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Feb 25, 2009 11:20 AM

Tamales: How to make the best masa dough?

So we're talkin about this as a sub-thread and I want to SPECIFICALLY cover the best materials and ways to make the masa dough component of a tamale.
Since you can fill a tamale with anything I would like to concentrate on ingredients and the process for making and cooking the masa dough to perfection.
I have had rubbery ones and fluffy tender ones. Are there different styles or is everyone aiming for light and delicate? Is one masa better than another? Does anyone grind it fresh, from scratch, using dried posole (hominy)?
I have made tamales several times and I have helped in assembling them. I have always used lard. One said they used butter and chicken broth; others corn oil...
I have some Tequesquite, which I believe is used in tamale masa dough, like baking powder.

Then there's the magical "cold water test": after combining the fat or oil (in whatever form), and leavening agent to the masa, drop a small ball of dough in a glass of cold water. If the ball floats, it's ready for making into tamales. This must have something to do with the leavening agent reacting and making the ball light with gas.
Help by sharing your ingredients and method.

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  1. I use chicken broth with lard, butter, and / or vegetable shortening. I usually spike my chicken broth with ancho, pequin, a litle bit of toasted onion, and garlic powders. I add a little baking powder and salt to the dry ingredients, but you can find a zillion recipes to tell you how much.

    The method is way more important than the ingredients for me, because I prefer light, tender, melt in your mouth masa, as compared to the hard dense, heavy masa.

    The way to get your dough light and tender is to cream the fat. I do it until it triples in size. It takes a good ten minutes with a hand mixer, but this is one of those things that a stand mixer is MADE for.

    The cold water trick is directly related to the whipping of the dough (and really, the fat.) Once the dough is whipped with enough air, the dough will float. BUT, if you cream the fat enough BEFORE you introduce it to the rest of your masa mixture, the dough will float as soon as all the ingredients are mixed together. It is MUCH easier to whip the fat before it's added to everything else than to whip everything once it's all incorporated.

    I use the maseca in the brown packaging. I think it's ground a little finer than the stuff in the white packaging with the green letters.

    My best results for a fat medium have been when I used butter and lard together (hmm. wonder why? - umm because they are delicious!)

    I always do them stove top, and I stand them straight up. I've heard of oven steaming, and some ppl lay them on their sides. I use a tamale pot with is basically a large thin walled stock pot that came with a wire stand at the bottom that will allow the steam to come through it. They sell them in two diferent sizes at Target now.

    For the last few years, whenever I make them now, I make a little extra dough with no spices - water, and fat, and then add dutched cocoa powder and sugar, and some Mexican Vanilla, and vanilla beans. The filling for these is broken dark or milk chocolate - just a little. You want your house to smell like like the best thing ever?
    YUMMMM. Might smell better than choc chip cookes in the oven.

    8 Replies
    1. re: gordeaux

      gordeaux: Love your explanation on masa prep. - will try it next time the tamale craving hits...

      1. re: gordeaux

        I see there are distinct textures for tamales. According to one person tamales from central Mexico are thick and fluffy and are mostly masa. Many US commercial tamales are similar. This is not what I am trying to achieve.
        I want the Northern Mexico style which is also the Texas style. They are thin and not very long. There is a high ratio of filling to masa. I can remember my Mom stopping at street vendors in Waco and Taylor, Texas and getting us tamales back in the fifties.
        This style is what I will attempt on my next tamale buildathon.

        1. re: Scargod

          Scargod, have you seen this site: ?

          You should find that his tamales are the right texture you're looking for. And really, in my experience, it's more about application to the husk than the recipe itself.

          1. re: Scargod

            Many people should not even make tamales! If they are not going to make a great tamale, they should not even try it. I have seen tamales made with mostly masa and hardly any pork and tasteless dried chilli on could choke on.
            After wasting my money buying others tamales and being disappointed, I decided to make my own and they were delicious the best I ever had. Mine are the best!
            I received many compliments on them. No brag just fact!
            They must be made with dried red chili peppers roasted until you can first smell the aroma from the oven. Then they are ready to cool and blend with the garlic and cumin and water.
            Make sure the chili sauce is not dry as many make their gross dried choke on it chilli sauce.

            As I said it you're not going to do it right please have mercy and spare the world your tamales.
            Put plenty of pork (meat) in each tamale.
            If the sauce is not dry and the masa is not as thick as the great wall of China and it has plenty of perfectly cooked pork you will have a great tamale.
            Also it is not just the lard, or just the chilli or just the meat, it is all of the tamale done right or find something else to do beside make tamales.
            Do it right or don't do it!

