It's the Holiday season which means it's also tamale season. Everyone wants some of those delicious little packages of goodness. So then the big question arises. Where do I buy the best tamales? Questions are posted on Facebook and names and numbers are secretly passed from one person to another. You may even encounter someone in a parking lot at Walmart that whispers as you walk by, "Want to buy some tamales?" At $10-$14 a dozen, these babies are a hot commodity. So I thought to myself, "Self, why not make your own?"
When I was little, my family would have a Tamalada. We would all get together and help make dozens and dozens of tamales. Each one of us had a role that helped the process go smoother. You had your spreaders, fillers, and rollers. It had been many, many years since I had attended a Tamalada and I knew I needed some guidance before taking on this task. I was able to attend a tamale making class by Chef JD Valdez. He will come to your house and show you all the basics. What I learned that day was instrumental in the success of my own Tamalada.
Day 1 - Prep Work
I'm not going to lie. Making tamales is hard work, but organization and advance preparation is the key to success. The day before you plan your Tamalada you will need to prep the meat and the husks.
Tamales can be filled with just about anything - beef, pork, chicken, or even beans. The most traditional filling is pork and that's what I'll discuss preparing. You'll need the following:
5-8 pound Boneless Boston Butt Pork Roast (trim large pieces of fat and cut into chunks)
1 onion quartered
2 jalapenos (place small slits in peppers)
8 dried guajillo peppers (tops cut off, seeds and membranes removed)
1 32-ounce container Chicken broth
salt, pepper, and oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss pork chunks with enough oil, salt, and pepper to coat all pieces. Place pork chunks in a hot dutch oven a few pieces at a time and brown evenly on all sides. You will need to do this in batches. When all the chunks are browned, place them back in the Dutch oven, add onion, guajillos, jalapenos, and enough broth to just cover. Braise in oven at 400 degrees for 1 hour. Once pork is done, remove chunks from broth, cool, and shred. Reserve 6 cups of strained broth.
A good pepper sauce is the key to flavorful tamales. Your sauce can be green or red depending on your tastes. You can also modify the heat by adding more or less hot peppers. I like mine a little spicy so I added a few jalapenos and serranos for flavor. I also like to slightly toast my guajillo peppers. I use scissors to take off the tops and then make a cut lengthwise so I can gently open them up to remove the seeds and membranes. Place them on a cookie sheet and toast in a 375 degree oven for about 5 minutes or until they look slightly charred (watch carefully, they burn easily). Use gloves to remove tops, seeds, and membranes from the jalapenos and serranos. Leave a few seeds as this is what will add some heat.
15 - 18 seeded and toasted dried guajillo peppers
2 serranos, seeded and cut into strips
2 jalapenos, seeded and cut into strips
1 medium onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, diced
3 medium sized tomatoes, diced
2 tsp each - salt, black pepper, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, & Mexican oregano
1 32-ounce container Chicken broth
Crumble or tear the guajillos into small pieces and add to a medium sized sauce pan. Add onions, garlic, jalapenos, and serranos. Heat for a few minutes and then add just enough oil to coat everything and sautee until onions and garlic are tender and guajillos have softened. Add tomatoes and spices. Continue cooking until tomatoes break down. Add broth and simmer for 20 minutes. Place in blender and mix until smooth. Taste to see if more salt or black pepper needs to be added. Reserve 2 cups of sauce for masa. Add remaining sauce to the shredded pork until moistened. You can add a little of the reserve pork broth if you don't have enough sauce, but you should have plenty. It should be moist, but not soupy.
THE CORN HUSKS
Corn husks are sold by the bag in most produce sections. Look at the bottom of the bag and make sure the husks look straight at the bottom. Wrinkly husks are no bueno! To prepare the husks, open your bag and lay them out on the table. Remove any visible debris, like corn silk or broken husks. You don't want super skinny husks and large ones can be cut in half. I also like to trim the husks at this point and cut ones that are too long or split at the end. Once the husks are sorted and trimmed, rinse them very, very well in hot water. You will notice they smell horrible! It's from the preservatives used to keep them from molding. Bring a LARGE pot of water to boil on the stove and place the rinsed corn husks inside. Boil for about 15-20 minutes, cover, and let them sit overnight until you need them for assembly.
