I had always considered one thing and one thing alone a marker of true Mexican womanhood. Every real Mexican woman is able to flip tortillas on a comal with her bare fingers. My mother would do this expertly while using all four burners and running the blender, all at the same time. Years ago, when I would first try my hand at this technique, I would tentatively reach for the comal, only pull back my hand with a squeal. I was not a true Mexican woman yet. Defeated, I would flip the tortilla with a spatula, or to my mother’s chagrin, I would flip it with a metal fork.
I actually don’t even recall when I myself finally became a true Mexican woman. A few months ago, I found myself spacing out as I worked away, flipping tortillas with my fingers. Suddenly, I realized what I was doing! When did this coming-of-age take place? I have no idea. Now, I flip everything with my bare fingers: pancakes, toast, roasted vegetables–you name it. My husband just stands to the side, agape and amused.
Nowadays, my understanding of true womanhood is little more nuanced, though I still value that tortilla flipping panache. A few weeks ago, I took on a new Mexican rite of passage: making tamales from scratch! I love tamales. Because tamales are so labor intensive, we only eat them around the holidays. I associate them with Christmas and New Year’s, with the smell of ponche cooking in the backyard and tías gossiping in the kitchen. Primos and primas run around the house playing tag, sometimes earning passive scoldings or if especially unlucky, a zape. My mom, always a practical cook, never makes them at home. When I told my mom that I decided to make tamales for this blog, she wryly said, “good luck!”
As I’ve said, cooking tamales is not an easy endeavour; it’s usually a collective effort. The process is laborious. Making the tamal fillings is, in and of itself, an art form with limitless varieties by region and preference. The masa too can vary in taste, texture and even color. The wrappings at least are somewhat standard. Tamales are usually cooked in corn husks or banana leaves. Traditionally, one must use a tamalera, a big steamer that holds dozens of tamales at once; they can take one to three hours to cook depending on the number of tamales and the consistency of your masa.
Although my recipe only yields thirty tamales, if I did it again, I would double the recipe to make the investment of time more worthwhile. That being said, if you do decide to double your recipe, check that you will be able to cook all the tamales at once. My small, 6-quart pot only held two dozen tamales so I had to cook them in two batches (not ideal). Although tamales do take a lot of time to prep and cook, the taste of a fresh tamal is well worth it. Moist and tender, the subtle richness of tamal dough envelops a smokey, meat-filled interior for the perfect balance. If you have the time and motivation, give it try!
Tips for making tamales.
Preparing the masa:
- Beat your lard with a mixer until light and fluffy in order to yield light and porous tamales
- Add enough salt to your masa. Cook a bit of masa to see what your tamal will taste like after steaming. Then, adjust seasoning as desired.
- Make your masa a little wetter than you think it needs to be in order to prevent it from drying out while making tamales.
- Coat your husks with masa all at once and then place the filling on top. You don’t want to be coating and filling them individually, since this will take much longer. Think assembly line.
- If using a spoon to spread the masa, hold the husk in your hand to help move the masa onto the husk with your hand
- If you do not have a tamalera like me, elevate your steamer using ramekins in order to hold more water and spend less time refilling your pot.
- Have a kettle with boiling water on standby in order to avoid adding cold water to the pot and consequently lengthening the cooking time.
- Measure how many cups it takes to fill your pot to right below the steamer, and then time the first refill carefully so that you know how often you will need to replenish the water. For example, for me it was 6 cups of water, and I needed to refill every 45 minutes at medium heat.
- The traditional timing method: put a coin at the bottom of your pot. The roiling water in the pot will cause the coin to make noise. When the coin stops making noise, it’s time to fill up the pot again!
Beef and Chicken Tamales
Yields ~30 tamales
Prep time: 45 minutes (excluding prep time for filling)
Cooking Time: 1-3 hours
- 3 cups prepared masa*
- ¾ cup lard
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1.5 cups beef/chicken stock
- ~50 corn husks soaked in hot water for 3 hours
1. Masa for tamales: Beat lard, salt, and baking powder with mixer until light and fully (3-5 minutes). Add 3 cups masa and 1 cup stock to the lard, and continue beating with mixer to remove any lumps in dough. Dough is ready when it is easy to spread with a spoon.
2. Assembly: Pat corn husks dry. Line husks up and spread about 1-2 tablespoons masa per corn husk on the top part of the husk. Then place 1-2 tablespoons filling in center of each husk. Fold sides of husks over.
3. Steam: Load all tamales open side up in steamer. Cook for 1 to 3 hours. Tamales are ready when the dough comes off the husk.
*Masa: If you are not grinding your own corn, simply use masa harina like this one and follow the directions on the back. You can buy masa harina at most grocers and on Amazon.