A Beginner's Guide to Making Authentic Tamales
Summer is here, and that means it’s time to open the grill and start cooking. It’s no surprise that the summertime is when Mexican staple foods grow in popularity. Fresh off the grill fajitas, fresh fish tacos, and, of course, tamales. While we can’t promise they’ll be on the tier of Texas Lone Star’s tamales, we do think everyone should learn more about cooking, and that includes making your own authentic tamales. That’s why today we’re diving into this beginner’s guide to making your own authentic tamales from the tamale professionals.
There are hundreds of combinations of what you can put in a tamale, but the basics break down to four things; dough, meat, sauce, and corn husks. The fact that tamales can be broken down so simply makes them both easy to make and easy to change for allergens.
Traditionally, tamale dough is a corn flour dough called masa. Already, this makes it gluten-free, which is a great substitute idea for anyone who can’t have flour tortillas. However, it does call for lard, which is traditionally pig fat. If you’re looking for a vegetarian suggestion, try butter or margarine. What you need is something that can help bind your dough, which is why vegan butters won’t always pack the same punch. If you still need a substitute, mix your butter with shortening to try and get some of that adhesive quality of the lard.
Masa is a lot of fun to test, making it a great task to give any kids learning to cook. When you think the dough has been beaten enough, set a ball in a glass of water. If the dough floats, it’s just right. If it sinks, then the dough still needs some more water. You’ll know it’s just right when it can spread as easily as a sandwich spread.
Meat (Or Vegetarian Alternative)
The next step to making any tamale is to pick your meat and/or veggies. Whether it’s pork, chicken, beans, beef, or some combination of the above, you need a shredded or ground protein to add in to make your tamale fill you up. There are plenty of options for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Whether you decide to top off your filling mixture with cheese or stuff it full with mushrooms, squash, and peppers, you’re guaranteed to have a flavor-packed meal.
This step is something that can be added to your tamale in two ways. On the one hand, you can add the sauce in your tamale when it’s cooking to bake in the flavor. On the other, you can add your sauce on the top, which could be a great option if you have several preferences around your table. Sauces can also be a great way to punch up any vegetarian options to give them that real “meaty” taste. Make sure however you don’t over season your filling with your sauce, or you’ll end up with a mess trying to pack your masa.
A great sauce to put on top of your tamales is salsa. Whether it’s homemade or store-bought, chilled salsa over a warm tamale can have a sensational taste. And for anyone interested in having a pretty plate, salsa is one of the most colorful options you’ll have for your spread, particularly if you go with the homemade route.
The corn husks are what help pack in the tamales flavor while they cook. Their thin nature lets less heat in and out so the tamale heats properly, but they don’t let any of the delicious flavors out, which means all of that flavor is baked together in a wrapped pocket of goodness. They’re also the test to see if your tamale is done. If your corn husk peels off easily, then it’s time to eat. But take the rest of the husk off before you do.
If you’re not sure about corn husks, banana leaves are also a traditional wrap you can switch out.
We know we said there are only four components, but we’re be remiss to not mention some other options to make your tamales personal that wouldn’t fit as well in the baking process. Once you have your tamale smothered in sauce, try adding some sour cream to the top. Cilantro is also a popular choice if you care for it (sorry to all our soapy tasting cilantro readers). Avocado is another classic choice, even without going to the rest of the way to guacamole. Grab a few of this green fruit during the summer when it’s in season and on sale.
While we can’t give any one recipe, we do have some universal tips for making tamales that will make the process a whole lot easier.
For one, start by soaking your corn husks in boiling water. When it’s time to wrap your tamales, this will make the husks more malleable and easier to wrap without tearing. You don’t want your tamale contents to leak out while they’re cooking.
Two, set aside a glass of water. This does two great things for you. One, it gives you testing water for testing your masa as we talked about earlier. Two, it gives you some water to wash your fingertips, which will help with keeping your fingers clean and for sealing the dough together when you fold in your filling.
There are a number of ways we can cook tamales now, but unless you have a stone oven, none of them are the “traditional way.” That’s not a bad thing since a stone oven would take a lot longer than your modern one. Tamales can be baked or steamed, and the difference really comes down to the individual.
Steaming can be done in a pressure cooker, or you can cook them in a covered pot. The two vary in how long it will take and what temperature you need to cook your tamales, but the taste doesn’t vary much. If you’re worried about your tamales ripping, then steaming your tamales is a good way to keep all of your fillings in the same place without making a mess.
If you’re confident in your tamales being packed in or prefer a more hands-off method of cooking, baking your tamales in the oven might be the better choice for you. Wrap your tamales in foil and let them roast in the oven.
The good news about all of these options is that tamales are simple to make. If you make a mistake with one tamale, you still have a whole batch left. Don’t give up if your first tamale rips. A few more tries and you’ll get the hang of it. This is a messy dish that should be enjoyed for taste, not shape or rips. Take your time and enjoy the process.
If you want to try some authentic tamales to compare or to have a cook-off, or if you need more than you think you can make, order more at Texas Lone Star Tamales today. We have a wide selection of chicken, pork, beef, and vegetarian options that we guarantee to be the best tamales online. Get started on your cooking experiment today and let us know below any tips we might have missed for other chefs.