Day 2 - Tamale Assembly
You are almost ready for your Tamalada to begin! Invite over family and friends, put on a pot of charro beans, and have some cold beer on ice.
For the masa you will need:
8 cups Maseca Tamal (Masa Harina for tamales)
6 cups reserved and strained broth
2 cups reserved red sauce
2 TBSP each: salt, garlic powder, baking powder
2 cups lard (may substitute Crisco shortening)
In a LARGE bowl mix broth, red sauce, salt, and garlic powder. Gradually add the 8 cups Maseca and mix with a spatula or your hands. Use a hand mixer to make sure the liquid and masa are well blended. If mixture is too thick add more broth, if its too thin add more Maseca. In a separate bowl, whip the lard until its somewhat fluffy. Add the lard to masa and mix until lard in completely incorporated into the masa. Add the 2 tablespoons of baking powder and mix well. Let rest for 10 minutes.
It's finally time to assemble your tamales! Remove the husks from the water and drain well. Set up a long table or work space and cover with a plastic table cloth (things will get messy). Place the husks, meat, and masa in several bowls along the table so that everyone has access. Take a corn husk and spread about a couple of tablespoons of masa on the bottom left corner of the husk in a rectangular shape. The narrow part of the husk should be toward the top. Spreading can be done with a spoon, knife, spatula, or even the new fancy Tamale Spreaders. Place a heaping tablespoon of meat in the center of your masa (see pic below). Fold the left side of your husk over until it meets the other side of the masa, wrap the excess husk around tightly, and flip up the bottom part of husk. Gently pinch the top part of your tamale to make sure the meat is sealed inside (you may need to add a dab of masa to the top). If your tamale does want to stay closed, you can use strips of husks to tie them up like little gifts. As you finish filling and rolling, stack them in trays until it's time to steam. Each person can make their own from start to finish or to make things go faster, you can set up an assembly line and assign each person a role - spreader, filler, or roller.
I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a proper tamale pot! It is vital to the steaming process. They are available for about $25 at Fiesta and Mi Tienda grocery stores and even some HEB's. You will want to stack your tamales as straight as possible. Leaning the pot on its side will help accomplish this task. Once your pot is filled, turn it upright and kind of give it a little shake. The tamales should be not be packed too tightly as they will need some room for the masa to expand. If you don't have enough tamales to fill the entire pot, place some crumpled heavy duty foil in the pot to fill the excess space. Next, carefully add water to the pot by pouring it along on side of the pot. Do not get the tamales wet! Cover the top of the tamales completely with extra corn husks and bring to a boil. Once the water starts to boil, cover the pot and simmer for 1 and 1/2 hours. DO NOT LIFT THE LID! After steaming for 1 1/2 hours, remove from heat and let sit for an additional hour. Again DO NOT LIFT THE LID! While you wait, drink a beer and play a friendly game of Loteria (Mexican Bingo).
When that last excruciating hour has passed, it is now time to test a tamale. They will still be really hot, so be careful. Remove the lid quickly to avoid condensate dripping on the tamales. Remove corn husks from the top and take out a tamale. The tamale should peel away easily from the husk if they are cooked properly.
When the wait is finally over, you truly will enjoy the fruits of your labor. Making tamales is a learning process. You'll learn which relatives should not be spreaders or fillers. You'll learn that next time you may need more or less spice. You'll also learn that this is a lot of work and that $12 a dozen doesn't seem so bad after all. Either way, it's a day well spent with family and friends enjoying food.
If making tamales is not your thing, my favorite places in the Houston area to buy tamales are at Balderas Tamale Factory, Alamo Tamale Company, Gerardo's, and The Pastry War. However, for a fun experience, I highly recommend contacting Chef J.D. Valdez with Houston Streatfood and setting up an in-home cooking class.
About the Author
I like eating, traveling, and enjoying liquid libations. I'm all about great wines, signature cocktails, and local brews.