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Matters of Masa

How Much Difference Does Masa Make?

Smooth flavorful masa is the foundational component of tamales. It may even be the most important ingredient to a delicious tamal. The variety of fillings are absolutely countless. I still remember the incredible aromas that filled our home on the days my mother made delicious tamales. Savory meats simmering in red chile sauce or green chile rajas, Anaheim green pepper strips that infused into her chicken filling. The image of my sweet mother leaning over the huge pot of masa, kneading it, is forever stamped in my heart. She whipped it with her strong arm, then tasted it. She adjusted it as needed and kept on  kneading some more. Tamales were assembled only after she achieved perfectly smooth and tasty masa and I’m happy to report that she always nailed it! 

The authentic Savory Masa flavor:

Masa broken down to its basic origins is corn kernels soaked in calcium hydroxide, which is then pulverized into flour; masa harina. Out of this flour, Mexican cuisine has flourished in various forms. Aside from masa harina, the dough for tamales has these basic ingredients: salt, baking powder, lard or vegetable oil and seasoned chicken or pork broth. Masa that is properly proportioned, seasoned and kneaded beautifully will be smooth and flavorful. Make a delicious masa tamal, top it with a dose of salsa and enjoy. If it is not delicious, perhaps the masa lacked a pinch or two of the basic ingredients. 

Baking Powder Can Be Tricky

Masa for tamales can be made with or without baking powder. It helps the dough rise and it gives tamales a lighter texture. This past year I had an opportunity to eat authentic tamales from two different tamaleras. Tamalera #1 made big beautifully shaped tamales that had a cake-like texture. The tamales were dry. Their authentic Mexican flavor had almost evaporated while steaming. Not only was the masa dry, so was the meat filling, almost as if she hadn’t used any delicious red chile sauce in them, some of the chile had only stained the masa. Tamalera #2 used much less masa per tamal. The masa in these tamales was very moist and had a good flavor. In these tamales the filling also had experienced the evaporation of the chile sauce, but the filling was able to stay moist and savory. In fact, these very moist tamales were falling apart. It was hard to present them nicely on the dinner plate. What was the cause? The finger points to the use of baking powder. According to Chez Rene 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.” 

Here’s my unprofessional opinion backed by years of tamal experience, mostly in sitting down at the family table to eat them. I see how baking powder does help the texture, making them light and spongy. After learning of the “baking powder” tip I realize that Tamalera #1 perhaps did not have enough chile sauce for a “wetter” meat filling, therefore when she assembled and steamed her tamales they were dry. On the other hand Tamalera #2 simply might not have had the right masa:filling ratio to produce a nice spongy moist tamal. Ratios matter. The right amount of baking powder will enhance your tamal, especially when it comes to yummy sweet tamales. These, on the other hand, are not saucy, yet they are moist. Perhaps the mixture of the sweet ingredients right into the masa helps the shape and texture when they are steamed. Sweet tamales are spongy and moist, as a dessert should be. 

Corn Husks Wrap Tamales

As societies have evolved, some things, like great kitchen equipment, or a pinch of baking powder improved the process or modified this ancient Mesoamerican staple called tamales.  Tamales have remained true to the basic ingredients and its original wrappings. The original corn husk wrapping remains efficient in maintaining texture and moisture. Other wrappings  have been used to assemble and steam tamales, but my taste buds always notice the difference. The flavor and texture of tamales is influenced by the wrap used. 

Tamales steamed in banana leaves are moist and have a nice smooth texture. These tamales absorb the sweet banana flavor from the leaves and it is infused with the spices and flavor of the filling. My experience has been that when I’ve bitten into one of these smooth wet looking savory tamales, the authentic Mexican spices are compromised, a slight banana flavor lingers. Some people don’t mind it, others really like it, but I tend to stick to the Mexican tradition of corn husk wraps, which enhance the flavors in the masa. 

Texas Style Tamales

Delicious authentic Mexican tamales are an icon of Mexican cuisine. They are more than just food, they are history, tradition and family connections. Our delicious Texas style tamales are made with masa that has these basic ingredients, plus the benefits of technology to make large bundles easily available to our customers online

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