            1. re: Lindajane

              Can you tell me your recipe and how much of everything?sounds really good:)

              1. re: Lindajane

                Making tamales takes practice. No one just magically knows how to make them, this whole make them perfect or don't try at all thing you're saying sounds really silly. gordeux you're explanation is spot on.

            2. re: gordeaux

              For the best masa (using lard!) I add hot chicken stock to masa harina a bit at a time to make a thick dough. Then beat lard until fluffy and floats (teh whipped lard itself) in water. Gradually add the dough to the lard while still beating. Finally beat in some salt. That's it.

              1. re: gordeaux

                Hi Iam trying to make better masa,I'm never satisfied!can you tell me how much butter?lard?masa?baking powder?salt?to use together?i don't care for putting too many spices in,I love the fluffy,moist lighter taste without too much!what do you recommend?i love how yours sounds!!im trying to make in the next few days,I look forward to hearing from you and sorry for so many questions☺️

              2. I'm really curious about tequesquite... How to use it? How much to use? How uch would be the equivalent to triple-acting baking powder?
                I found this discussion, which got Harold McGee involved, but didnt seem to put anything to bed:
                and this description:

                Yes, I could buy some tomatillos (and make chili verde!), just so I could have the husks.
                I am not sure whether I must do this: "using teqeusquite as a leavener": bring 10 tomatillo husks and 1 cup of water to a boil with a small piece of tequesquite and cook until this dissolves. Let cool and settle. Strain before using.
                What is a small piece? My teqeusquite is a coarse powder and looks quite "dirty". It is Nicomex brand and doesn't have a quality classification or grade mentioned.
                It is supposed to be a combination of chloride and sodium carbonate but some say it is more complex than just those two ingredients. I could obviously use baking powder, but it seems like it might be like using sea salt rather than plain salt, so I want to use it at least once!

                4 Replies
                1. re: Scargod

                  A post here, just for tracking porpoises.

                  1. re: Soop

                    Ain't no frickin' porpoises in this thread! I said frickin' because somebody complained that I was vulgar. :(
                    I now have Maseca, masa harina, a big pork roast, shucks, more dried chiles, fresh anaheims to put in the chile verde. fresh poblanos to stuff for rellenos and mexican cheese for stuffing. I've got chayote and avocado for a salad. I also have the prerequisite, cold beer. I'm sure I will be fluent is Espanol when Monday comes.

                    Curmudgeon, and now vulgar, Scargod

                    1. re: Scargod

                      Vulgar? Sheeet man we iz just products of the 60's. Far out dude.
                      You, been doing sme wicked good posting.
                      Nothing like a good bearded clam pie.

                      1. re: Passadumkeg

                        Me, too! I love burying my bearded face in a good apizza.

                2. I didn't have time to read all the replies so excuse me if I repeat anything. If you want the best, you need to take the dry corn and perform the nixtamal process which essentially soaks the dry corn in a water/cal--not sure in English what it's called--slaked lime or something like that. Then grind it in a corn grinder. Lard is essential--I've never tried a good tamal that didn't have lard. Check with Rick Bayless--Authentic Mexican for a good recipe.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: hankstramm

                    I totally agree. If you can't get absolutely fresh-ground masa para tamales from a tortilla factory you must do it yourself as hankstramm described above. You'll need a hand-cranked molino a mano (or something better), and these can be had for about $25, give or take. The slaked lime (cal) should be easy to find, but the proper dried corn (maíz) might not be.


                  2. For the best masa (using lard!) I add hot chicken stock to masa harina a bit at a time to make a thick dough. Then beat lard until fluffy and floats (the whipped lard itself) in water. Gradually add the dough to the lard while still beating. Finally beat in some salt. That's it.

                    1. Here is a masa dough recipe from a local food guy who recently taught a class to a bunch of Houston CH's:


                      Everyone said they were the best tamales they have had. I wished I could have gone, but missed it. Hopefully he will do it again.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: danhole

                        Thanks, and what a beautiful image on that page! The first thing that came to mind was quail!

                        1. re: danhole

                          I don't have a heavy duty standmixer, so hand beat the lard itself with a hand mixer. When I add dough to the lard, I beat with a wooden paddle. Most of the time, however, I just use corn oil.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            Scargod hasn't responded to me since I confessed to corn oil. I don't have a big yuppie mixer either.

                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                              I cannot and will not be made to acquiesce to corn oil, vegetable shortening or EVOO to make tamales. It is sinful and unnatural! I have had the real deal too many times and can't go back, especially at this late stage of the game!
                              Like trying to get me to stop drinking scotch or thinking dirty thoughts...

                              1. re: Scargod

                                That's all I need to hear. Two cups of lard coming up. I'll reconvert, but don't tell my better half. Just finished Hatch red chile enchiladas w/ the youngest & friend home on spring break. Fried the tortillas in rendered pork fat. SShhhh.