My long awaited tamales recipe, I hope, is worth the wait. It’s been quite a ride trying to source ingredients and hone techniques — and I’m still learning, but hopefully this effort will prove worthy.
For those who don’t know, tamales are a a whole package dish. Usually made with a savoury filling inside a corn-based dough, inside a leaf wrapper and steamed until tender yet firm. They can be made sweet with sultanas throughout and the dough can be coloured with food dyes. They can be served with sides in a meal or eaten alone. The wrapper is not eaten.
Tamales are a food as old as civilisation and as such, there are many recipes and varieties. The version I’m going to share with you, I can honestly, unbiasedly (maybe) say (as I have sampled MANY over my lifetime) are one of the best out there. Growing up, I remember begging mom to make these each winter holiday every year and waiting eagerly and impatiently for them to be ready. I know mine aren’t nearly as good as hers are, but someday I hope they will be close.
Traditionally, the masa (dough) is made with a special, granular corn flour (not the kind you can easily get at the grocery store) and lard. However, as lard isn’t health-friendly, my mom would make these with vegetable oil and they came out DELICIOUSLY and even better than the lardy ones.
These aren’t a “I feel like tamales, let me whip them up quickly” dish. These are usually planned ahead of time. Sometimes portions, like the meat and mole, are prepared a day ahead of time and then made in large batches with the whole family participating in the prep work.
For the filling, slow cooked beef with ancho mole is what I recommend. Slow cook the meat and prep the sauce the previous day if it’s easier, and refrigerate until ready to use. Also, save the beef broth from the meat and use it to give the masa a really rich flavour.
tall stock pot with deep steamer insert
If using corn husks, begin by soaking them now in warm water to rehydrate them so they’re pliable for folding later on. They should soak for at least 20 minutes. Put some water into your tall steamer, making sure no water is coming through and get that boiling.
The ratio for masa is 1 part corn flour, 1 part vegetable oil and about 3/4 parts broth with salt to taste. It may seem like too much liquid to dry part, but given time to soak, the flour will absorb it all until you get the desired consistency. I used 1 cup corn flour, 1 cup oil and broth for the ones in these photos and it made about a dozen large tamales. Begin with all the flour in a large mixing bowl and slowly add the oil. Mix and begin adding your broth. Once it starts to get thick, continue mixing with your hand. You’re looking for a toothpaste consistency. Add oil, broth and salt until consistency and flavour is achieved. Nothing is worse than a dry, gritty tamale!
Once you have the consistency right, spoon some across your drained, softened corn husks and flatten. Spoon a small portion of your meat and mole mixture into the center and fold the two corners in so that the masa is touching itself forming a seal, enveloping the meat and mole and then fold the bottom, pointy end of the husk up and pinch the top closed. Store flipped with the heaviest part keeping the pointy flap down until ready for steaming. It’s okay if they’re a bit leaky. Still with me?
Once they’re wrapped, carefully place into the steamer with the open ends facing up. Some people like to tie either end with twine like an old fashioned candy, but I’m lazy, that’s more work and this works just as well. Depending on how many you’ve done, you may need to steam them in batches. They should sit comfortably without crowding each other or some might not steam properly and might not set in time.
If you don’t have a steamer insert, you can use an inverted metal colander that will fit inside your tall stock pot. There should be about 5-6cm of water at the bottom for steaming.
Cover the tamales with a damp tea towel and lid. Steam for about an hour to two hours depending on the size of your batch, on a low boil. Check periodically to make sure there’s still water.
Once done, test the masa to see if it has set. When the tamale pulls away from the husk, they’re ready. They should be soft and firm and may need to rest for several minutes before serving. Unwrap and serve with your favourite sides. They will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge, if they last that long. Reheat in the microwave wrapped in a damp cloth or paper towel to prevent drying. I wouldn’t recommend freezing these.
Alternatives: Instead of corn husks, some people use banana leaves and form them in a square, tied with twine. I have yet to try them with dry banana leaves, only the wet, pre-packaged ones. My results were that they were difficult to wrap as they split very easily and steaming them took several batches.
I first tried making tamales here with banana leaves that we found vacuum packed at our local Chinese grocer. I can honestly say I wasn’t happy with the results and missed the days in the San Fran Bay Area of being able to go to the local mercado and buy a massive bag full of corn husks for under $5.
I eventually did find a source for dried corn husks in Sydney here, however you only get a handful for $5. If anyone knows of somewhere else I can purchase them, please let me know! I have tried drying my own, but the commercial corn, even when sold in husks at markets has most of the larger leaves, which are the best for tamales, already removed.