I don’t love tamales.
There, I said it.
Yes, I recognize the irony, and, no, it’s not you–or your tamal–it’s me. You’re both great, really.
It’s a texture thing. And, as far as texture is concerned, there are two more widely-known (though, to be sure, certainly not the only two) masa genres that tend to dominate the canon.
At one extreme, you have the spongey, cake-like tamales found throughout central Mexico/parts of northern Mexico, for example, made of coarsely-ground, dry nixtamal. (Fun fact: Though most popularly associated with pozole, the ultra-floury cacahuazintle landrace is often the corn of choice for this kind of masa, in the immediate region around Mexico City.) If you’ve ever been to a tortilleria that has a big bin of dry-looking masa for scooping by the pound or kilo, that’s the stuff. It’s similar in texture to the kind of masa that you’d also find well outside of Mexico, like Colombia, for instance.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll encounter tamales that seem to be more about the filling than the masa itself. So much so, that the masa constitutes little more than a thin layer between the filling and the wrapper, which might just be a smooth banana leaf. The masa–also typically made of nixtamal, but more commonly with denser corn varieties than a pozolero–is a very fine grind like that you’d expect of a table tortilla masa. In fact, the same masa for tortillas is often used for this kind of tamal. This masa style is more prevalent throughout southern Mexico, in places like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Guerrero and the Yucatan. In keeping with my pastry-themed descriptions, it can have an almost fudge-like texture. It’s dense and almost slightly gelatinous at times.
I’ve never liked the textures of cake or fudge, and I don’t really have a sweet tooth, however, I do love masa. So let’s just say that I passively like tamales.
But let’s put my personal mishegas aside because this is all about you, not me, and MANY of you in corn-tine, including our very own COO, Danielle Dahlin, have asked if our Chef-Grade Masa Harina can make tamales. Further, you’ve requested recipes on how to prepare it.
So rather than hold you back from reaching full tamal potential, and in keeping with the collaborative nature of Masa Feature, I thought it timely to give our dear friend, Mira Evnine (@miraevnine), a shout.
Mira is a bonafide masa mafiosa at large. By trade, she’s a private chef, recipe tester, florist and Corn Symposium founder. She helped recipe test our little book on Nixtamal. Pre corn-tine, Mira lived in Brooklyn, NY, where, if you were as lucky as industry folks like Andrew Tarlow or Fany Gerson, she might prepare you tamales from homemade nixtamal.
These days, she’s personal cheffing at an undisclosed location far from reach of her trusty molino, so we proceeded with Masa Harina from Masienda instead.
What I love about Mira’s approach, here, is that it’s a fun compromise between the two masa versions I mentioned earlier. Masienda’s masa harina is a very fine grind that you’d use for a table tortilla application, so it will resemble that regionally southern Mexico tamal vibe in some ways…but wait! The ratio of masa to filling is a bit more in line with central to northern Mexico—and it’s wrapped in a corn husk. A little cake, a little fudge, a lot of savory goodness.
We’ll get to the kernel-to-masa process again, don’t worry, and I’ll be sure to keep providing additional preparation notes on every varietal we carry at Masienda, but I’m jazzed to sit back and watch corn-tine masa magic this week with our friend, Mira.
Oh, one more thing about tamales. Many, many traditional tamal recipes don’t call for any condiments or garnishes because the filling is, ostensibly, enough. This one doesn’t call for toppings, either, but I thrive on condiments. If you do too, go for it, and live your best life.
CORN-TINE TAMALES by MIRA EVNINE
Corn-tine, USA–Tamales are normally a multi-step, two-day, marathon-esque commitment because, if you are going to make tamales, you might as well make a lot of tamales. However! If you make tamales using Masienda’s masa harina, it turns into a much more manageable project that cuts your prep time dramatically. If you’re like me, this means that you won’t feel so bad about preparing smaller batches at a time.
A few things: What follows is a rough recipe. And although I’m a recipe tester in pre-pandemic times, I didn’t test this recipe, per se. These are more of my journal notes on how I prepare tamales at home. And, let’s not forget, we’re improvising a lot these days with the ingredients we do have, which will undoubtedly affect the feel of each batch we make. So don’t forget to let your intuition guide you. No matter what direction you choose, the very experience of making a homemade tamal will almost certainly beat going to the store.
