Tamales 101: A Beginner's Guide to Making Traditional Tamales

Tamales 101: A Beginner's Guide to Making Traditional Tamales

by Alice Guadalupe Tapp

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Corn-husked bundles of fresh masa plump with wonderful combinations of sauces, meats, and vegetables—tamales are a simple and delicious staple of Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. Alice Guadalupe Tapp has perfected the art of tamale making, and in TAMALES 101 imparts her knowledge and passion for this comforting treat. TAMALES 101 will show beginners how to

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Corn-husked bundles of fresh masa plump with wonderful combinations of sauces, meats, and vegetables—tamales are a simple and delicious staple of Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. Alice Guadalupe Tapp has perfected the art of tamale making, and in TAMALES 101 imparts her knowledge and passion for this comforting treat. TAMALES 101 will show beginners how to make masa dough as well as fold and steam tamales to perfection. Then, once you've mastered the basics, you'll be whipping up batches of Chicken Tomatillo, Chorizo Potato, Vegetable Curry, and Greek tamales in no time. With recipes for nearly 100 traditional, vegetarian, vegan, and specialty tamales and sauces, TAMALES 101 will send you on a culinary adventure that's sure to delight and impress your guests.• Includes 60 food and spot photographs and 15 illustrations showing, step by step, how to spread masa and wrap and tie tamales.• At Tamara's Tamales, Alice and her daughter, Tamara, sell hundreds of tamales a day—and have since 1996.Reviews"Graphically the book shouts ‘olé!' with its vibrant colors and fun type."—The Kansas City Star

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By Alice Guadalupe Tapp


Copyright © 2002 Alice Guadalupe Tapp
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1580084281

Chapter One


Making tamales is an art and a labor of love. It's a process that often takes a good deal of time and effort, but since the end result is so delicious and satisfying, it's certainly time and effort well spent.

To help make your first experience making tamales run as smoothly as possible, I've broken down the process into individual steps and covered each in this chapter. So before diving into your first batch of tamales, read this chapter! It will give you an overview of the entire process, as well as an understanding of how each step contributes to the creation of the perfect tamale. (For additional information on masas, sauces, and the different categories of tamales-traditional, vegetarian, sweet, etc.-also refer to the introductions of those chapters.) This introductory chapter will also give you a sense of how long it will take to make tamales, beginning to end, as well as how long each step will take so that you can plan accordingly. Then, as you're making the masa, sauces, or fillings, or assembling, wrapping, or tying the tamales, refer back to this chapter as often as needed. You may even want to bookmark pages 25 to 29 for easy reference when you'respreading the masa and folding the tamales.

Start out making tamales in the following order. Then, once you "get it," feel free to do steps one through four in any order you like:

1 Make the fillings

2 Make the sauces

3 Prepare the masa

4 Prepare the wrappings and ties

5 Spread the masa on the wrappings

6 Fill the tamales

7 Wrap and tie the tamales

8 Steam the tamales

9 Test the tamales

10 Serve, store, freeze, reheat, or ship the tamales

Oh, and before diving into that first batch, be sure to enlist some helping hands-friends, family, anyone who's eager to have some fun tagging along on an exciting culinary adventure!

Making the Fillings

Meat, vegetables, and sweet-the fillings of each different type of tamale are prepared differently. Poultry, beef, and pork are cooked first and then cut into 1/2-inch cubes. The are almost always braised or boiled so that the meat remains moist. Seasoned tamale makers make most meat fillings first, since they can then use the stock in the preparation of the masa. Meats are usually placed directly on top of the masa, and then topped with any additional ingredients and a generous amount of sauce.

Vegetables are diced or cut into strips and are often used raw or simply blanched. Vegetables can also be prepared, either on their own (as in Black Bean Tamales and Spinach Mushroom Tamales) or along with a variety of meats (as in Turkey Picadillo Tamales and Chorizo Potato Tamales).

Many varieties of sweet tamales have their "filling"-pineapple, raisins, pumpkin, chocolate, apples, etc.-mixed right into the masa. Additionally, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla are often added to the masa to create greater harmony between the sweet ingredients and the savory masa.

In order to decrease preparation time on the day you assemble and steam the tamales, prepare the meats and other fillings the day before and refrigerate them until needed. The fillings need to be cooled anyway, so this helps save a great deal of time on the day of assembly.

Making the Sauces

Great sauce-and a lot of it-is the key to a flavorful, moist tamale. Traditional tamale sauces-Red Pork Chile Sauce, Salsa Verde, Fresh Red Salsa, and Tomatillo Salsa-are the most popular. The base of most sauces is either fresh or dried red, green, or yellow chiles and tomatoes or tomatillos.

