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.

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

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28 Responses to “Five truths about tamales”
  1. cptexas

    I bought a Kitchen Aid mixer for myself this Christmas. I made the decision because my Mom was out of town and would not be here to tell me the best tamales are completely hand made. I also used less lard than she did. I was very happy with my tamales. I am very intrigued with the bean tamales in the pic. Please tell me how they are folded. They look so pretty. Thanks for your info. I am always thinking of ways to improve the process. Oh yea, I rinsed the husks and then I filled a large cooler with hot water and put the husks in there. It worked great, stayed nice and hot and pliable.

    • Lesley

      I know moms are supposed to know best, but I’m with you on the best tamales not necessarily being handmade. I made some by hand last night and they weren’t as good as the ones I made in the KitchenAid! (My arms got so tired from beating the dough, so I gave up, even after my dough sank in the water.)

      On the bean tamales, they’re wrapped like a regular tamal, but the extra ends are twisted and kind of nestled into a little well on top of the tamal. It’s hard to explain — I should post a video.

  2. Ben

    Great post Lesley! I need to take that class next time.

    • Lesley

      Yes! They offer it once a year. And I think they update their website pretty regularly with new courses. You should check it out.

  3. Dianne

    Oh how we love you, Lesley! Thanks for the link back to last year’s strawberry tamales, too–they look awesome!

  4. Girelle

    “The more I learn about Mexican food, the more I realize I’ll never know enough”—> This is I am in love with Mexican food; the possibilities to learn are endless.

    Thank you for a great article. Can’t wait to see how your tamales with coconut oil come out.

    Cheers!

    • Lesley

      Thanks Girelle. I completely agree. Now I just have to find time to *do* the coconut-oil thing… maybe for Valentine’s Day.

      • Sally Inman

        I HAVE USED COCONUT OIL FOR MAKIMG TAMALES & IT WORKS GREAT. THE MASA TURNS OUT OUT LIGHT & VERY TASTY.

  5. Platanos, Mangoes & Me!

    Lesley…thanks so much…I want to make tamales because I just love them, but always afraid. Now I have the something to go with. Printing this post and saving it.

  6. Jody

    Fabulous post! Thanks for all of the links, too. One of my most favorite tamales, to make and eat, is one wrapped in chard leaves from Michoacán–kind of a Lebanese touch. (D. Kennedy, of course)

  7. stephanie

    Very interesting, Lesley! I would have LOVED the class you took. What I love about tamales is how very differently they are made depending on region. I did a guest post all about my grandma’s tamales for my friend Nicky on her blog — http://www.deliciousdays.com/archives/2007/03/27/grandma-salazars-tamales/
    And I just recently made them on mine: http://thetriangleplate.com/2011/12/21/grandma-salazars-tamales/
    I’d be curious how they compare to your mixer-version as far as being light and moist…

    • Lesley

      Thanks Stephanie! The tamales we’ve made in class that contain lard usually have an almost cake batter-like consistency. It’s really not possible to spread the batter by hand; most of the time we use the back of a spoon. I’ve mixed the batter by hand and used a standing mixer, and I have to say (apologizing to any purists) that there’s really no difference in taste. (Unless you like the taste of your own sweat and tears, in the case of mixing by hand.) I am a HUGE proponent of using the standing mixer, because it allows you to make tamales in much less time and you don’t have to mix until your shoulders burn!

  8. raquelita

    I’m getting hooked on your blog, Lesley. Want to mention that at a Mexican ecological project in Guanajuato state I had some delicious tamales made with olive oil instead of the usual fat. Healthier of course for those who count.

    • Lesley

      Hi Raquelita: I’m glad you’re liking it around here. :-) Thank you for the olive oil tip — I’ve seen some folks in San Francisco do this, too, and they were not bad. I should try it someday. Saludos!

  9. Joe Mendoza Aquino Hernandez Lima

    I brought some tamales to school today, My mom made some at home:)

  10. Dora

    Hola Leslie,

    Estoy buscando una receta de tamales sin grasa. No tendras una receta que compartir? Gracias. Me encanta tu blog!

    • Lesley

      Hola Dora! No tengo esa receta. Según yo, si no pones ningún tipo de grasa al tamal, tendrás un ladrillo denso de masa — lo cual no es necesariamente mal, pero no tendrá la misma textura ligera y esponjosa, que sólo añade la grasa misma. No he encontrado una sustitución que da los mismos resultados. Estaba pensando en experimentar con aceite de coco, que tiene muchos beneficios nutritivos, pero no lo he hecho todavía. También algunos me han dicho sobre un tamal con aceite de oliva, pero tampoco lo he probado. Disculpa que no te pude ayudar más!

  11. John From Raleigh

    Great article, I was really looking for the definitive answer on how fluffy my dough should be and how liquid. I have been making Alton’s brown’s tamales for a while which call for a peanut butter consistency but I have been researching other recipes and some call for a more cake like consistency. I feel more confortable trying the new method as your post.

