering trying.  I wish you luck with this challenge.  I understand that tamales aren’t easy to make.  I’ll stick with making tortillas…  :-)

  13. I know a tamale stuffer is important to the process- hand stuffing is the worst! Propping them up in a big pot will also work instead of a steamer.  If you’re willing to travel a few hours for amazing tamales, my hometown of Cleveland, MS has some of the best! Try Delta Meat Market’s or the White Front Cafe’s in Rosedale. It’s a necessary culinary trip. Tony Bourdain even came here for one of his episodes of Parts Unknown!

  14. A co-worker clued me into a cool thing. Mas Tacos Por Favor will sell you uncooked tamales.  You can take them home, pop them in the freezer, and eat them whenever you aren’t in the mood to make your own.

  15. First tortillas and now tamales…you are speaking my language girl! If you ever need an emergency hotline call me (seriously). I also have youtube videos for both and my blog and published “Muy Bueno” cookbook are great resources too. Have fun making tamales — I have no doubt you will master them. You are very talented. Please send me a dozen to test and be sure ;)

  16. I’ve only had tamales maybe once or twice in my life, but they look so cute with their corn husk wrappers that I might just have to take on this challenge!

  17. We LOVE making nacatamales, but they are wrapped in banana leaves, so NOT corn husks. Can I submit those? Or not?

  18. Ohhhh I forgot to mention you can use a pot with a strainer like the ones for cooking spaghetti just have to be sure not fill it with too much water.

  19. I’m not familiar with the tamale process, but your description of steaming makes me wonder if an asparagus pot might be a good option. We love ours and use it for boiling tons of stuff (pasta, potatoes, eggs, etc) because the tall narrow shape is great for that. It should definitely come with its own steamer basket as well.

  20. YES!!!! Mas Tacos Por Favor, Judge Beans BBQ, The Tamale Pot and La Paz!!! And my house! I’m from texas and learned to make them. Its quit easy check out this recipe

  21. I’ve never ever has Tamales. We’ll see how that turns out, I’m looking forward to the different recipes and outcomes… 
    Oh and I immediately thought of the bamboo steemer as well. I’d guess that works out as well…?

  22. I used to make tamales every Christmas with my Grandmother who was born in and lived in Mexico until her 50’s. She would tie the ends like the bhg recipe. She also made a sweet tamale by adding a bit of sugar to the masa and mixing in fresh pineapple and golden raisins. So incredibly good. We would work as an assembly line and make countless tamales as they freeze so well. 

  23. HELLO!  Mas Tacos Por Favor!  I think Wednesday is tamale day.  Let’s go next week!  :-)

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