How to Make Tamales

A delicious pork tamale

Tamales are my favorite kind of Mexican food. Tender shredded meat wrapped up in a flavorful, rich corn dough, and wrapped in a corn husk for easy transport—what’s not to love?

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a Birmingham restaurant yet that makes them very well. There’s the HICA tamale sale every year, but it’s only at Christmas. (I also hear tell of a mysterious “tamale car” that sells good ones very early on Sunday mornings in 5 Points, but I’ve never managed to get out to check on that one. Can anyone confirm this?)

So what’s a hungry foodie to do except make his own? Tamales are a lot of work, but they freeze perfectly, which is why most people make them in huge batches and only for special occasions, like at Christmas. (A half-dozen frozen tamales makes a great gift, BTW.)

This process takes two days, so be prepared to dedicate a weekend. I promise it’s worth it. I make no claim to the true Mexican authenticity of this recipe, but I’ve refined it over a few years and it is most definitely tasty.

The Messy Epicure’s Pork Tamales

You need:

  • A big piece of fatty pork. I used a whole Boston butt, which weighs 5 to 6 pounds. That makes about 5 dozen tamales.
  • Garlic
  • Dried chiles. Large, mild chiles like anchos or guajillos work great.
  • Chile powder
  • Cumin
  • Dried corn husks. Most Mexican markets sell these, especially around the holidays. They’re pretty cheap; buy more than you think you’ll need.
  • Masa harina. This is corn that’s been treated with lime and then ground (essentially the same thing as hominy grits). It’s used to make both tortillas and tamales, and you can find it at your local Mexican grocery. (You may find masa harina specifically for tamales—the only difference is it’s ground a bit coarser.)
  • Lard. Yes, lard. You’re going to use some of the fat from the pork that you’re cooking, but you’ll need more. Just suck it up and buy a package of lard (or, if you’re hardcore like me, render your own from some fatback). You can use the extra for really good piecrust. You can use bacon fat instead, but it’ll give the tamales an intensely smoky flavor that you may or may not like.

Day 1: Cooking the pork

Cooking pork for tamalesPlace pork in a large pot with 2 to 4 whole (unpeeled) garlic cloves, 2 to 3 dried chiles, 1 tbsp. chile powder, and 1 tsp. each of salt and pepper. Add water to cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until pork falls apart easily. (This takes all day, 5 hours or so, and you can’t really cook it too long. Err on the side of cooking longer.)

Strain pork, reserving broth. Shred meat with two forks (or your hands, which I find easier), discarding bones, gristle, and any fat that hasn’t melted down. Place pork in a large bowl and stir in just enough reserved broth to moisten. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cumin, and chile powder. (Go easy on the cumin.) Refrigerate meat and remaining broth overnight.

Place corn husks in a large bowl or baking dish, cover with water, and weigh down with a plate to keep submerged. Soak overnight. (This makes the husks easy to work with.)

Day 2: Making the tamales

Scrape solidified fat from the top of the broth and reserve. Make tamale dough using the following ratio: 2 cups masa harina, to 1 tsp. salt, to 1-2 tsp. chile powder, to 1/2 cup reserved fat or lard. (Starting with a whole Boston butt, I ended up needing 7 times this ratio, or a total of 14 cups masa and 3 1/2 cups lard.) Stir together masa, salt, and chile powder, then work in fat with a fork or your hands until fully combined and the consistency of wet sand. (This is kind of like making pie dough or biscuits, only not as finicky.) Stir in enough reserved broth to make a very wet dough or very dry batter. (It shouldn’t form a ball by itself, but it also shouldn’t flow like liquid. Think Play-Doh.) If you run out of broth, use water.

Filling tamalesSpread a handful of dough into a rough rectangle on a corn husk, leaving 1 to 2 inches of husk on each side. (The exact amount you need will depend on the size of the husk, but you want a rectangle about 3 x 4 inches and 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick for a large husk.) Place 1 to 2 tbsp. seasoned meat mixture in the center of the dough, and use the husk to fold the dough around the meat. Push together lightly to seal the edges (not a big deal if a little meat peeks out). Roll up husk around dough and fold up the bottom (see below for how this is supposed to look). Repeat with remaining husks, dough, and meat.

Folding tamalesSteam tamales in batches for 15 minutes. (I like using a bamboo steamer and just packing as many in there as I can. If you use a regular steamer, put the tamales in open-side-up so water doesn’t get inside, and use a really deep pot so you can cover them.) Unwrap one tamale per batch to make sure it holds together. If it doesn’t, steam another 5 minutes and check again.

Serve immediately with salsa verde or whatever sauce you like, or freeze until needed. To reheat frozen tamales, steam for 20 minutes or microwave for 3 to 5 minutes.

3 thoughts on “How to Make Tamales”

  1. Jason, I had the best tamales at a boy scout event. One of the parents is a stylist at Trocadero in Mt. Brook village. A lady that cleans the salon makes them and brings them in on Fridays. You can call Katie Pfitzer anytime and order them before a Friday. She had pork and chicken. it’s tamale time!

  2. jason,
    the magical 5 points tamales are actually in gable square in glen iris. it’s the same cluster of shops with giuseppe’s. on the side that faces 8th ave is a little tienda that has tamales on sundays. get there early and bring your spanglish skills. they are spicy and delicious and totally meet this texan’s very high standards

  3. I remember eating tamales in Glendale, California, at my aunt’s house overlooking the smoggy hills of LA. It’s such a tradition there that you can get tamales at Christmas on seemingly every corner! And, man, are they tasty! Yum!!

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