Making Tamales

5 Apr

Print the recipe card!   tamales

Frankly, I don’t want to have to say goodbye to tamales … ever.  It seems like every three months or so I find myself desperately craving these little corn-husked bundles, at which point you’ll find me visiting the homemade Mexican grill down the road and spending $1.45 for a 2 tamale fix.  What would happen  if there weren’t tamales to be bought from the wonderful spanish speaking “I’ve-made-tamales-my-whole-life” women at the restaurant?  Sadness, I tell you.

To avoid such I set out to find a reasonably simple way to make my own.  Mind you I’m not interested in spending all day in the kitchen (as some recipes suggest) no matter how much I’m wanting tamales.  On top of that, I wanted a recipe who’s staple ingredients could be stored long term.  Once again I turned to a reliable recipe testing source, Cook’s Illustrated (specifically their “Best International Recipe” book) to teach me how to make something that before I’d only bought.  What I found was an uncomplicated recipe that brought everything to the table I was looking for and turned out some pretty great tamales if I do say so myself!

Oh , and did I mention this recipe provided another perfect chance to save fuel by using my wonder oven?  (*see this video if you’re wondering what a wonder oven is!)

The challenge on this recipe…

While I usually don’t question the ingredients in Cooks Illustrated recipes I did have a problem with their fat recommendation in this case, fat being a necessary ingredient in the dough.  They made a big deal that (according to taste tests) half butter and half lard was the best way to go.  Ew, really??  I had a hard time stomaching the idea of storing lard, no matter the reason, and had to ask if there was another way.  Off I went to my favorite Mexican cooking hut to ask the cooks there what they used.  Besides lard, they said, Crisco could also be used {again, not a possibility, I’m not a fan of Crisco in cooking, bleh!} …or another option was… (ding ding ding) Olive oil.  I made up four tamale doughs, identical excepting for their fat content, hoping to find an acceptable alternative.  I tested the finished product out on my kids and three other willing adults and got the feedback I was looking for.

The Recipe

Makes 24 tamales  (The original made 12.  I doubled it to make it worth my time and to use up the canned ingredients)


1 1/2 cup quick grits (not instant *see note)

2 cups boiling water

1 ½ cups masa harina (I found a specialized version apparently for tamales)

30 large dried corn husks

1 (15 oz.) can Del Monte canned corn (*see note)

2 TBS sugar

3 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 (12 oz.) can Kirkland brand canned roast beef

1 (7 oz.) can, 2-3 TBS minced pickled jalapenos  (*see note)

Add your choice of fat:   You’ll need 1 cup total.  Taste testers, while their preference for specific fats varied, preferred the taste of using ½ cup of one and ½ cup of another rather than 1 cup of any single choice.  (*see notes)

Tested Fats:

Light tasting Olive Oil

Canned Butter (*I used Red Feather Brand canned butter but I’ll try it again at some point w/Thrive’s powdered version)


Tools & Supplies you’ll need:

Pot w/a steamer basket (*see note)

Manual food mill (*see note)


Place the grits in a medium bowl, whisk in the boiling water, and let stand until most of the water is absorbed, about 10 minutes.  Stir in the masa harina to form a dough, cover, and let cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot.  Stir in the corn husks, cover, and simmer until softened and flexible, about 10 minutes.

To the dough mixture add in the corn, fat choice (*see taste test results below), sugar, baking powder and salt and stir to combine.  Process until smooth using a manual food mill, or if available, an electric food processor.

In a small bowl combine beef with minced pickled jalapenos.  Working with one husk at a time, spoon a scant ¼ cup of dough into each husk, following the pictures below.  Nestle a heaping tablespoon of the beef-jalapeno mixture into the center of the dough and, using the sides of the husk, push the dough around the meat to encase it completely.  Fold the sides then the bottom of the husk over the filling and lay seam side down on a large platter.

Fit a large pot with a steamer basket.  Fill the pot with water until it just touches the bottom of the basket, line the basket with husks, and bring to a boil.  Gently stand the tamales around the edges of the steamer,  open ends facing up with an empty space in the middle for the steam to enter.  Cover the pot and allow to boil hard for 10 minutes.  Place the pot into the wonder oven for 90 minutes.  Pull the pot out and check tamales to see if they easily come free from the husks, the sign that their done.  If doughy at all when pulling back the husks, bring to a boil again (with the lid on) and return to the wonder oven to steam for another hour.  Once all are cooked, transfer the tamales to a large platter and serve hot with tomatillo or other favorite salsa.


Soak grits in boiling water for about 10 minutes.  Add in Masa harina and while waiting for the dough to cool, simmer corn husks in boiling water.

Drain corn husks.  Add remaining dough ingredients, including your choice of fat, and stir to combine.

Using either a manual food mill or an electric food processor, process all dough ingredients until smooth.

the finished processed dough…

Mince jalapenos if needed and mix 2-3 TBS with shredded beef depending on taste.  (BTW,  I did try making some tamales with chicken but the beef was very much preferred.)

Step by step:  Assembling the Tamales

1) Tear one husk into small strips to use as ties.  The thinner you’re able to tear them the easier it will be to tie.