Tamales can easily become dry if not prepared and handled properly. Thankfully, there's an easy way to avoid such disaster: use plenty of sauce! I usually prescribe 2 heaping tablespoons of sauce for 1 tablespoon of filling. However, when in doubt, add more sauce-more, in this case, is always better than less.

Both meat and vegetable tamales require sauces. But some fillings, such as turkey picadillo and spinach mushroom, contain their own sauce when prepared correctly. You can also use gravies and salsas as a sauce for your tamales.

The sauces, like the fillings, may be made ahead of time-either two days or the day before-as they refrigerate well until needed.

Preparing the Masa

Masa, the dough encasing the filling of a traditional tamale, is made using either dry corn flour (masa harina) or stone-ground corn.

Dry corn flour is simply corn that has been through the process of nixtimalization, thoroughly dried, and ground into fine corn flour; it is specifically made for making tortillas and tamales and is not to be confused with cornmeal, which has not been lime-treated and is not as finely ground. Dry corn flour is sold in packages similar to those of all-purpose flour and is often labeled "for tortillas and tamales." It can be found in most supermarkets.

To make masa for tamales using dry corn flour, lard is traditionally added, along with water or broth and salt. You may also use margarine, butter, lard, or shortening. Although it's often the more convenient masa to make, masa prepared with dry corn flour can produce a mealy, drier masa since the dry corn flour isn't as receptive to combining well with the fat and stock. It's also the more time-consuming type of masa to make because of the amount of time it takes beat the dough to the correct consistency.

Stone-ground corn is corn that has been through the process of nixtamalization and ground by hand or using a stone grinder. It is then either simply packed and sold as unprepared masa, or combined with lard, salt, and water or broth and sold as prepared masa. Both products are wet and sold in plastic bags in the meat or deli case of Hispanic markets and chain supermarkets located in Hispanic communities. They're often packaged in two- or five-pound measures and must be kept refrigerated until used. Some markets offer two consistencies of masa: fina and quebrado. Quebrado is not as finely ground as fina, and is the preferred consistency for tamales. It is important to buy both prepared and unprepared masa fresh, as the freshness will guarantee a light, fluffy tamale.

Prepared masa contains approximately one part lard to two parts plain masa. Many cooks buy prepared masa because it's convenient and because it's what they know. If you do not eat lard, do not buy this type of masa. Instead, buy unprepared masa, also known as plain (or simple) masa, and along with salt and stock add your preferred type of fat-shortening, butter, margarine, or olive oil-or whipped potatoes or yams if you prefer no fat at all (see Fat-Free Masa, page 43). Using 1/2 cup of masa per tamale, one pound of unprepared masa will yield approximately one dozen tamales, so for example, if you'd like to make sixty tamales, buy five pounds of unprepared masa.

In my opinion, using unprepared masa is the best way to go; it consistently makes for fluffy, tasty, moist masa. Although my grandmother and mother used lard in their masa, I prefer butter for its taste and texture. At Tamara's Tamales, we prepare our masa with margarine since so many of our customers don't eat meat or dairy and it also makes for great masa.

Both the prepared masa and unprepared masa (once combined with fat or potatoes, broth, and salt) must be whipped until light enough to pass the "float test" (see page 40). The fresher the prepared or unprepared masa, the less you'll need to beat it in order to pass the float test. Masas prepared with dry corn flour will not pass the float test but should instead be whipped for at least 15 minutes, until the dry corn flour is well incorporated with the fat. Not enough mixing or too much mixing will make masas dry and hard, so be careful!

Whipping masa to the correct consistency is easiest using a stand mixer; a hand mixer will also work as will simply mixing the masa by hand-though it's quite a workout! A stand mixer, with its high speeds and powerful mixer, will whip the masa to the proper consistency in the least amount of time; plus while it's whipping away, you can start preparing the sauces or fillings.

Preparing masa using a hand mixer usually takes about twice the amount of time as a stand mixer and obviously more work. Be sure to use a round-bottomed mixing bowl that has plenty of space to contain the ingredients plus extra space for mixing. To whip the masa to the correct, uniform consistency, move the hand mixer back and forth while frequently rotating the bowl.

As my grandmother did her entire life and my mother did for many years, you can also prepare masa by hand, though as you can imagine, it's pretty tiresome. I highly recommend enlisting help so that you and your helper can take turns. In a large mixing bowl, using a sturdy wooden spoon, combine the dry corn flour or unprepared masa with fat, stock, and salt. Then, using your hands, move the masa around and around in the bowl (don't squeeze or knead the masa), scraping in the sides as you go.

If the masa contains stone ground corn (unprepared or prepared masa), it should be whipped until it passes the float test. If you're using a stand mixer, test the masa every 2 to 3 minutes. If you're using a hand mixer, test the masa every 3 to 4 minutes and if mixing by hand, every 5 minutes.

