Making tamales? Get the most from your masa

Updated Dec 02, 2014

Time to pull out the tamaleras, crank up the Christmas tunes and get your hands in some masa.

Although many of us eat tamales all year ‘round, December is when the corn husks really fly as groups of friends and family across the country gather for tamaladas, an assembly line-style tamale production that doubles as a party.

Usually, one or two people spread the masa in corn husks that have been soaking in water, while others place the filling inside. A third folds the flattened masa around the shredded, stewed or braised meat (or beans, or vegetables, or even sweet ingredients like chocolate or strawberry jam) and makes the small package in which the tamale will be steamed.

With all those steps — not counting making the masa or the filling — it’s no wonder that many people prefer to buy tamales by the dozen, either from restaurants or friends at work or in the neighborhood.

As a chef, Rene Ortiz of the Austin-based Fresa’s Chicken al Carbon comes up with all kinds of ways to take the traditional tamale up a few notches, but he’s just as happy eating the black bean and white queso tamales of his youth in San Antonio or the Moroccan-inspired pine nut, currant and braised beef tamales his Portuguese grandmother, a gypsy, used to make.

For instance, he likes to toast about 10 percent of the masa harina — corn flour, often just called Maseca, the name of the most popular brand — to boost the flavor. “With a slow toast, you can get a nice nuttiness.” (Just don’t cook it too much or the granules will harden and won’t absorb the liquid you add later.)

He’s even blitzed corn nuts in a coffee grinder to add even more “perfume” to the masa, but even the most basic pork tamales made with regular masa can be a thing of beauty.

Alice Guadalupe Tapp, the author of “Tamales” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99), who runs a tamales shop with her daughter in Southern California, says that the most traditional fat, pork lard, is often what people associate with tamales, but that she’s grown to prefer butter or, when making vegan tamales, soy bean margarine.

Another option for vegan tamales is olive oil, but you should freeze it for a few days to give it the right consistency for whipping and incorporating into the masa, Tapp says. Whipping any fat with a handheld or stand mixer will help keep the tamales from being too dense, and many cooks choose to season the masa at this stage.

Not all cooks use baking powder as an additional way to keep the masa light, but if you do, you can add it to the masa or when whipping the fat. A tip from Ortiz if you are using baking powder: Your filling should be a little wetter than if you don’t because the lighter masa will absorb more liquid while steaming and could dry it out.

Tapp also prefers fresh masa, which is sold at Mexican grocers, but if you can’t get that soft textured flour, nearly all supermarkets have the drier masa harina, which requires more liquid than the fresh masa. (Masa preparada, on the other hand, is masa, often used for tortillas, that already has fat incorporated into it. That’s another product you can get at specialty markets.)

When you’re adding the liquid, keep watch for the moment the masa can pass the fingerprint dimple test. “As soon as I can get a fingerprint out of it is where I want to be,” he says. Using your hands to mix the masa allows you to feel exactly how much water has been absorbed by the masa harina. When you’ve been making tamales as long as Ortiz has, your fingers know exactly how smooth the masa squeezing through them should be.

Another way to tell if you’ve hit the right ratios is dropping a small ball of the masa in water. If it floats and bobs, you’re ready to start spreading it in the husks or banana leaves. (If it sinks, it needs more liquid.)

Ortiz tends to use shortening to allow the flavor of the corn to come through, but other times, he’ll prepare fancy infused oils and fats, like one with star anise, vanilla and clove to complement a white corn flour masa. You can also season the stock with additional spices, such as ground chiles, cumin or garlic powder.

Steaming is really the only way to cook tamales so that they remain moist yet cooked throughout, and you can buy the traditional cooking vessel, a tamalera, at an increasing number of grocery stores.

There are lots of ways to rig up a steaming contraption in your kitchen that would allow the tamales to stand upright as they steam, Tapp says, including balls of tin foil topped with a hole-poked aluminum pie plate, steamer baskets, colanders or other racks to hold them above the water line.

Ortiz’s family tradition is to put a nickel or a penny in the water. It will rattle on the bottom as the water boils. “That’s why when you’re cooking with abuelita, you have to be quiet so you can hear the penny.”

