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Jan 8, 2008 11:23 AM

Salvadoran Tamale Mystery

There's a Salvadoran place name Planes de Renderos in San Francisco that makes great tamales. The masa is very creamy, almost gelatinous and I can't figure out how they do it. It's surely not pure masa harina. I tried using one part fine cornmeal (masa para arepas) to 3 parts masa harina, but that didn't work. Anybody know the secret? Maybe rice flour?

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  1. Occasionally I buy frozen tamales from El Salvador. These are slightly sweet, made with butter, and at least part sweet (or at least fresh) corn. They remind me of the Ecuadorian humitas, which are made with fresh field corn. Some recipes approximate that with a mix of pureed American sweet corn and cornmeal.


    1. I know that Guatemalans have a tamale in which the masa is strained (Yucatecans, too) maybe that is the secret?
      I asked my friend and she said: "we take regular corn tortilla masa and we usually strain to make it more fine then we mix the masa with lard and water and cook it till it gets more gel-like in texture".

      5 Replies
      1. re: WildSwede

        Interesting. You mean just pass the dry masa through a fine sieve first, then mix the dough as usual? Didn't think it could be that simple, but I'll give it a try.

        1. re: Zeldog

          Isn't there a finer masa harina that is intended for tortillas, and a coarser one for Mexican tamales?

          1. re: paulj

            I don't know on both counts. Unfortunately my friend who told me that left for vacation a few hours ago. I will check with my Yucetecan friend, tho, since they have a version that is strained. I will get back with you tomorrow. Dommy may chime in here as she would also know.

        2. re: WildSwede

          I think you are right on the money wildswede. They are known as colados. I think the masa is also pre cooked before the steaming and called masa cocida.
          I think it is the combo betw. the straining and the pre cooking that gives you that wonderful jelly like texture that I find amazing.
          Guat are similar too.

          1. re: kare_raisu

            I concur.... Yucatecan, Chiapanecan, Oaxacan Isthmus, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan... are all styles of the same basic, strained masa tamales which gives them that gelatinous characteristc... although Salvadorans are usually the most custard like because they also add Rice flour to the masa.

            You have to be careful... because when they aren't done right (as my most recent Chicken tamal from my local Pupuseria turned out)... they turn out a disgusting Cream of Chicken mushy like texture.

        3. Could they have been tamales de elote? Were they wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves?

          6 Replies
          1. re: morebubbles

            Banana leaves. The filling was chicken with onions, chiles and olives. All in all they are very similar to Colombian tamales, except for the texture.

            1. re: Zeldog

              I think those are the Guatemalan types (at least that is what I had at Christmas). The ones I had also had capers. Were there bones in yours?

              1. re: Zeldog

                Well, I'll tell you what I know from watching my grandma & other Salvadoran ladies. Masa harina is cooked in a large kettle mixed with homemade chicken stock and oil (instead of lard). The masa is then cooked/stirred until quite thick and is difficult to stir. Take out some of that cooked masa, add 'recaudo' (a sauce consisting of a mix of freshly toasted and ground seeds, spices, peppers etc) to it and put aside. Then assemble the tamales, first the cooked plain masa, then putting a bit of the masa with sauce in the middle, then in that whatever filling the cook wants to put in (could be any combination: chicken, pork, olives, capers, etc).
                In summary, I think the texture comes from that pre-cooking and the streneous stirring stage. And maybe the right amount of stock and oil to the masa.

                1. re: morebubbles

                  Thanks morebubbles and others. I do believe precooking will do the trick. .

                  1. re: Zeldog

                    Don't forget to strain, otherwise it wont work as you intend.

            2. One thing... I really don't believe its anything about finer masa... the reason it is strained is to remove the fiber... and grinding finer doesn't really accomplish this.

              1. Ok, I did a quick test. I cooked up 2 cups of masa para tamales, stirring pretty much constantly for about 10-15 minutes after it came to a boil. I started with too little water, so I added boiling water from a tea kettle to keep it thin enough to stir. Then I made some simple tamales (just some cooked masa wrapped in parchment) and steamed them. Success!

                I didn't strain the masa, so it wasn't quite as smooth as the Planes de Renderos tamales, but I actually liked it better that way (kinda reminded me of slightly overcooked grits). Even ate most of the leftover masa as porridge before it set up. Thanks again, all.