Additionally, because of the masa harina’s finer texture (as opposed to coarser freshly-milled masa for tamales), it is perfectly suited for more of a Oaxaca-style tamal which is usually folded into a banana leaf in a square tamal, as opposed to the corn-husked, enveloped kind we see most commonly being sold in markets or by street vendors throughout Mexico City, for example.
That said, what follows are notes from my making tamales en hojas de maiz, or corn husk. Some more notes on that below. This “recipe” makes 10 to 12 tamales and takes about 2 hours total of prep (assuming you have a filling handy).
Before you begin, you’ll need:
- Masienda Chef Grade Masa Harina (about 2 cups)
- Some corn husks or banana leaves
- About 2 cups, water or broth, room temp
- 1 cup unsalted butter (if you’re in a place like me that doesn’t make finding lard easy) or, ideally, good quality lard or other semi-solid whippable fat, room temp
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 cups filling (this can be cooked meat dressed in some salsa, roasted or sauteed vegetables and cheese or whatever you feel like that sounds good to you – I used a guisado (stew) of roasted chicken that I cooked again in some left-over mole coloradito that I reduced to a thick consistency)
Before you begin, I suggest heating some water and soaking your corn husks. Remember, prepping tamales with masa harina goes much faster, so it helps to have soaked, pliable husks ready for assembly that aren’t too hot. Also, have your filling for the tamales ready and at room temp.
While the husks soak, make your masa: Using 2 cups (about 268 grams) Masienda masa harina, use about 2 cups water, chicken broth or vegetable broth. Don’t add all the water or broth at once, instead add 1.5 cups at first and then continually add the rest until you get a nice, uniform not-too-sticky dough. What you are looking for is a dough that, when you roll together a ping-pong size piece of dough and then press it between your two hands, there aren’t any cracked edges. For the tamales, err on the side of slightly drier as opposed to too hydrated. If you think the dough is too wet, add a little masa harina. For this application it’s okay if the dough is just slightly on the drier side as opposed to too wet, because you’re adding additional elements like fat to the mix, later on.
Taste the masa – yes, you can taste this masa (like all masa!) and adjust seasoning. I recommend making it just a touch more salty than you’d like, as I find that tamales lose a bit of seasoning in the steaming process. Set aside.
In a stand mixer or in a bowl with a hand mixer, whip the butter until light and fluffy.
Slowly add the masa to the butter – a couple of pinches at a time. Add the baking powder. Taste again for seasoning.
Before you commence assembly, set up your tamal steaming pot. You can fashion one with a steamer basket.
A trick I learned for ensuring you have the right amount of water in the pot at all times: Throw a penny in the bottom of the pot and make sure the water doesn’t touch where the tamales will sit within the steam basket. Heat the water to boiling, in preparation for the tamales, and lower to med/mes high heat. The penny in the bottom of the pot will rumble as the water simmers. If you stop hearing the penny dancing about, it means your water is running low and you should top up so as to not scorch your tamale pot.
Now, you are ready for assembly. Take the corn husk, laying on the counter and orient the husk so that the wide end is furthest from you and that the narrower end is closest to you. You want the natural curve of the husk to sit in a convex manner to the counter, like a little boat.
Spread between 3 to 5 ounces of masa on the husk, in the center, from the top edge down about 4.5 – 5 inches and about 5 inches wide. The tail, or narrower bit of the husk, should be clean and without any filling. I used an offset spatula to spread the tamal dough, but you can use the back of a spoon, etc. Place your filling in the middle – no more than two tablespoons or so, and close the flaps of the corn husk so that they overlap and firmly hug the filling. Fold the tail of the husk up and secure with twine or a tie fashioned from a piece of husk. Repeat assembly until you are done with your masa dough.
Steam the tamales, with the lid on for about 25 minutes – they’re done when the tamal does not stick to the husk.
Though these freeze well, it’s always best to enjoy immediately!