Rating: 5 stars
1 Ratings
  • 5 star values: 1
  • 4 star values: 0
  • 3 star values: 0
  • 2 star values: 0
  • 1 star values: 0

Journalist and recipe developer Lesley Téllez says the secret to a good tamale is mixing the dough until it's as airy as possible. You'll want to break out your stand mixer for this process. If you don't have one, use an electric hand mixer and enlist your family and friends to take turns—it can take up to 30 minutes to achieve the optimal texture without a stand mixer.

EatingWell.com, October 2019

Gallery

Recipe Summary

active:
2 hrs
total:
2 hrs 50 mins
Servings:
12
Advertisement

Every Christmas Eve when I was a kid, we'd walk into my grandma's house in Southern California and see a huge spread on the dining table. She'd have baked ham, deviled eggs, Mexican rice, dinner rolls, cold cuts, fruit salad bathed in Cool Whip. And always, always tamales. Within a few minutes of arriving, we would pile our plates—or rather, she would pile them for us—and then at the end of the night, after gifts were opened, she'd send us off with a big container of tamales. We ate tamales at all times of the day until they ran out, usually shortly after we went back to school.

Tamales, to me, are the quintessential Christmas food. They're pure comfort—a fluffy, spongy corn cake that smells a little minerally and earthy, usually with a spicy, decadent filling inside. (My grandma liked to fill hers with shredded pork in a deep, brick-red chile sauce.) It wasn't until I moved to Mexico City in 2013 and lived there for four years that I realized how many different types of tamales actually exist. There are sweet tamales studded with raisins and pineapple, and savory tamales wrapped in banana leaves. There are tamales stuffed only with beans, and tamales made with rice flour. I even learned that the word tamales comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, which means "wrapped."

While living in Mexico, I tried and loved other typical Mexican Christmas foods too: a crunchy, colorful Christmas Eve salad made with chopped jicama and beets. And ponche, a warm, spiced punch made with molasses-y piloncillo sugar, guava and cinnamon.

But tamales feel closest to my heart at Christmastime. I'm a mom to two small kids, so I don't always have time to make them. But I still buy them come December. They're a staple on our Christmas plate, wrapped snugly in their husks. We eat other things that mean something to our family, too—the buttery mushrooms my Southern mother-in-law makes, the cheese grits my husband loves. And always pie for dessert.

I still like my tamales spicy, but now I make a blander version without chile for my little ones. Just recently, my 4-year-old son asked me something that my heart swell a little: "Mama, can I have a cheese tamal?" I served it to him in the husk, just like my grandma and my mom did with me.

How to Make the Best Tamales

Tamales in Corn Husks
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

When you're ready to make tamales, start by soaking the corn husks. Then make the filling and, while it cools, make the dough. (You can also make the filling a few days in advance.) Then it's time to stuff and fold the tamales. Read on for some tips on making the best tamales.

1. Season Your Filling Well

chicken tamale filling
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

To make tamales at home, first plan your filling. You don't want a filling that's too wet, as it will seep out of the corn husk. The filling should also be well seasoned, so the flavors don't get lost when wrapped in the dough.

2. Make a Fluffy Dough

tamale dough in a bowl
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

For the dough, choose between freshly ground corn masa (dough) for tamales—this tastes the best—or if you can't find it, masa harina for tamales. (Look for the picture of tamales on the package.) Fresh tortilla masa will work, too, but the texture of the tamales will be more dense and chewy. Fat gives tamales their typical light, fluffy texture. Lard is the most traditional, or you can use any other type of oil, or even butter.

3. Grab Some Friends to Help You Fill the Tamales

Corn Husk Wrapper for Tamales with Dough and Filling
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

Filling tamales is always done by hand, and it's much faster if you invite friends over to help. Use a rubber spatula to spread the dough on the corn husks, being sure to leave about 3 inches of space on the narrower end of the husk, where you'll fold it closed, and 2 inches of space from the top. Then add about a tablespoon of filling down the middle of the tamale.

