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Homemade Tamales - first timer

I've seen a number of recipes for tamales, and I'm sure there are other threads about them here. But I'm wondering what experience all you chow-hounders have.

Is it really that hard to do yourself?

What kind of meat is the best and what would be most authentic? How much do they really vary from one country to another?

Got a link to a reliable recipe? Any tips for a first timer besides low expectations?

What to serve with the tamales?

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  1. Hiya, Ace! (I've always wanted to say that!)
    I used a recipe from the Rick Bayless book "Mexico One Plate at a Time". My first attempt also, they came out messy but delicious. This recipe was chicken with tomatillo sauce. Do look up the past posts here, there is much info. Do NOT have low expectations for flavor, only neatness. Mine were recognizable, just untidy. I have every intention of making them again. I too have read (in his book) that you shouldn't try them alone, but I think that means if you are making 100 for a crowd, then an assembly line would be best. I had no trouble just making 8 tamales, for just two of us. I sliced some queso fresca to serve alongside, it is much like fresh mozzarella.

    1. Have you tried plain tamale's? I would recommend these just for practice...they're really tasty. Make a simple green or red salsa for a topping and sprinkle some anejo or chihuahua cheese on top or add a chihuahua, poblano, and corn filling, etc.

      Being of Mexican Decent, I have many fond memories of my aunts, cousins, and grandma's gathering together for a day (or two) of tamale making. Tamale's can be extremely time consuming. First off, try and make the filling a day ahead of time. We usually had 3 fillings to choose from; shredded pork, shredded chicken, and refried beans. The shredded pork and chicken was usually doused in homemade mole sauce to enhance the flavor.

      Good luck and please report back.

      1. You're going to love making them! I made my first batch a few months ago, with about three more batches since then, and if "I" can do it anyone can.

        http://www.sonofthesouth.net/tamales/...

        Is an *excellent* primer on tamale making, and you won't go wrong if you follow it to the letter. I, however, have been told that you "must" use lard (and when taking cooking advice from the sources I have available, I listen) and instead of covering them with a lid while they steam, use a folded bath towel as a cover.

        Authentic, homemade tamales in our part of the country - western Texas - are almost always pork, made from the largest, cheapest cut of pork you can find. I prefer "boneless country ribs" as they cook quickly and shred easily.

        I'm not sure if the above link calls for making your own chili sauce, but I take a good handful of "chili japones" and while wearing gloves, pull the stem off, slide a knife down the side and seed and de-membrane most of them, then drop them in a skillet with some oil on about medium heat, until they start to smell good. At that point, I blend them with some of the pork broth then stir some of it into the masa, the rest into the meat. (It can be VERY hot or not so hot - it's up to you and how much of the seeds/membranes you remove. The good news is that the heat from the chilies japones is pretty intense on the tongue, but fades before you can even grab a bottle of beer to wash it down.

        )

        I will warn you, though... once your family and friends know that you can make tamales, you're going to be expected to make them, as frequently as they can beg you to do so.

        5 Replies
        1. re: shanagain

          I was just reading the tamale recipe you linked to above and I'm confused about something (never having made them before). All the instructions I'd read previously say to spread the masa within about 3/4 of an inch of the edges of the husk and then fold the husk so that the masa fully encloses the filling. The link above has you roll up the husk from one side. But if you do that, you're not enclosing the filling in the masa, are you? When you unroll the cooked tamale, is the filling just sitting on top of the masa? Did you use the above rolling method or what seems to be the more traditional folding method? And if the latter, how did you eat them? Am I missing something here?

          1. re: JoanN

            To spread the masa, I do it exactly the same as the linked recipe. Basically, when you fold the husk over from the left hand side you'll have an area where the masa meets masa, completely enclosing your filling.

            In the images on that website, it does look a bit like he's just folding the husk over the meat, doesn't it? That's definitely not what we do. Tamales are a filled masa - not a stromboli, which is kind of what that one picture of his looks like it would produce.

            I guess that folding them in from the sides would work, but oddly I can't wrap my mind around it - no pun intended. If you decide to make them, you'll find that spreading the masa isn't quite as easy as it sounds, and by spreading from the masa from the edge of one side and rolling them from the left is quick and easy. Honestly, in thinking back to all of the tamales I've had, I've never seen one that unrolled from the center out on each side, so I'd consider the way described in the link to be traditional, rather than the way you describe.

            Might be a Texas Mexican thing?

            We just had some tamales the other day that were strange to me but might be normal elsewhere - it was as if the whole husk had been dipped into a thin masa, resulting in extra masa all over the place as you unrolled. I didn't care for that at all - the masa was so thin that it didn't hold the filling inside.

            Looking back, it also looks like he sort of spreads out the meat a bit more than I do (sorry, should've REALLY looked at that link again before I recommended it) - I basically place the meat as you would for canneloni or a burrito - left of center so that when you roll it, the masa hits masa. (Should've just said that in the first place!!)

            1. re: shanagain

              Thanks for the recap. Now it makes sense. It seemed as though the filling should be completely enclosed, but that just wasn't the way I was reading it. Your explanation really helped.

              1. re: JoanN

                Oh, good. I have a fever today and realized as I re-read my post that I might've been anything but clear.

