Secrets to Making Delicious Tamales
This short blog provides some general information on making tamales. If all you are interested in is a great recipe please go to the one for Tex-Mex Tamales.
Until recently it was difficult for many in the United Stated to make really great tamales at home. This was because not everyone had access to the proper masa, which is similar to that used to make corn tortillas, but with a coarser grind. Home cooks usually either bought the masa prepared for tortillas from tortilla factories, or used the Masa Harina or Maseca corn flour for tortillas sold in grocery stores. Sometimes they would even combine ordinary cornmeal with mashed, canned hominy. Now, however, Maseca sells a more coarsely ground corn flour especially formulated for tamales that is widely distributed throughout the southwest, and it does an excellent job. If you cannot find it you will have to substitute the more easily found Maseca or Masa Harina corn flour for tortillas, which will do a satisfactory job. Be careful as the Maseca packages for corn tortillas and tamales are similar. (The Maseca package of all-purpose corn flour that is really best suited to tortillas and gorditas is labeled, “Instant Corn Masa Mix, for corn tortillas, tamales, enchiladas....” The one that is, by far, the best for tamales is simply called “Instant Corn Masa Mix for Delicious Tamales).”
Spaniards introduced fat, usually in the form of lard, to Mexico, and to the previously dry and rather uninteresting tamales made by the Indians, transforming them into something special. Lard is really the only fat that should be used to make traditional savory tamales, as nothing properly imitates its flavor. For those concerned about fat, remember that good lard actually has less saturated fat than butter. One of the best substitute in terms of texture is shortening, but some of it has large quantities of partially hydrogenated fat that nutrition experts believe to be more harmful to health than saturated fat. However, a major problem in this regard is that most supermarket lard also contains partially hydrogenated fat. If you cannot find pure lard at Hispanic groceries, you can make it yourself, following the instructions in the recipe for flour tortillas. When I cannot use pure lard I used to use butter, which makes delicious tamales. Recently, I have been using pure coconut oil, which also does an excellent job and makes tamales with a very special flavor.
The most important elements involved in making tamales are to properly measure the lard, masa, and broth or water, to beat the fat until creamy, then to beat it with the masa and liquid until it is light and fluffy. Because measuring by volume can be both imprecise and messy, especially regarding the fat, it is advisable to use an electronic kitchen scale. Good models are available for $30 - $60, and they are an extremely useful kitchen tool. The beating can be done by hand or with a hand mixer. But the easiest method is to use a stand mixer, and this piece of equipment is specified in the recipe. If you wish to make tamales with a hand mixer or completely by hand, simply continue beating until the described results are obtained.
After making the dough and filling, the tamales must be formed and wrapped. To make perfect tamales takes both skill and patience. Fortunately, producing decent ones takes much less of each. Most tamales are wrapped in corn husks, but parchment paper or even cotton bed-sheet material can also be used. Dried husks in Mexico are usually sold whole, which means they have a nice, rounded pocket at one end that keeps the masa from escaping during cooking, and they taper to a point at the other. In the United States husks are usually cut by machine, which removes the pocket, leaving a flat side. This means that the tamales must be tied at the flat end and either folded over or tied at the tapered one. (Although some cooks do fold larger ones at both ends).
Once the tamales have been formed, they should be steamed as soon as possible. Special tamaleras are sold in Hispanic groceries for the purpose, but they are unnecessary, particularly for the relatively small quantity of tamales called for in the recipe. You can use a collapsable vegetable steamer fitted into a pot or any device that is perforated to allow steam to reach the tamales and that can be placed at least 2 inches above the 2 1/2 - 3 or so inches of water called for in the recipe. For example, a fryer basket placed upside down in a large pot works well to support another fryer basket into which you can put the tamales. The most important considerations are to keep the simmering water from actually touching the tamales, and to have a tight-fitting lid that keeps as much of the steam as possible from escaping. In order to avoid the mess that can occur if all the water evaporates, many cooks put a penny at the bottom of the steamer, so that its constant rattle will sound the alarm when the water begins to disappear.