4. Wrap and Seal the Tamales

tamale being rolled in a corn husk
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

To close the tamales, bring one end of the husk toward the other and press the dough together lightly to seal. (If the filling spills out, you've added too much, but you can spoon a little more masa on top of any leaks.) Tuck the edges of the husk under each other, to form a long tube shape. Hold the tube vertically and press firmly on the bottom edge of the tamale (the narrower end) to seal. Fold the husk back in the place where you've sealed it. Place the tamale on a baking sheet and repeat with remaining tamales.

5. Steam the Tamales

steaming tamales in corn husks in a pot
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

After wrapping, the tamales go into a steamer pot. Adding a layer of corn husks to the steamer basket before you add the tamales adds flavor and helps lock in the steam. Once the water is at a light boil, add tamales carefully in a vertical position. Steam, adding more water if necessary, until the husk just starts to pull away from the dough, about 40 minutes. The tamales will still feel rather soft.

6. Let the Tamales Cool Briefly, Then Serve

Chicken Tinga Tamales with Crema, Salsa and Avocado
Credit: Lisa Cassell-Arms

Once cooked, the tamales need to cool, to firm up the texture. Using tongs, remove them from the steamer basket and let them cool on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. Then they're ready to eat. Serve with salsa, crema and avocado slices.

Ingredients

Ingredient Checklist

Directions

Instructions Checklist
  • Place chicken (or turkey), 1 onion wedge and whole garlic clove in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a low simmer, cover and cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers 165°F, about 12 minutes. Transfer the meat to a clean cutting board to cool. Shred the meat.

    Advertisement
  • Meanwhile, soak cornhusks in a large pot or bowl of hot water. Weigh the husks down so they stay submerged.

  • Chop the remaining onion wedge. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add minced garlic; cook, stirring constantly, until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they soften into a thick, chunky paste, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the shredded meat, chipotles, adobo sauce, oregano, pepper and 1/2 cup broth. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

  • If using fresh masa, put it in a large bowl and add 1/2 cup broth. Knead with your hands until a wet dough forms. (If using masa harina, place it in a large bowl and add 2 1/4 cups broth. Mix until evenly moist and soft.)

  • Pour the remaining 1 1/4 cups oil into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the dough, 1 tablespoon at a time, to the oil while mixing on low speed and working up to medium speed once the dough comes together.

  • Add baking powder and the remaining 2 teaspoons salt. (If using masa harina, add an additional 1/2 to 3/4 cup broth if the dough seems stiff.) Mix on high speed for 10 minutes, scraping down the sides as needed, until the dough is smooth and fluffy.

  • To assemble tamales: Remove a husk from the water and pat dry. Choose the largest, thickest husks that don't have any holes. Peel off and discard any dried corn silk.

  • Use a rubber spatula to spread about 1/2 cup of dough (or less: the amount will depend on the size of your husk) in a rectangle on the husk, leaving about 3 inches of space on the narrower end of the husk, where you'll fold it closed, and 2 inches of space on the other end. Using a slotted spoon, add about 1 tablespoon of the reserved filling down the middle of the dough. Bring one end of the husk toward the other and press together lightly to seal the dough inside the husk. (If the filling spills out, you've added too much, but you can spoon a little more masa on top of any leaks.) Tuck the edges of the husk under each other to form a long tube. Hold the tube vertically and press firmly on the bottom edge of the tamale to seal. Fold the husk back in the place where you've sealed it. Place on a baking sheet and repeat to make the remaining tamales.

  • Add 1 inch of water to a large pot fitted with a steamer basket. Line the basket with a layer of husks. Bring the water to a light boil. Add the tamales carefully in a vertical position. Steam, adding more water if necessary, until the husk just starts to pull away from the dough, 35 to 40 minutes.

  • Using tongs, transfer the tamales to a baking sheet; let cool for 15 minutes. Serve the tamales with salsa, crema (or sour cream) and avocado, if desired.

To make ahead

Refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Nutrition Facts

1 tamale
565 calories; protein 15g; carbohydrates 61g; dietary fiber 6g; sugars 3g; fat 30g; saturated fat 4g; cholesterol 25mg; vitamin a iu 428IU; vitamin c 5mg; folate 31mcg; calcium 151mg; iron 2mg; magnesium 81mg; potassium 384mg; sodium 753mg.

4 1/2 fat, 4 starch, 1 lean protein

Advertisement