My grandparents owed a restaurant they named, Restaurante de Jesusita in Shafter, Texas from 1939 to 1941. My grandma used to sell lunches to local miners.
She was up prepping and cooking as early as 4 a.m. Her day began with nixtamal, the wet stone-ground tedious process for making dough for corn tortillas and tamales. The process of nixtamalization is as long as the name itself, its purpose to soften the hard walls of the corn kernels so they can be separated from the sweet, moist interior and then tossed away.
Nixtamal required soaking maize (corn) overnight in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and the next day rinsing, hulling, and grinding it. Every morning my grandma would hull the corn and kneel in front of a metate (mealing stone) to grind it, creating the dough for corn tortillas or tamales.
Hominy (nixtamalized corn kernels) was also used for other dishes, like pozole (hominy stew) or menudo (hominy and tripe soup).
The most vital ingredient in making the perfect tamal is the masa. Masa is the plain, wet stone-ground dough made with a special corn known as nixtamal.
Today there are tortillerias, tortilla bakeries that produce and sell fresh dough, but in those days it was a long process done by hand.
Fresh masa can be purchased in one of two ways, prepared and unprepared.
Our family prefers to purchase unprepared masa and then we add lard, salt, broth, and baking powder, giving it the muy bueno touch.
So if you choose to use our recipe make sure you purchase sin preparar (unprepared masa). Grandma prepared it this way for years and so do we. Masa can be purchased in Mexican specialty stores.
If you do not have access to fresh ground corn (unprepared masa) try this recipe: Tamal Dough made with Masa Harina.
The key to moist, flavorful tamales is not being shy about adding fat. Lard is traditional in Mexico. If you do not want to use lard — try using softened butter for a vegetarian version.
Make big batches of tamales because they make great leftovers. Once steamed, tamales can be refrigerated or frozen and resteamed.
How to re-heat tamales:
You can roll defrosted tamales in wet paper towels and microwave them. Or you can toast them on a comal, or in a skillet, for a charred, smoky flavor.
How many tamales are you making for your tamalada?
Need filling options? Try some of these:
- Roasted Chicken and Salsa Verde Tamales
- Cheese with Roasted Chile Tamales (Tamales de Rajas Con Queso)
- Sweet Raisin Tamales
- Red Chile and Pork Tamales
- Red Chile Lamb Barbacoa Tamales
- Sweet Mango Dessert Tamales
- Sweet Coconut and Pineapple Tamales
- Zucchini and Corn Tamales
- Pumpkin Spice Tamales
I hope the video below, recipe, and tips will inspire you to host a tamalada and make tamales at home.
- 2 pounds lard (If you are using rendered lard you will need to use less broth)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder, divided
- 2 tablespoons salt, divided
- 5 pounds fresh ground masa (unprepared) for tamales, divided
- 2 to 3 cups broth from cooked pork roast or chicken broth, divided
- ½ cup red chile sauce (only add if making red chile pork tamales)
Make tamal masa:
- Place 1 pound of lard in a large stand mixer and mix until fluffy, scraping sides so the lard stays in the center of the mixing bowl. (The flat beater is the ideal accessory for mixing.)
- Add half the baking powder and half the salt to the lard and mix together.
- Add half the masa and mix together. Slowly add half the broth and half the red chile sauce, if using, to the masa and mix until combined. The mixture should be about the consistency of smooth peanut butter. If not, add more broth as necessary. Test the masa by taking a small piece (1/2 teaspoon) and dropping it into a cup of warm water. If it floats it is ready; if it sinks, add a little more lard, beat for another minute and test it again. Repeat this process until the masa floats. Pour the masa mixture into a bigger bowl. Repeat the process with the remaining ingredients.
- Cover the masa and set aside while you prepare your filling of choice.
Prepare Ojas (Corn Husks):
- Soak corn husks in water for an hour before using, rinse well with running water to take off any dust or corn husk fibers. To keep corn husks pliable and easy to work with, keep in water while filling tamales. Place a handful of wet corn husks in a colander to drain before using.
- Place the wide end of the husk on the palm of your hand, narrow end is at the top. Starting at the middle of the husk spread 2 tablespoons of the masa with the back of a spoon in a rectangle or oval shape, using a downward motion towards the wide-bottom edge. Do not spread the masa to the ends; leave about a 2-inch border on the left and right sides of the husk.
Fill Corn Husks:
- Spoon 1½ tablespoons of your chosen filling down the center of the masa. Fold both sides to the center; finish off by bringing the pointed end of the husk toward the filled end. Make sure it’s a snug closure so the tamal will not open during steaming. Secure by tying a thin strip of corn husk around the tamal. This will keep the tamal from unwrapping during the steaming process, especially if the husk is too thick and will not stay folded.
- Use a deep pot or tamale steamer to steam tamales. If using a tamale steamer fill with water up to the fill line. Set the tamale rack over the water. Place tamales upright, with fold against the sides of the other tamales to keep them from unfolding. Cover pot with a tightly fitting lid. Set heat on high and bring to a boil, about 15 minutes. Lower heat and simmer for 2½ to 3 hours. Keep lid on tightly. To test if done, put one tamal on a plate and take off the corn husk. If it comes off without sticking to the tamal they are done.
- Place a penny at the bottom of the pot, when you hear the penny rattle that means the water level is low and it is time to add more water to the steamer.