          2. re: shanagain

            I plan to try these this weekend, the instructions are very nice. I was wondering, as I expect to have way more than my little family of four can eat (even thought I'm halving the recipe), at what stage is it best to freeze them? Before cooking? After cooking?

          3. I should've mentioned - we don't serve anything with tamales but tamales. If I've made them too spicy for my kids tastes, a bit of sour cream goes a long way, but for us, tamales aren't so much a meal as an event in themselves.

            I have found a strange wine pairing for them, though, if you can find it. Migration Pinotage from South Africa is unbelievably good with spicy foods - it holds up and enhances the flavors remarkably. Both my stepfather and I enjoyed the big, robust red with tamales immensely. (He is an expert in all-things-wine and I think I shocked him with the pinotage discovery.)

            1. Back in my festive holiday season party giving days, I used to make large batches this time of year. As I recall, I usually did them with just corn or with green chilies although there was a round with duck confit...hmmmmmmmm.

              I used a recipe from Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe cookbook. It basically called for a combination of crisco [solid shortening] and butter. Don't remember how I tweaked them for the duck confit ones.

              If I do say so myself, they were pretty darn good and they froze very well so that I was able to keep a bunch in the freezer for quick meals.

              1. I have a great book, that I have to actually follow a recipe from, but I feel like I know what I'm in for now: Tamales 101.

                It's my understanding that a slow braised pork shoulder, in whatever seasonings are traditional/sound good to you, that's fork shredded is a good way to go for a meat filling.

                There's a lot of argument back and forth as to masa with lard, vegetable shortening, etc etc. I think you can only figure that by trying things yourself...although, anything dough related made from lard is usually delicious.

                1. About two years back, the LA Times Food section ran an excellent article/recipe for making Tamales at home. Having made them for a holiday party that year, I can tell you one thing: the results are fantastic but it's backbreaking work! We made two kinds, one with the pork filling and one vegetarian. Both were amazing. Just be prepared to be on your feet for a really long time.

                  1. Please keep the finely tuned suggestions coming.

                    My first and only attempt to make tamales was without a doubt my greatest kitchen failure.

                    Picture a small unit of dough becoming the Pillsbury Doughboy who continues to swell to the size of the Goodyear blimp. It was a culinary scene borrowed from the movie Ghostbusters.

                    Please... more hints on dough.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: FoodFuser

                      LOL! What great imagery. Sounds like you added too much baking powder - I added a "smidge" too much with one batch and they were definitely puffier than expected.

                      What I find trickiest is spreading the masa - I've essentially given up on most tools and use a combo of a spatula and my hands, and hold the whole thing up toward the window to make sure I don't have any "windows" of thin masa. I wish I could accurately describe how thick the masa needs to be, because too thick will produce a (here in west TX) disagreeably dough-y masa layer, too thin and the tamales won't hold up.

                      I've found when the masa is right, the spatula will almost stand up in the bowl, but not quite. I spread a layer about as thick as (searching for some common thing to easily visualize) aha, almost (not quite) as thick as two slices of american cheese. Then I use about maybe a heaping tablespoon of filling (again, with my hands so I'm not sure on the measurement and it's probably a regional preference thing anyway).

                      I don't use his recipe (from that website) for masa, instead basically following the directions on the MaSeCa bag, but adding the chili sauce as described above.

                      As for freezing - we've never had enough leftovers to freeze. (My skinny family of five can pack away the tamales, we pretty much consider them the perfect food - even my NYC Irish-Catholic husband who was raised w/out the word "spice" in his vocabulary. lol) But, people cook them, then wrap them tightly in several layers of foil, and re-steam or microwave them to warm. (To microwave, wrap them in layers of moist paper towels to keep them moist.)

                      I guess the only other thing that comes to mind is to take shortcuts where you can. Fork-shredded is a nice way of saying "kids, come wash your hands and shred this meat with your fingers" - and if I had to wrap each tamale in a cute little bow like in the W-Sonoma catalog, I know for a fact I'd never make them again. Oh, speaking of husks - you'll need to soak an entire 1lb bag in a sinkful of hot water - you won't use them all because many won't be the right size, or they won't soften enough to wrap easily, but go ahead and soak the whole bag.

                      And honestly, set aside several hours for the masa-spreading/tamale building. I'm always amazed how long it really takes.

                    2. My family still makes tamales every year.

                      1. All the meat went through a food grinder. The metal kind that attaches to the side of the counter. You find them at flea markets for a dollar.

                      2. No spoon, no spatula, but a tortilla press. Put a piece of wax paper, folded in the middle on the press, lay the husk on it, between the fold. The curl of the husk should be up. Put a ball of masa uptoward the straight side and press. If you have two pieces of husk that are too small, piece them together, the masa will hold them in place once spread. You can control the thickness of the masa this way.

                      3. Place the filling, a heaping tablespoon, along one side and roll. Fold. There is no need for the masa to seal against itself, at least not in our house.

                      I now live in Colorado. I have never understood these big doughy tamales I see here and in New Mexico. The tamales we made were small by comparison. A thin layer of masa with the filling. You tasted the filling, not the masa so much. If you like lots of masa, make some gorditas. Take the masa and mix in your filling. Place this mixture on a husk and fold top to bottom. No spreading of the masa/meat filling. We would steam these just like tamales.