Chicken and Chorizo Tamales

1 1/2 lbs. ground chicken

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 tomato, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 lbs. pork or beef chorizo

1/4 tsp. ground cumin

1/4 tsp. oregano

1/4 tsp. ground thyme

1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper

1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped

4 cups basic fresh masa (recipe below)

In a skillet over medium heat, lightly brown the chicken in the olive oil for 15 minutes. Add the onion, tomato, and garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the raw chorizo, cumin, oregano, thyme and pepper, stir to combine, and cook for an additional 15 minutes, mixing and incorporating the chorizo as it cooks. Add the cilantro and cook for a final 2 to 3 minutes. Place in a bowl and allow to cool.

Assemble the tamales, using 1/4 cup masa and 1/4 cup filling for each tamale. Transfer to a steamer and steam for 55 minutes. Makes 12-18 tamales.

— From “Tamales” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99) by Alice Guadalupe Tapp

Basic Fresh Masa

1 lbs. butter or margarine, softened

5 lbs. fresh masa (unprepared)

2 to 3 cups stock (chicken, pork, beef or vegetable)

2 Tbsp. salt (or less to taste)

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add one-third of the fresh masa alternating with one-third of the stock, then add the salt. Beat until well mixed, adding more stock if needed, turn the mixer to high and beat for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the dough resembles spackling paste.

Take a small piece (about 1/2 teaspoon) of the dough and drop it into a cup of cold water. If it floats, it is ready; if it sinks, whip for another minute and test it again. Repeat this process until the masa floats.

Note: The fresher the masa, the faster it will become light and fluffy enough for use. Refrigerate for up to three days. Makes about 60 tamales.

— From “Tamales” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99) by Alice Guadalupe Tapp

Butternut Squash, Black Bean and Kale Tamales with Spicy Tomatillo Salsa

This recipe is not as heavy as meat-based tamales, but tempeh and beans provide ample protein. If you don’t have a whole day to devote to tamale making, you can prepare the masa and the filling up to 3 days ahead. They cook faster and more evenly in two separate steamer pots; borrow an extra pot if you have only one. They also freeze extremely well — so don’t worry about making too many. Serve with your favorite fresh tomatillo salsa.

—Marea Goodman

Masa Dough

4 1/2 cups/630 g instant corn masa flour (Maseca is a popular brand)

2 1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. sweet paprika

2 3/4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

Filling

1/4 cup canola or sunflower oil

1/2 medium yellow onion, small dice

1 1/2 cups peeled small-dice butternut squash

1 1/2 cups diced or crumbled tempeh

3 cups packed stemmed and sliced kale

1 2/3 cups cooked black beans (rinsed and drained if canned)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. sweet paprika

1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

1 package (about 30) dried corn husks

Spicy Tomatillo Salsa, for serving.

To make the masa dough: Whisk together the masa flour, salt, baking powder, cumin, garlic powder and paprika in a medium bowl. Add the stock, olive oil and lime juice. Mix with clean hands until thoroughly combined. The masa should be about the texture of cookie dough. Set aside if you plan to assemble the tamales within 2 hours, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

To make the filling: Warm the canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until it becomes translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the squash and tempeh, stirring frequently to avoid burning, until the squash softens, about 6 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the kale, beans, cumin, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, and cayenne. Saute until the kale has wilted and is tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside, or let cool and keep it in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 3 days.

When you are ready to assemble the tamales, soak the corn husks in a very large bowl of warm water, making sure they are completely submerged for at least 5 minutes, or until they are softened. Place a large clean dish towel on the countertop for soaking up the extra liquid from the corn husks.

Take one large husk, shaking off the excess liquid, and place it on the dishtowel with the wide end at the top. Scoop out a scant 1/4 cup of masa, and spread it down the middle of the husk with your fingertips. The masa should be spread as thinly as possible, about 2 1/2-inches by 2 1/2-inches, in the shape of a circle or square. Make sure to leave at least 1 inch of husk uncovered on the top end and at least 2 inches uncovered on the bottom, narrow end.

