Five truths about tamales

A masa-free tamal, made with mojarra, tomatillos, xoconostle and epazote

The more I learn about Mexican food, the more I realize I’ll never know enough.

So many things just simply aren’t written down: recipes, techniques, the names of regional chiles from tiny villages. Really learning this cuisine means traveling to cities and towns and tasting as many things as possible. Or at least studying with people who have.

This is why I was so excited to take a four-day prehispanic tamales cooking course at the Fundación Herdez last week. The course would be taught by Raúl Traslosheros, a chef who has researched tamales in cities and villages across Mexico, and writes about Mexican culinary culture for the magazine Sabor a México. The course also included a guided visit to UNAM’s Jardín Botánico, led by two UNAM scientists (I’d probably call them ethnobiologists): Drs. Robert Bye and Edelmira Linares.

After four days — and the fantastic visit to the Jardín Botánico, where I’d never been — I ended up learning more than I could have hoped. I was literally on a tamal-high, wanting to shout at everyone, “My eyes have been opened!”

Here’s a list of five things I learned in the class. If you’re planning to make tamales for Día de Candelaria, which is today, this might be helpful for you. (For more on what tamales have to do with Día de la Candelaria, here’s my post on strawberry tamales from last year.)

Five Truths About Tamales

Tamales at the Fundación Herdez

Beating the masa in a KitchenAid mixer.

1. The perfect tamal starts with the masa. Of course the fillings matter too, but the most margin for error lies in the dough. If your masa isn’t adequately hydrated, the tamales will come out sandy and dry; if you haven’t beaten the dough enough, they’ll be too dense. The most important thing to remember is that tamal masa must be very moist and light. When you’ve prepared your masa, do the “float” test: spoon a little bit of dough into a bowl of water. If it floats, it’s done. If it sinks, it needs more liquid, a little more fat and several more minutes of mixing, ideally with a high-powered mixer.

The KitchenAid is a tamalero’s best friend.

Adding tortilla masa to a standing mixer, during a tamales course at the Fundación Herdez

2. Using fresh, nixtamalized corn flour makes a difference. I know not all of us have access to harina fresca, made from coarsely ground, winnowed nixtamalized corn. (If you live in Mexico, this sold at most molinos de nixtamal.) But fresh flour really does make a difference. Not only is the masa more flavorful — it tastes like corn! — it’s also moist, and you don’t have to drown your flour in chicken stock or more lard to make up for the difference. Which brings me to number two…

Fresh lard

Doesn't the lard look so creamy and good?

3. Lard, if you’re using it, must be whipped into submission. One day I’m going to experiment with coconut oil, but right now my tamal fat-of-choice is lard — preferably very white, fresh lard. Vegetable shortening can work, too, although Chef Raúl says the tamales made with manteca vegetal overcook and dry out easily. (So watch the pot like a hawk if you’re a vegetarian.) The lard needs to be light and airy, which is what results in that gorgeous, porous, spongey tamal. In class, we whipped our lard with the paddle attachment on a KitchenAid mixer for a good 10 minutes.

But if you don’t want to use lard….

4. You don’t need to use any fat at all — lard-less tamales are actually delicious. Lard-free tamales are the most historically accurate to Mexico, considering the Spaniards brought pigs after they arrived in the 16th century. I’d always assumed they’d be dense bricks, and they are if you put too much masa in the husk. But if you put just the right amount — a thin disc, folded gently around the filling — it’s gorgeous. I like the masa-free tamales to be mixed all the way through with beans or herbs. You don’t even miss the lard.

5. No corn husks? No problem.

Chaya leaf tamales

Chef Raul demonstrates how to fold a chaya-leaf tamal

The word tamal comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, which means “wrapped.” You could really wrap your tamales in anything: banana leaves, corn leaves (“hoja de milpa” in Spanish), the leaves of large reeds (“hoja de carrizo”), chaya. Alternately, you don’t even need masa, if you’ve got cornhusks on hand. Some prehispanic tamales, such as the one of the mojarra at the beginning of this post, required just placing the fish and ingredients in a corn husk, wrapping it tightly and grilling it.

Wait, did you just say grilling a tamal?… Yes. I did.

6. Tamales can be microwaved or grilled. (I know this is a list of five truths, but these were too good to leave off the list.)

Charred, grilled tamales

These tamales were cooked on a grill, over a medium-low flame for about an hour.

It was not uncommon in prehispanic Mexico to use the husk as a sort of parchment wrap, to slow-cook and steam whatever was inside. You just choose your filling (in our case, we made a fish-tomatillo-xoconostle tamal, and one with chicken gizzards and tomatillos), wrap it tightly, and heat it on the comal until cooked all the way through.

As far as microwaving goes, I wouldn’t recommend it for very large batches, but it’s helpful if you’d like to zap one and see how it tastes. The masa often needs more salt than you think it does, because the saltiness level dulls quite a bit as the tamales steam. UPDATE: You can also microwave raw, frozen tamales that haven’t been steamed yet. Again, I’d only recommend in small batches, as the edges tend to get overcooked and tough. (The rest of the tamal is fine.) Wrap them in paper towels and start at two minutes on high, depending on how large they are. This is super convenient if you make a big batch of tamales are are too tired to steam them all! The rest can be placed raw in a resealable freezer bag and microwaved one or two at a time.

I know I’m only hitting the tip of the tamal iceberg here, so if you have any more tips or ideas, I’m open to them below.

Feliz Día de la Candelaria!

More On Tamales & Prehispanic Mexican Foods:
Fundación Herdez: A Comprehensive Report on the Mexican Chile (PDF in English)
Tecnología Alimentaria Prehispánica by Janet Long (PDF en español) — An interesting report on how Mesoamerican cultures cooked, the utensils they used, and their cooking techniques
Candelaria means Tamales by Rachel Laudan (Zester Daily)

Tamales de frijol, the last variety we made at the Fundación Herdez

31 Responses to “Five truths about tamales”
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