Tamales bring me back to my childhood in an instant.
Growing up, I traveled to Mexico a lot with my mom, dad, and brother. We went so often, in fact, that my parents eventually bought a home in Baja, California. There was something about the freedom, delicious food and casual lifestyle that really appealed to my parents.
I spent most summers there as well as long weekends. It was about a 6 hour drive one-way which, as you can imagine, became a very familiar drive for us.
Overall, I loved it because of the food. Because I love good food (like fish tacos) and Baja sure has a lot of it.
So: Tamales. In Mexico, it’s very common to have tamales on special occasions, like on Christmas. There are pork tamales, chicken and carrot tamales, and even deliciously sweet pineapple, cinnamon, and raisin tamales. I’m sure tons more, but those were the regulars.
My favorite has always been the pork tamales. Sorry, piggies.
Since we often were in Mexico for my winter vacation from school, I’d look forward to having our visit to Baja when we’d be able to order our special Christmas tamales. Restaurants around town started putting out hand-written signs in early November reminding their customers to order their Christmas tamales.
It was pretty cool.
Fast forward to today. I no longer go to Baja. Or travel with my parents, for that matter. But, what is still the same is my love for tamales.
Problem is: most places don’t make the delicious, moist and flavorful tamales I was raised on. Too often, I find tamales to be too dry and flavorless, and smothered in some sauce to cover up such things.
This is not ok, people. Tamales can be so much better than this. Tamales deserve better.
We deserve better.
Enter this homemade tamale recipe. It is moist. It is flavorful. Shoot – it’s darn near perfection, if you ask me.
Last year, we made these tamales for Christmas dinner. Nothing like great memories, delicious food, and family to make life good.
While tamales are fairly simple to make, they do require a little time and a little love, kinda like my Hearty Beef Stew recipe.
A couple tips on how to make pork tamales, AKA little husked packages of savory, creamy porkiness:
1. Eat them as soon as you make them. Tamales fresh from the steamer are, by far and away, the best of the best. Once you try them you’ll understand. Day old tamales will still be moist, but will already start to lose their moisture. I imagine this is why tamales aren’t moist when you order them at restaurants — they just aren’t fresh.
2. Don’t be afraid to fill them on up. We like our tamales big and full of meat. This not only makes them finish faster for preparation (i.e. you have to make less total tamales), but it also makes it so you don’t need 4-5 tamales for a meal. However, the smaller the tamale, the more moist it will remain the next day. Just an FYI.
3. Always, always, always use the reserved juices from braising the meat for making the masa. This is what makes the flavor of the tamales so special. This is the special sauce.
4. Set up a station: have your corn husks, masa, meat, and a separate plate to hold the tamales all ready on a clean, flat surface.
5. You don’t need to tie the husks if you don’t want to. I’m all about easy and I never tie the corn husks. The tamales still stay together and cook perfectly.
6. You don’t need to purchase a tamale steamer or anything fancy pants like that. In fact, that’s what kept me from even trying to make tamales for the longest time. I thought I needed some special equipment in order to even make them. All you need is a deep pot and a pasta insert or someway to fashion a steam that is deep enough in the pot to allow the tamales to remain upright. I just use the pasta insert that came with my 8-qt. pot.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 1/4 lb pork shoulder bone-in
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt plus more to taste
- 1 tsp ground black pepper plus more to taste
- 1 white onion chopped
- 1 anaheim chile diced
- 1 dried red chile diced
- 3 fresh tomatoes diced
- 4 cloves garlic smashed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 3 cups low sodium chicken stock plus 2-3 cups for filling, see below
- 1/2 cup lard
- 4 cups Maseca
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 2-3 cups low sodium chicken stock
- 30-40 dried corn husks
For The Pork:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Generously coat the pork with salt and pepper. Add the pork to the pot and brown well all sides in the hot oil.
Add the onion, anaheim chile, red chile, tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, cumin, cayenne and chicken stock to the pot. Cover and place in oven until meat is super tender (will easily pull apart with a fork), approximately 3 1/2 hours.
Once meat is tender, carefully remove from the pot and allow to cool. Remove the bay leaves and discard.
Using an immersion blender (or a regular blender, in batches), blend the contents of the pot until it is fully pureed.
Fill a large bowl with the dried corn husks and cover with water. Use a second bowl to hold the husks down in the water. The husks should be completely submerged for at least 10-15 minutes to become flexible. Once well-soaked, remove from the water, drain, and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (can also use a hand mixer or do this all by hand), add the lard, Maseca, baking powder, and 1 tsp. salt and mix together.
Combine the blended pork drippings from the pot with the chicken stock to make a total of 5 cups. Add 4 of the 5 cups to the mixer and mix well to combine. Use the remaining 1 cup of the liquid as needed to get the mixture to a creamy paste consistency.
Using your hands or two forks, shred all the meat from the pork shoulder, discarding the bone. The meat should be in small bite-size, shredded pieces.
Assemble a station with the drained, soaked corn husks, the masa mixture and the shredded pork.
On a flat surface, lay down 1-2 corn husks, depending on size. If the husk is small, you can double up to extend its size. Spread on 4 tbsp. of the masa and then 2 tbsp. of the shredded pork. Close the tamale by folding each side of the husks over and then rolling the bottom up (see pictures above). Continue until no more husks or filling is left. This recipe makes approximately 20-25 tamales.
Fill a deep pot with a pasta attachment, or a deep steamer attachment, with 1-2 inches of water and heat over high heat until the water reaches a boil.
Once all the tamales are ready, carefully stand them up on their closed, rolled-up end, and place in the pasta basket. Use each tamale to hold the next in place until they are all secured. You don't want them falling over or opening up as their tasty contents may escape. Some people choose to actually use strands of the corn husks to tie the tamales closed, but I find this step isn't necessary.
Place into the deep pot and steam the tamales, covered, for 40-60 minutes, or until the tamales turn from a creamy, wet consistency to a moist, crumbly consistency.
Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.