Welcome to your new favorite winter weekend cooking project.

By Stacey Ballis
January 12, 2021
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Tamales are a practically perfect food. They can go traditional or inventive, savory or sweet, large or small, super affordable or wildly expensive. They are a food that in preparation can either be a glorious communal activity to be shared or a meditative solo endeavor. And during this winter, we could all use some kitchen therapy.

If you grew up with a tamale tradition in your family, you likely have a recipe that has been handed down through the generations, but if you did not, tamales might seem a bit daunting. Luckily, they are actually pretty easy to make. A bit time consuming, but not difficult. And even better, they are a really good excuse to explore local Mexican markets, where all sorts of treasures lie. This technique will give you batter and prep for a dozen nice-sized tamales, which is a manageable project for one person. If you have more hands to help (or more mouths to feed), you can double or even triple this amount. Another bonus: Cooked tamales freeze beautifully if you happen to have any left over.

Here are the 6 steps to follow for no-fail tamales.

Tamales
Credit: Getty / carlosrojas20

1. Shop for husks and tamale flour

To make a great tamale, head to the market and seek out a package of dried corn husks and of masa harina tamale flour. My favorite brand is Maseca: Look for the beige bag that says tamal on it. If you are going to use lard for your tamales—which I highly recommend—also buy that at your Mexican market. It will come in a tub (not bricks) and possess a toasty color and flavor. You can use vegetable shortening, but unless you are making vegetarian tamales, I suggest using lard: It just brings so much flavor to the finished product.

You will also need baking powder, salt, chicken broth, and a large pot with a steamer insert and a tight-fitting lid. 

2. Soak the husks

First things first, the corn husks. These will contain and protect your tamales while cooking. You have to soak them in hot water for at least a couple of hours to soften them: I generally soak them in the late morning if I want to make tamales in the afternoon, or right when I get up if I want to make them in the late morning. I boil a kettle, pour it over the husks in a bowl to cover, put a bowl or something on top to keep them submerged, and let them hang out. You want them pliable.

3. Make your masa base

The next thing to do is to hydrate your masa. Run your tap as hot as it will go for a minute until steaming, then get 9 ounces of it in a bowl, and add 1 3/4 level cups of masa harina and mix well. Set this aside for about 30 minutes to fully hydrate: It should make a nice paste that is not too wet.

4. Prep the tamale batter

To make about a dozen nice sized tamales, here's the step-by-step:

  • Put about 5 ounces of lard into the bowl of your mixer with a ½ teaspoon salt and ¾ teaspoon baking powder and beat them with the paddle attachment on high for a 3-5 minutes until the color lightens noticeably.
  • Add the hydrated masa in three to four additions, with the mixer still going, until fully incorporated.
  • Reduce the speed to medium low and slowly add about ¾ cup of chicken broth until you get a texture like cornbread batter: not stiff, but not soupy either. (Every bag of masa harina is different, as is the humidity where you are, so trust yourself and go by eye and feel.)
  • Chill the batter in the refrigerator for an hour.
  • Return it to the mixer and beat again to fluff it up.

5. Build the tamales

The fillings I leave to you and your imagination. You can stuff tamales with something as simple as shredded cheese and canned chopped chiles, or as complex as chicken mole or adobo pork. You can make breakfast tamales with scrambled egg and chorizo, or elegant ones stuffed with wild mushrooms cooked in truffle butter.  You can fill them with leftovers or make something new to serve as your stuffing. (You can even fill them with quince paste or Nutella for sweet dessert versions.) Here's how to build your tamales:

  • Plan for 1½ to 2 tablespoons of filling per tamale.
  • Start by taking a couple of the husks out of the water, patting dry, and pulling into half-inch wide strips to use to tie the tamales up. Find a dozen of the largest husks and lay them out with the tapered end towards you.
  • Place about a ¼ cup of the batter on each, in the middle of the husk, and spread into a sort of rectangle or square leaving at least a half-inch border on the sides, and a couple inches on the bottom, and a half inch or so on the top.
  • Place a strip of your filling down the middle of the masa, leaving a half inch or so at the top and bottom.
  • Bring the two husk sides together, which will envelop the filling completely in the masa dough and allow the husk to naturally wrap itself around the outside to make a tube.
  • Fold up the tapered end and tie a strip of husk lightly around it to keep the bottom closed and folded, but not too tightly so that the tamale has room to expand during steaming. Leave the tops open. 

6. Steam the tamales

Begin by lining the bottom of the steamer with a layer of the leftover corn husks to protect the tamales. Place your tamales in your prepped steamer standing on end, with the open end up, leaning against each other but not packed too tightly in the pot. If your pot is too large for the number of tamales you have, you can add a ramekin or canning jar or two to fill in the gaps and keep them all standing up. If it is too small, plan on steaming in batches or multiple pots. Put the lid on and steam for about an hour. If you are making ahead for a party or dinner, you can refrigerate them at this point, and then re-steam for about 15-20 minutes to reheat. 

7. The freezing option

If you are making a big batch and want to freeze, let the steamed tamales cool completely in the fridge, then transfer to freezer bags. They make a perfect snack: Just microwave from frozen for a minute or two, or thaw overnight in the fridge and re-steam to heat for a crowd.