Preparing the Wrappings and Ties

Corn husks and banana leaves are the traditional wrappings for tamales. In some parts of Mexico and South America avocado leaves are also used.

Corn husks can be used either fresh or dried. Dried corn husks can be purchased in Hispanic markets and chain supermarkets located in Hispanic communities. They must be soaked in hot water-weighed down with a heavy pot or platter-for 45 minutes and then washed thoroughly to remove the corn silk and grit. Fresh husks should simply be rinsed to remove the silk and any dirt. Separate and stack the husks vertically in a colander to drain, with the smooth sides of the husks facing in the same direction to speed up the assembly of the tamales later. To avoid letting the dried corn husks dry again before use, cover with a damp towel.

To make ties from corn husks, tear a few of the soaked and washed husks down the length of the husk into strips approximately 1/4 inch wide. If you wish to make your tamales into little square packages, you will need to tie two strips together, thus creating a sufficiently long tie. To do this, simply tie the ends of two strips together into a double knot.

Look for banana leaves-either fresh or frozen-in Asian and Hispanic markets. To prepare banana leaves for wrapping tamales, boil them whole for about half an hour, or until pliable enough to cut and handle. Remove and discard the hard, fibrous vein running down the center of the leaf. The leaves are then usually cut into 10-inch squares or 10 by 12-inch rectangles (specific measurements are given in the recipes). Banana leaves split easily, so handle them carefully.

Make 1/4 to 1/2-inch-wide ties by tearing a banana leaf into strips. (You can also use cotton kitchen twine for your ties.) Tamales wrapped in banana leaves are usually folded into a square package, like a gift, then tied vertically and horizontally and finished with a bow or a knot on the top. You may need to tie two strips of banana leaf together to create a long enough tie for this method of wrapping and tying.

Spreading the Masa on the Wrappings

Masa is always spread on the smooth side of the corn husk or banana leaf so that it comes away easily after steaming. If you spread it onto the ribbed side of the husk or leaf it will stick, even when done. To spread the masa, use a spatula or a slightly wet hand, and gently press down the masa to the desired size.

Traditionally, three or four times as much masa is used as filling. In my experience, this ratio of masa to filling makes for both dry masa and a dry tamale overall, since the masa absorbs moisture from the filling. Over my many years of making tamales, I have found that there is a delicate balance in the ratio of masa to filling: no more than 1/3 to 1/2 cup of masa (1/2 cup just makes a slightly thicker layer of masa) should be used per 3 tablespoons of filling. This smaller ratio of masa to filling will result in a moister, lighter, better-tasting tamale.

An ice cream scoop is the easiest way to measure the proper amount of masa consistently: Simply fill an ice cream scoop until level, not heaping. Where you place the masa on the corn husk and how you spread it will depend on the type of wrapping style you wish to use (see illustrations on pages 25 to 29.)

Filling the Tamales

Always place the filling right in the center of the masa. Most recipes call for 1 heaping tablespoon of filling topped with 2 tablespoons of sauce. Don't worry if the sauce runs all over the place; remember, it's better to have more sauce than less.

For tamales that have all the ingredients mixed into the masa, such as Traditional Sweet Tamales, Pumpkin Tamales, Corn and Cheese Corundas, and Cinnamon Sugar Tamales, place the masa mixture right in the center of the husk and fold the husk over it; no spreading is needed.

Wrapping and Tying the Tamales

To wrap a tamale, pull the right side of the husk tightly over the filling so that the masa on the right side makes contact with the husk of the left side (just to the left of the left edge of the masa). This helps to glue the masa together snugly and keep the tamale's contents from spilling out during steaming. Finish folding the tamale into the desired shape and tie if necessary (see illustrations on the following pages). When using a strip of corn husk to tie a tamale, be careful when pulling it tight as it can break easily.

There are many different ways to wrap and tie tamales. The fold-over method of wrapping followed by a second wrapping of parchment paper works well for large tamales like Veggie Curry Tamales. The corunda style of wrapping is simply the traditional style of wrapping for corundas like the Grilled Jalapeño Corundas. Though a certain style of wrapping and tying may be recommended in a specific recipe, feel free to wrap and tie your tamales any way you like-maybe in the easiest styles for you or maybe in the styles you find most aesthetically pleasing. Although the variety of wrapping and tying styles may seem overwhelming at first, you'll be thankful for the options when you're ready to make a large batch of masa and several different types of tamales. Wrap each type of tamale uniquely and you'll be able to tell one type of tamale from another without having to open them up! At Tamara's Tamales, we have signature wrapping and tying styles for each type of tamale on our menu.


Excerpted from TAMALES 101 by Alice Guadalupe Tapp Copyright © 2002 by Alice Guadalupe Tapp
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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