I’m going to be honest with you: the idea of making tamales from scratch used to scare the heck out of me.
Even after I hosted my first tamalada in December 2009, I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing. What if I added too much masa? Too little? What if my tamales broke open and fell apart in the steamer? What if my masa turned out too dry? God forbid, what if I spent an entire afternoon making them and they weren’t any good?
A few weeks ago, I had a tamale breakthrough. It was during the Día de la Candelaria cooking course. Everyone was working quietly, divided into teams of two and three. I was scooping corn into probably my 20th tamal de elote when I realized… it didn’t really matter how much masa goes into the husk. Well, okay, it did — I couldn’t put so much that the masa oozed out. Outside of that, though, the tamal was going to steam no matter what. It would turn out fine.
This was a true epiphany for me: The tamal would behave responsibly. I just had to release control, and let it.
In that vein, here are a few tips on making homemade tamales, in case you’re still battling with the tamal like I was.
1. Make your own masa. I know this sounds daunting if you haven’t done it before. (This girl is crazy. She wants me to make tamales *and* my own masa?) But I promise you it’s worth it. When you mix your own corn flour and lard, or you buy tamale masa from a tortillería — the kind that doesn’t yet have lard added to it — you have much more control over the moistness of the dough. You can make it as creamy as you want. I personally like my masa to look like cookie dough, kind of dense and sticky.
If you want a smoother, moister dough, such as for making tamales oaxaqueños, try corn tortilla masa combined with lard. That’s what we used in my cooking course and they turned out súper suave. Tortilla masa is ground finer than tamale masa.
2. Don’t worry about folding the tamales the “right” way. There’s no one way to fold a tamal. Some people tie the ends with strips of corn husk. If that works for you, go for it, although I think it’s extra work. If you wrap the tamal tightly enough, you should just be able to just fold the bottom end, and that’s it. The tamal won’t break open as it steams.
3. Don’t spread your masa all the way to the edges. Other than that, it can be in whatever shape you want. Think about hitting the upper-center. You want to leave enough room at the bottom to fold the tamal — I go for about three to four inches, if possible — and leave about 1 to 2 inches at the top, because the tamales will swell as they steam.
If you’re using banana leaves, here’s a good visual cue. (This is Yuri fold a tamal de cazón during our Día de la Candelaria course.)
4. Keep your husks well-hydrated. I’ve seen a few recipes that call for soaking the husks for 10 minutes. I’d recommend about an hour in very hot water. The longer they soak, the easier they’ll be to fold. Also, buy more husks than you think you’ll need. Some people like to line their steamer with husks. I don’t, but I do place extra husks on top of the tamales, to keep the steam in. I also cover the top of the steamer with a layer of plastic wrap, before I put the lid on.
5. Pay your respects to the steamer pot. Occasionally, and no one knows why, tamales will turn out “pintados.” This means they’re half-cooked. But not half-cooked in a normal way, half-cooked in a weird way, like one inch on the bottom is cooked, but the portion above that isn’t. To prevent this from happening, in Mexican culture it’s common to tie two strips of corn husk on the handles, as to ward off any “mala onda” that wants to seep into your tamales. You can also sing to the pot, or even gossip to the pot.
I mentioned that there isn’t a proper way to fold the tamales, but here’s a quick video of how me folding them, just so you’ll know what I’m talking about.
If you have any tamale-making tips you’d like to share, please do!