There are three components to a tamale: the wrapper, the dough, and the filling.
It’s most common to wrap tamales in dried corn husks that have been soaked in water to make them pliable. Occasionally, people will use fresh corn husks or, in some regions, even banana leaves to wrap their tamales.
Traditional tamale dough is a simple mixture of masa, lard, and salt. Masa is dried corn that has been cooked in limewater, soaked overnight, and then ground up while still wet. Sold in this form, it’s called fresh masa, and it makes the lightest, fluffiest tamales. If fresh masa isn’t available in your area, you should be able to find masa harina, flour made from dried masa, in most supermarkets. Masa harina just needs to have extra liquid added to it.
Finally, there is the tamale filling. The most well-known tamale recipes have a filling of braised pork or beef in a complex sauce of spices and dried and fresh chiles. However, it’s not uncommon to see tamales stuffed with chicken, roasted vegetables, cheese, beans, seafood, or even sweet ones filled with fruit and nuts.
For light and fluffy tamale dough, whip the lard and salt with electric beaters for a few minutes before adding the masa. Once you add the masa, continue to whip, adding water or meat broth until the mixture is the consistency of soft cookie dough. Test it by dropping a small ball of dough into a glass of water. If the dough sinks, it needs more liquid whipped into it; if it floats, it’s ready to use. If you prefer not to cook with lard, substitute an equal amount of vegetable shortening, although the dough will not have the same fullness of flavor.
- Spread a softened corn husk with an even layer of dough
- Spoon a small amount of filling down the middle–too much, and the tamale will be hard to roll.
- Carefully roll up the husk so that the masa completely surrounds the filling and the parcel stays intact. Use a strip of husk to tie the package closed.
- Layer the tamales in a steamer basket–a colander set over simmering water, covered with a kitchen towel and the pot lid, will work.
- 4 pounds boneless chuck roast
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 (8 ounce) packages dried corn husks
- 4 dried ancho chiles
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup beef broth
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- salt to taste
- 3 cups lard
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 9 cups masa harina
- Place beef and garlic in a large pot. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as water boils, reduce heat to a simmer and cover pot. Let simmer for 3 1/2 hours, until beef is tender and shreds easily. When beef is done, remove from pot, reserving 5 cups cooking liquid and discarding garlic. Allow meat to cool slightly, and shred finely with forks.
- Meanwhile, place corn husks in a large container and cover with warm water. Allow to soak for 3 hours, until soft and pliable. May need to weight down with an inverted plate and a heavy can.
- Toast ancho chiles in a cast iron skillet, making sure not to burn them. Allow to cool and then remove stems and seeds. Crumble and grind in a clean coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
- Heat oil in a large skillet. Mix in flour and allow to brown slightly. Pour in 1 cup beef broth and stir until smooth. Mix in ground chiles, cumin seeds, ground cumin, minced garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, vinegar and salt. Stir shredded beef into skillet and cover. Let simmer 45 minutes.
- Place lard and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whip with an electric mixer on high speed until fluffy. Add masa harina and beat at low speed until well mixed. Pour in reserved cooking liquid a little at a time until mixture is the consistency of soft cookie dough.
- Drain water from corn husks. One at a time, flatten out each husk, with the narrow end facing you, and spread approximately 2 tablespoons masa mixture onto the top 2/3 of the husk. Spread about 1 tablespoon of meat mixture down the middle of the masa. Roll up the corn husk starting at one of the long sides. Fold the narrow end of the husk onto the rolled tamale and tie with a piece of butchers’ twine.
- Place tamales in a steamer basket. Steam over boiling water for approximately one hour, until masa is firm and holds its shape. Make sure steamer does not run out of water. Serve immediately, allowing each person to unwrap their own tamales. Allow any leftovers (still in husks) to cool, uncovered, in the refrigerator.