Cooking Like A Mexican

Pork filled Tamales

Authentic homemade tamales are something magical. It’s a dish that’s been passed down through the generations, starting before Mexico was colonized. Although many Central American countries say tamales are endemic to their region, none of them have the diversity in tamales that we do. We have up to 5,000 different recipes for tamales.

tamales_0.JPGArcheological evidence shows that tamales were a part of day-to-day life in most Mexican cultures. They appeared in religious rituals, offerings and tombs. In the case of the Mayans, there are even sculptures and paintings of the revered tamale.

The estimated consumption of tamales in Mexico reaches the hundreds of millions each year. Tamales are so popular that one of the most famous Mexican sayings goes like this: “When you are born to be a tamale, the corn husks fall out of the sky for you.” Which roughly translates to saying that there is no way you can escape your destiny, or fate favors whoever is working toward their life’s mission.

Tamales are also part of our holiday celebrations. January 6th is Three Kings Day, and it is tradition to make a king’s cake with a small figurine of the baby Jesus baked inside. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby in it is in charge of making the tamales for Candlemas, which falls on February 2nd.

The recipe is long and takes a while, but tamales are easy to make once you get the hang of them. They’re heartwarming, traditional, delicious and well worth the effort.



For the pork filling:

16 medium dried guajillo and/or ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and torn into rough pieces (soak the chiles in warm water before you seed them)

4 tomatillos

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

½ tsp. ground black pepper

¼ tsp. ground cumin

1½ lbs. of lean boneless pork (shoulder or butt works well), cut into ½-inch cubes

2 T powdered chicken stock


For the batter:

2½ cups of pork lard, melted (Crisco is fine too, but the taste is waaaay better with real pork lard)

1½ tsp. baking powder

7 cups of maize flour (look for Maseca at the grocery), mixed with 4½ cups hot water

2½ cups chicken stock

1 large package of dried corn husks (find these at any supermarket)



For the husks:

Place the husks in a large bowl, or even your kitchen sink with the stopper in. Fill with warm water and weigh the husks down with heavy pots. Let soak for at least two hours.

For the pork filling:

Add the peppers and tomatillos to a medium sauce pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a smooth simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the peppers, tomatillos, garlic, black pepper, cumin into a blender and puree. Work in batches, if necessary.

Strain the mixture a through a medium-mesh strainer into a medium saucepan. Add the meat, three cups of water and one teaspoon of powdered chicken stock.

Simmer, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring regularly until the pork is fork tender and the liquid is reduced to the consistency of a thick sauce, about an hour and a half.

Use a fork to break the pork into small pieces. Taste and season with additional salt, if necessary. Let cool.

For the batter:

Get a large pan (I like to use a roasting pan), add the wet maize dough and the salt, and beat with your hands. Beating creates an airy dough that will produce delightfully soft and puffy tamales.

Pour in the melted lard, and continue to incorporate with your hands. Then, add in the broth, one cup at a time.

Keep mixing with your hands. The consistency should be like a cookie dough, not runny. It should hold its shape in a spoon. Add more stock if necessary.

Forming the tamales:

Channel your inner Mexican abuelita and have patience. Take a corn husk and pat dry with a dish towel.

Flatten the husk and use a spoon to scoop out about ¼ cup of the batter. (Ice cream scoopers are great for portioning, but you should use a small one unless you want huge tamales.)

In the upper, wider portion of the husk, spread the batter to the size of about a post card. You don’t need a thick layer of batter, it will expand as it steams.

Now, scoop out about two tablespoons of the pork mixture and spread it down the middle of the batter.

Fold over the right third of the husk, then fold in the left side. Fold up the bottom, leaving the top open.

Place the uncooked tamales on a large baking sheet, folded side down! That is very important.

Steaming the tamales:

You will need a large lidded pot with a metal steamer basket. Fill the pot with water up to but not touching the basket. The object is to keep the cooking tamales in the pot above the boiling water so they don't get wet.

Place the tamales in the basket standing up, with the envelope side of the steaming tamales on the bottom and the open end facing the top. Do not lay them on their side. Cover the pot.

Heat and steam over a constant medium heat for about 1 and ¼ hours. Watch carefully to make sure that all the water doesn't boil away, adding more hot water as necessary (about every 15 minutes).

The tamales are done when the husks peel away from the dough easily. They will need to stand for at least a half an hour for the dough to firm up.

For the best tamales, let them cool completely, then steam again to warm (you can easily heat in a microwave at this point).