    Quick Question: I get lard in my local Mexican grocery store, they render it on-site. At room temperature the lard is liquid, like a melted milkshake. The color is white when cooled but golden when at room temperature. I store in the refrigerator, and it is solid but a soft solid. Does the consistency of my lard sound correct?

    • Lesley

      Hi John: That sounds about right. The lard I’ve used in Mexico is like thick pudding — they sell it in vats at the markets, all at room temperature. The lard only gets melty at warmer temperatures. (Not room temperature.) Still, I think you can try it and see what happens. I think the most important thing is that the lard is good quality, and it sounds like yours is. Hope that helps.

  12. Alejandro

    A tip, my mom would kill me for repeating this, but for the sake of tamale perfection…add a little bit of dried blended arroz, people marvel at her spongy tamales. Another lady from Sonora told me she would cook the chicken she was using to stuff the tamales and add that same broth to the masa.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Oooh, thanks for that tip. And please thank your mom, too. I’ve definitely done the chicken broth thing — that’s how they taught us in cooking school. I’m still learning how to best season it, though. Saludos!

  13. Tamales de Frijol

    Hello Lesley,

    I grew up eating my Mom’s tamales. Mom would make tamales every Christmas. Red Chile pork tamales, sweet frijoles tamales, & sweet masa w/raisin tamales. Mom made sweet frijoles tamales cooked with whole pinto beans ,whole cinnamon sticks, brown sugar(Mexican), & cloves. She cook the beans first and than mash leaving some hold. Made a syrup with the above ingredients and simmered for a while until they look like a paste. Yam. Do you have a recipe for those? They are the best.

    Do you what Berdolagas and Berros are? Let me know. Liz

  14. Maria

    MIJA! Thank goodness you’ve validated my “lard-lessness” need for tamales in a very “authentic” way. I had always considered that pre-Hispanic Mexico would have had lardless tamales – that lard became ubiquitous only after the pig showed up. Also, I recently picked up the most beautiful cookbook, the “Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook” (have you seen it?) which focuses on American (North, Central, South, inclusive) indigenous ingredients and culinary traditions in their recipe development, and a recipe for lardless tamales is mixed in among the recipes. In fact, lard is not even mentioned in the introductory statement, and definitely no apologies for leaving it out. Also, part of the introduction to this recipe has a translation (in English) of Bernardino de Sahagún’s description of a 16th-century urban food stall describing the myriad tamales that one particular vendor was selling. While impressed by the variety, I am not surprised! Add to that line of thought your wonderful description on the tamale fair in Tetepango!

    I’ve been meaning to experiment with lard-less (and oil-less) tamales, especially because most of the lard that I can get my hands on these days is the hydrogenated kind that sits on the room-temperature shelves next to the shortening (which I don’t go near with a 10-foot pole). With the annual North American Mexican tradition of Christmas tamale-making coming up, I’m going to give it a try, although I know certain family members are going to be uncomfortable with it…they’re still trying to get over my use of bison roasts in my tamales, instead of pork. (I have a chest freezer, and every once in a while, I’ll buy 1/2 a bison and so I figure, “why do I need to run to the store to buy more meat when I have a freezer full?”)

    Keep up the good work on your blog. I can relate in so many ways. Love it!

  15. Sol

    Great post.

  16. Teresa

    Glad we are not the only ones who uses the Kitchen Aid – it’s awesome!. My mom has been using it for years! Although my aunt swears on her shallow wooden bowl and refuses to use our Kitchen Aid when she comes over. :) We also use canola butter instead of lard. My paternal grandmother used to use olive oil. We have yet to try that.

  17. Karen

    Have you are anyone ever used yellow cornmeal instead of masa? I love the texture! I have found them a bit dry though. My recipe calls for 5 cups meal to 4 1/2 cups water. I find it soupy. Added more meal and adjusted seasonings…came out beautiful. Second time used 3 1/2 of water, still a bit too wet, but came out good, but a bit dry. I guess my question is with the 5:4 1/2 ratio, do you just have to mix until absorbed? And can you mix cornmeal and masa? I just love the texture of the CM. rolling cigar style is my favorite, but lots of work!!! Would appreciate any guidance.

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Karen: I haven’t used cornmeal, just because in Mexico is more common to use nixtamalized corn, which unlocks essential nutrients in the kernels. If you use masa harina for tamales (a specific style of masa harina), you may get a closer texture to the coarse cornmeal. You could mix both, I suppose, but I haven’t tried. What you’re talking about sounds closer to Venezuelan tamales, or hallacas, which call for cornmeal (or Harina Pan) instead of nixtamalized corn flour. Perhaps you could find a recipe for hallacas and check out the ratios? Re: dryness, I’ve found that usually has to do with fat. How much fat are you adding? If you’re not adding any at all, that could be a reason why they’re dry. Re: mixing until absorbed, usually when I’m mixing I’m trying to aerate the dough as much as possible, so it turns out light and fluffy instead of dense. Fat helps in the process. Hope this helps in some way!

      • Karen

        Thanks so much for your advice.

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