What is a tamale?
Tamales are the classic Mexican party food – steamed in giant vats behind closed doors, or on the street in a bustling market. Depending on the part of the country, different fillings might be used; and in more tropical areas, the tamales might be wrapped in banana or plantain leaves instead of corn husks.
The tamales can be served as the starter for a Mexican banquet, or as a main course with 2 to 4 per person, served with a lime-juice dressed lettuce and tomato salad, and a side of refried beans. The dough, filling and husks can be prepared in advance, and then make an afternoon party of rolling, filling, steaming, and eating with friends.
Our recipe for homemade tamales
Our ‘how to make tamales’ guide uses a far wetter dough than most recipes – in the early stages of recipe development, by mistake we added twice as much stock as one recipe suggested. In further ‘corrected’ batches, we never quite managed to get the right ratio of meat to dough, nor the same delicate steamed texture.
Similarly the addition of baking powder and bicarbonate of soda aerates the dough. Admittedly the resulting tamales may not be the firmest and therefore easiest to eat on the street, but as you’ll probably eating at home with a paper napkin or kitchen roll, the improvement in texture and balance of flavour is certainly worth it.
‘Standard’ tamales dough – can be formed into a ball
Our favourite tamales dough – needs spreading with a spatula. Colour difference is just from using a different meat stock in the dough.
For the meat, we used a mixture of lamb neck and breast – traditionally the ‘worst’ lamb cut. The slow braising transforms the tough and chewy breast meat into something meltingly tender, plus the intensely flavoured braising broth is delicious used in the tamales dough. Other good cuts to use are pork shoulder, beef brisket, or chicken thighs (though an hour of cooking will be sufficient for these).
The night before making tamales, just pop the whole cut of meat in a little water in a covered crock pot at around 80-100°C . Or if you prefer not to leave an oven on overnight, pop in a slow cooker, or vacuum pack the joint and placed in a sous-vide water bath at 80°C. In the morning there will be a fork-tender joint sitting in a delicious broth, to use in the dough. Note the meat may lose up to 40% of its weight as it cooks, so make sure you start with enough.
What does a tamale taste like?
Made with masa harina corn flour, the flavour of tamale dough is gentle and faintly nutty. Using beef stock to make the dough also adds a meaty depth and extra seasoning. Some recipes for tamales add extra ingredients to the dough, and classic sweet tamales are flavoured with raisins, strawberries or dulce de leche - each one creating a different brightly coloured roll.
Ingredients for tamales Serves: 8
- 100g corn husks
Ingredients for the tamales dough
Ingredients for the filling
Method for making tamales
- Pour boiling water over the corn husks and leave to soak for 1 hour.
- While the corn husks are soaking, prepare the chilli paste, following the steps in How to cook with Mexican Chillies. Blend together with the garlic, and cumin. Toss with the meat and add salt to taste.
- In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, add the salt, baking powder and baking soda to the masa harina. Pour in the melted lard and mix well. Add the stock ladle by ladle, beating well between each addition until the mixture forms a thick batter.
- Pat the corn husks dry, and spread the dough in a square shape in the bottom right corner of the first tamales. Place a small line of meat down the middle, and then roll up, using the husk to press the dough around the meat. Fold the empty end back under the tamales. Repeat with the remaining corn husks, dough and filling. Our preferred ratio is approx 30g dough with 30g meat per corn husk, and when rolled they are 3cm in diameter.
- Tamales should be steamed – standing up on their closed ends. A neat trick is to place a traditional Chinese bamboo steamer in a wide pan containing 1 inch water, and place a small bowl upturned in the centre. Rest the tamales around the bowl standing on their closed ends, leaning into the middle. Cover with aluminium foil, pinching around the edge of the pan.
- Cook for 90 minutes, adding more water as needed. Remove from pan and rest for 10 minutes before serving. Unroll and remove husks, before eating the steamed filling.