Tamale Tips

As a culinary academy student, you probably appreciate all sorts of ethnic cuisines. Many classic Mexican recipes are beginner-friendly for people who may not be seasoned at cooking, but tamales are perfect for people who are ready for something a little more challenging.

Tamales are typically made of masa, a starchy, corn-based dough. Different fillings, like cheeses, peppers or meats, are stuffed in the center of the masa, and the whole mixture is then wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and steamed. These dishes date as far back as the Olmeca and Tolteca – two Mesoamerican civilizations that outdate the Aztec and Maya – and are favorites to this day. Here’s what you need to know to make your own tamales:

Make a day of it
There’s a reason many people make tamales just on special occasions. They’re pretty time-consuming. Between the soaking, mixing, cooking, wrapping and steaming, you need to hollow out a good few hours, even if you have some help. They’re a good Saturday or Sunday afternoon activity. And luckily, tamales freeze great, so you can hold onto them to have for dinner later in the week.

Homemade Corn and Chicken Tamales

Make the masa moist
The moistness of your masa is determined by the amount of lard you add to it. You can either mix your own corn flower and lard or buy tamale masa, but don’t buy pre-made mix with lard included. More lard and finer ground corn flower or masa mix makes for fluffier dough, so it’ll be less crumbly and dry after it’s been steamed. You may want to try different recipes the first few times you make tamales so you can determine your favorite.

Soak your husks
You may think your husks are soft enough, right off of the corn or out of the package. They’re probably not. Soak your husks or leaves for at least hour in hot water and it’ll be much easier to wrap your tamales and keep them wrapped. Some people soak theirs overnight. Just be sure to let them dry for at least an hour before you begin wrapping. Adding a pinch of salt to the water can also give the husks good flavor that’ll soak into the tamales.

Pot of tamales

Wrap and steam your tamales properly
Some people opt for long, thin tamales, while others prefer square tamales. There’s no right or wrong way to wrap a tamale – as long as it stays that way in the steamer. Put your masa mixture on the smooth side of your husk or leaf so the finished product easily slides out of the wrap. Keep your masa in the middle of the husk to ensure there’s ample space to wrap. The tamales will also expand as they steam, so you don’t want them to come unwrapped. You can tie the wraps shut as well. Set the tamales in your steamer vertically, with the open side of the tamales facing upwards. This is the most space-efficient way to arrange them, and it also allows the tamales to steam evenly.

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