2)  With the tapering end of the husk facing you, place a scant 1/4 cup of dough onto the husk, leaving at least a one and one-half-inch border of husk at the tapered end.

3)  Nestle a heaping tablespoon of the beef-jalapeno mixture into the center of the dough and, using the sides of the husk, encase it completely within the dough.

4)  Fold the two long sides of the corn husk in over the corn mixture.

5)  Fold the tapered end up, leaving the top open.

6)  Secure the tamale by tying with a strip of the husk.

Fill the pot with water until it just touches the bottom of the basket.  The water from soaking the corn husks could be saved and re-used here if water is scarce. Line the steamer with the softened husks and stand the tamales up in rows around the edge of the steamer.

Allow a clear opening in the center of the tamales for the steam to enter.

Ready to steam!

Cover the pot and bring to a boil.  Boil hard for 10 minutes.

Place pot in wonder oven for 90 minutes.  Without a wonder oven,  continue boiling on the stove 60 minutes, checking the water level often and adding additional water if needed.

Pull the pot out to check on tamales and bring the temperature of the water back up to a boil if they’re not finished cooking.  You’ll know they’re done when the tamales easily come free from the husks.  After the initial 90 minutes in the wonder oven I brought my pot back up to a boil and returned it to the wonder oven for another hour.  At that point they were done.

Serve hot and enjoy with favorite salsa!



  • Just FYI, Del Monte’s “Fresh Cut Golden Sweet Whole Kernal Corn” beat out two other main brands for “freshest taste” by America’s Test Kitchen in a 6/09 taste test.  You might want to give that product a test to see what you think.  Also, what a great idea the original recipe had of adding corn into the dough to improve it’s flavor; it makes for a nice corn flavored (rather than bland) tamale.
  • Talking grits (taken from the original recipe’s notes) it says:  “Be sure to use quick grits, not instant – instant grits are processed further and will adversely affect the texture and flavor of the tamales.”
  • I can’t say I’ve ever bought pickled jalapenos before.  Apparently onions and carrots are also sometimes included.  I kept the onions but didn’t use the carrots.  Also, I had to mince the jalapenos myself and only used part of the can.  There were a lot of jalapenos in there!
  • I needed to buy a pot with a deep steamer basket for this recipe because I didn’t have one.  Specifically I was looking for a “squatty” sort of pot (rather than an extremely tall one) because I didn’t want to have to use a whole lot of water to steam the tamales but yet it needs to be filled with water, the recipe says “until it just touches the base of the steamer basket”.  The best one I found (for the price) was at Bed Bath and Beyond, the Weight Watcher’s Pasta Steamer Set regularly $59.00 but with 20% off I bought it for $48.00 including tax.  Not entirely cheap but on the other hand, it’s a pot that I’ll use for many other things and I needed one anyway.  As a perk, it also came with a nifty pasta measuring tool I’ve been wanting to buy for a while!
  • The manual food mill I use here is made by OXO.  I’ve used it before for making bread and cracker crumbs here on the blog;  it’s useful for lots of things.  It includes three different sized blades (small medium and large) with which to mill your food.

The Taste Test:  Looking for the Better Fat…

The Contestants:

1 – ½ butter, ½ lard

2 – 100% Olive Oil

3 – ½ butter, ½ Olive Oil

4 – 100% butter

After dividing up the dough equally, the four different fat choices were added and mixed up in their individual bowls.  I kept track of which tamales were which while they cooked with tiny splinters of colored gift ribbon tied to each.

The Results …

Here are the results from the adults who were tested.  The kids, for the most part, thought they all tasted the same. 

#1 (the original recipe’s recommendation) was liked by all who tested it.  Among the four testers it came in at first place twice and second place twice.

No one chose #2 as their favorite combination;  To me and one other tester this combination stood out clearly as the worst.

#3 was all over the map.  It was my #1 choice, middle ground for 2 testers and chosen as the worst for yet another.  This is the combination I’ll be using since it gets around having to store the lard.

#4 was one tester’s favorite but among all other testers didn’t do so hot.  It got a very vocal “no” from one tester and hit 3rd place with the other 2 testers.

4 Responses to “Making Tamales”

  1. spiritsong April 7, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    I found your write-up fascinating! I’ve never made tamales, but grew up with wonderful Tex-Mex food. Have been thinking about Mexican food all day yesterday and then came upon your entry 🙂 I will definitely have to try your findings out…..I think Half butter/half lard 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing all your hard work with us out in Internet land – we learn a lot from each other!

    • myfoodstoragecookbook April 7, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! You’re a brave one to not be scared off by the lard however I think this case it falls somewhere along the lines of a Julia Child quote: “if you’re afraid of butter use cream” since it’s all fat anyway. Have fun making these! Despite all the explanation I give here it’s really a pretty easy recipe! 🙂

  2. Karen Dickenson April 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    Awesome! I’ve been making them fo sometime, but I like this recipe more! Thnxs.


  1. 2012′s Top 12 « My Food Storage Cookbook - January 5, 2013

    […]  Tamales  So good and made easier (and using less fuel) with a Wonder Oven.  These are a personal favorite […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: