How to make tamales from scratch - a step-by-step guide


How to make tamales from scratch - a step-by-step guide

Master the making of one the world’s oldest dishes with this detailed step-by-step guide



Tamales
Tamales Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

These steamed corn dough treats first enticed human tastebuds over 10,000 years ago – records of early Mesoamericans show this dish was consumed as early as 5000BC. Today, they’re a Mexican staple, both as street food sold by vendors in baskets, but also as a warming festive dish made for big family celebrations and gatherings. Especially on cold winter days, they’re best had with a steaming cup of coffee, explains Chef Guillermo Edmundo Vidales Favela of Maya Mexican Kitchen + Bar at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa.

Usually, cooking an entire batch of these takes an assembly line of family members prepping the dough, making the filling and wrapping it deftly in banana leaves or corn husks. Tamales take some skill and technique, but they aren’t impossible to master on your own in a home kitchen.

Chef Guillermo’s step-by-step instructions ensure that these Mexican bundles of deliciousness are easily made at home as well Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News photographer

Equipment

Steamer

Blender

Whisk

Ingredients for Masa

Masa dough ingredients
Lard, masa flour, chicken stock, baking powder, sea salt Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

250gm lard or vegetable shortening

500gm of masa flour (ground corn or hominy, treated with limewater solution to make it alkaline)

1 cup of chicken stock

1 tsp of baking powder

1 tsp of sea salt

Ingredients for the filling – Pollo en salsa verde (chicken with green salsa)

Salsa verde ingredients
Cooked shredded chicken, tomatillos, serrano pepper, garlic, white onion, sea salt, black pepper Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

2 pc of chicken breast, cooked and shredded

500gm of tomatillo (green tomatoes), chopped roughly

5 pieces of serrano pepper

2 cloves of garlic

100gm of fresh coriander

½ white onion, roughly chopped

1 tsp of sea salt

1 tsp of crushed black pepper

3 tsp of cooking oil

1 litre of water

To wrap

Banana leaves or corn husks

Banana leaves and corn husks
Banana leaves and corn husks Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Method

Step 1: Prepare the dough

1. Softening the lard is the very first and very important step of making tamales.

Soften the lard in a large bowl
Soften the lard in a large bowl Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

2. Use a whisk or a big spatula to stir in some air into it until the shortening turns smooth and airy, and is looser in consistency than when you started out. A 5-minute stir should do the trick.

Whisk until the shortening turns smooth and airy
Whisk until the shortening turns smooth and airy Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
Use a big spatula scoop the lard from the sides of the bowl
Use a big spatula scoop the lard from the sides of the bowl Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
The shortening should be looser in consistency than when you started out
The shortening should be looser in consistency than when you started out Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

3. Then add salt and mix properly.

Add salt and mix
Add salt and mix Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

4. In a separate bowl, mix the masa flour with the baking powder.

Mix masa powder and baking powder
Mix masa powder and baking powder Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

5. Then it’s time to get messy – pour in shortening and mix it up.

6. Work the shortening into the flour with your hands until it achieves the crumbly consistency of breadcrumbs.

6
The dough should not be soft and soggy Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

7. Then, pour in the chicken stock gently into the dough, ensuring you mix as you pour.

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Pour chicken stock into masa Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

8. Be careful you don’t pour in too much chicken stock and turn the dough soft and soggy. Certain brands of masa flour tend be drier than others, and so, the amount of stock you add needs to be adjusted as per requirement.

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Mix as you pour Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

9. Knead the dough with your hands for approximately 10 minutes. Yes, a stand mixer is hassle-free but it’s easier to judge the consistency of the dough when you work it with your hands.

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Work the dough and knead for 10 minutes Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

10. To check consistency, make a ball of the dough and spread it on your palm. It should be soft and easy to spread and have a paste-like texture that feels different from the elasticity of wheat dough. Think peanut butter. At the same time, ensure it’s not runny.

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Make a ball of the dough and spread it on your palm to check consistency Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

11. Let the masa dough rest and get started on the filling; cover the bowl with a wet cloth so the dough stays moist.

Step 2: Chicken in salsa verde filling 

1. Heat the water in a saucepan on medium flame. When the water rolls to a light boil, add the tomatillos, garlic, serrano peppers and the onion, and let it blanch for at least 10 minutes.

1
Blanch tomatillos, garlic, serrano peppers and the onion for 10 minutes Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

2. Blanching enhances the flavours of the ingredients. Make sure you don’t overcook the tomatillos as overcooking turns them bitter.

2
Make sure tomatillos aren't overcooked Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

3. The, drain the water and once the blanched ingredients have cooled, blend them into a sauce.

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Drain water once blanched ingredients have cooled Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
4
Put ingredients in a blender Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
5
Blend into a sauce Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
6
Blend sauce to a semi-coarse texture Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

4. In a separate saucepan, heat the cooking oil on a medium flame and sauté the sauce. This helps turn the mixture silkier and emulsify the spices.

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Heat oil Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
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Sautee salsa verde in oil Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
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Salsa verde emulsifying Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

5. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, then add the shredded chicken into the sauce and stir it well.

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Season with salt and pepper Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
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Add cooked chicken Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

6. Leave it on medium flame for at least 15 minutes so the chicken can absorb the salsa verde’s flavour.

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Let cooked chicken absorb salsa verde Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

7. Remove the chicken-incorporated sauce from heat once the chicken has soaked up the salsa verde and let it cool to room temperature.

Step 3: Wrapping and folding the tamales

Masa dough, salsa verde with chicken, banana leaves and corn husks
Masa dough, salsa verde with chicken, banana leaves and corn husks Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Tamales can be wrapped in either banana leaves or corn husks. The South and Central parts of Mexico lean towards the banana leaf – it helps the tamale maintain moisture and the banana leaf’s natural oils exudes a certain fragrance to the final dish.

If you’re using banana leaves to wrap your tamales, soften them by lightly heating them. This makes the leaves more pliable and prevents it from tearing while wrapping.

Heat banana leaves
Heat banana leaves Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

The corn husk is traditional to the north of Mexico. Your tamales might turn out a little drier but it embodies the earthy aroma of the husk. Overall, husks give better results.

Soaked corn husks
Soaked corn husks Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Soak your corn husks in water an hour before you use them. This helps moisten them.

Corn husk

1. Spread two spoons of the masa dough on the husk or banana leaf in a square shape measuring ½ cm thickness. Ensure there’s space between the dough and the edges of the husk and that the dough is spread evenly without any gaps. This prevents the filling from leaking.

Step 1
Spread two spoons of the masa dough on the husk Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

2. Add ½ a tablespoon chicken in salsa verde filling in the centre and spread it a little bit but ensure it doesn’t spill over the edges of the dough.

Step 2a
Add ½ a tablespoon chicken in salsa verde filling in the centre Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
Step 2b
Ensure it doesn’t spill over the edges of the dough Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

3. Fold the tamales lengthwise edges of the husk over the filling. Then fold the husk breadthwise. Tuck in the narrow edge first, the fold up the wider edge.

Step 4
Fold lengthwise Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

4. Then fold the husk breadthwise. Tuck in the narrow edge first, the fold up the wider edge.

Step 5
Fold breadthwise Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

5. Tie the corn husk packet with twine or strips of fibre from a separate corn husk.

Step 6
Tie with twine Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

6. Repeat the process with remaining corn husks.

Banana leaves

1. Split the banana leaf into half through the spine, then split each half into quarters. Trim any frayed edges so they’re neat and straight.

2. Spread two spoons of the masa dough on the husk or banana leaf in a square shape measuring ½ cm thickness.

Step 1
Spread two spoons of the masa dough on banana leaf Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

3. Then spread half a tablespoon chicken in salsa verde filling in the centre and spread it a little bit but ensure it doesn’t spill over the edges of the dough.

Step 2
Spread two spoons of the salsa verde Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

4. Fold the leaf lengthwise, tucking one edge over the other

Step 3a
Fold again Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
Step 4
Fold shorter edges Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

5. Then fold up the shorter edges upwards.

Step 5
Press folded edges close Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
Step 6
Banana leaf parcels stay put without twine Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Step 4: Steaming the tamales

To cook the tamales, use a steamer or a large stockpot with a strainer placed over it.

Steamer
Chef Guillermo placing the tamales in the steamer Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

If it’s a corn husk tamale, keep them standing vertical, balanced on the short edge. Tamales wrapped in banana leaves can be laid flat, seam side down.

Steaming
Place tamales in double-boiler or steamer Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Steamer: If using a steamer, fill the steamer with tamales, cover the top with a wet cloth and pop the lid on. An idli steamer works just fine too.

Stockpot: If using a stockpot, fill the stock pot with enough water to cover the pot’s base, then place the tamales on the strainer.

Let the tamales cook for at least 45 to 55 minutes.

Step 5: After cooking

Your tamales are ready when you can easily unwrap the husk/leaf from the masa.

Unwrapping banana leaf
Unwrapping banana leaf Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
Unwrapping corn husk tamales
Unwrapping corn husk tamales Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Once cooked, it’s very important to let the tamales rest for at least 40 minutes to help the cooked dough set and hold. Or else they tend to be mushy and fall apart.

Breaking open the tamale
Breaking open the tamale Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque
Tamales with sour cream, habanero chillies and salad
Tamales with sour cream, habanero chillies and salad Image Credit: GN/Stefan Lindeque

Serve hot with sour cream, habanero chillies and salad. 

Tell us about your favourite dishes or recipes at food@gulfnews.com

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