Place 3 Tbsp. of filling in the middle of the masa, closer to the top edge. Fold one side of the corn husk over the other, forming a tube around the filling and sealing both sides of the masa together. Fold the bottom edge over the seam where the two sides of the corn husk overlap. Set aside, folded side down, and repeat.

To cook the tamales, set a steamer insert into a large pot. Use two steamer pots if possible (the farther apart the tamales are in the pot, the quicker they will cook). Pour hot water into the pot so that it comes up to the bottom of the steamer, but not above.

Line the bottom and sides of the steamer with several of the softened corn husks. This will prevent water from bubbling up and soaking the tamales as they cook.

Arrange the tamales by standing them up at a slight angle, so that they lean against the side of the pot, with the open ends of the tamales facing up. Cover the pot with a lid (or invert a stainless steel bowl over the pot).

Steam the tamales over medium-low heat for 90 minutes if using two pots, or 2 hours if using one pot, adding more water as needed every 20 or 30 minutes. Be sure to add the water in a manner that does not wet the tamales. Using a knife or cake spatula, push aside the tamales to create a small opening into which you can pour the water. Be careful of the hot steam when you remove the lid. The tamales are cooked when the masa is firm to the touch and does not stick to the corn husk when opened. Serve them hot with tomatillo salsa. Makes about 24 tamales.

— From “Straight From the Earth” by Myra and Marea Goodman (Chronicle Books, $27.50)

Spicy Tomatillo Salsa

1 medium jalapeño

1 lbs. fresh tomatillos, papery husks discarded, stemmed and quartered

1 1/2 cups packed chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 medium white onion, cut into chunks

1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

4 garlic cloves

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. sweet paprika

Using metal tongs, place the jalapeño over an open flame on the stovetop. Turn it frequently until the skin is charred all the way around, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Using a clean dishcloth, rub off the charred skin. Cut the jalapeño in half and discard the stem and seeds.

Combine the jalapeño, tomatillos, cilantro, onion, lime juice, garlic, salt, pepper, and paprika in a food processor or blender, and process until smooth. Transfer the salsa to a container, seal, and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

— From “Straight From the Earth” by Myra and Marea Goodman (Chronicle Books, $27.50)

Pork Tamales

For the dough:

3 chili peppers

2 1/2 cups chicken broth, divided

4 cups instant corn flour, such as Maseca

2 tsp. baking powder

1 1/2 tsp. chili powder

1 1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 cups butter, softened

For the pork filling:

1 Tbsp. salt

1 Tbsp. dark brown sugar

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin powder

1/2 tsp. red pepper powder

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

3 lbs. pork loin roast (deboned)

2 Tbsp. canola oil

Prepare the dough: Cook the chili peppers in the microwave on high temperature inside a glass container with half a cup of broth for two minutes, or until they become tender. Strain them. Take the stems off the peppers. Blend the peppers in a blender or food processor until they are pureed.

In a big bowl, combine the pepper puree, with the other two cups of broth and the following 5 ingredients: corn flour, baking powder, chili powder, salt and softened butter (the mixture will be coarse). With your hands, knead the mixture, until you get a soft texture on the dough. Let the dough set.

Prepare the pork: Combine the salt and the following 5 ingredients: salt, dark brown sugar, chili powder, cumin powder, red pepper powder and freshly ground black pepper (see ingredients for amount). Rub the mixture evenly on the pork. Place the pork inside a Dutch oven and brown up the pork in hot oil, at medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees. Cover the pot and bake for 3 to 4 hours or until the pork is tender.

Remove the pork from the pot, and set aside the juices that were released. Let it cool slightly and shred the meat with a fork. Cook the pork juice at medium-high heat for 15 minutes, or until it has been reduced to half the amount. Add the shredded pork to the juice, mixing it all well.

Make the tamales: Divide the dough evenly into 24 corn husks. Press each portion on a husk, forming a small rectangle and leaving a border of at least half an inch in three of the sides and leave a bit more space on the corners. With a spoon, spread evenly 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of pork mixture on one side of the dough. Join the long ends of the husk, pressing them to close them. Fold the sides of the husk one on top of the other and tie them up with a strip of corn husk. Steam in a tamalera or other pot with a rack inside for 35 to 40 minutes.

— Recipe from PorkTeInspira.com