I served a 2-year LDS (Mormon) mission in the suburbs of Mexico City.
I fell in love with lots of things down there: the warm and genuine people, the charismatic streets and cities, and even riding the packed mass transit systems as a gigantic white kid in a clean shirt and tie.
And holy cow, THE FOOD.
If you’ve eaten at a truly authentic place – and I’m talking like lady-opens-tiny-restaurant-in-her-garage-and-doesn’t-speak-English authentic – then you know of what I speak. 95% of the food they cook is fresh, and it makes a big difference.
Most mornings, they head down to the butcher and grab their meat, then over to the market to buy their tomatillos, onion, garlic, and whatever else for their salsa. Then before the meal, they’ll send a kid out to grab a kilo or two of tortillas.
And one thing that I miss more than all others?
And the people who sell them are my personal superheroes. They cook all day, then get up in the early morning darkness to walk around the streets yelling “Tamales, Oaxaquenos, Calientitos” or some variation of that. That familiar yell every morning was my Siren call.
So, I’m obsessed with cooking, obsessed with fresh food, and especially obsessed with authentic Mexican food… yet I’d still never made tamales in the 8 years I’ve been back.
And I’ve realized they’re the perfect food for a Real Foodie like me who lives a crazy-busy life and has 2 kids.
You’ll see it was definitely a time-intensive process, but worth it for the nearly 3 dozen little pockets of heaven. Especially since they freeze so well.
I’m in love with the deliciously moist outer layer made from organic field corn and homemade lard. And then you bite, and your world turns upside down. Green salsa that you can tell isn’t from a can with slow-cooked, perfectly spiced pork, chicken, or beef.
And I’m telling you, use organic field corn – you’ll never go back to store-bought masa again. The intense and fresh corn flavor makes all the difference.
Alright, let’s take you through this lengthy (but totally worth it) process:
1. Soak your Organic Field Corn
American-grown corn is almost guaranteed to be GMO, so taking the step to buy your own organic field corn makes a difference in your health. Take charge of the ingredients you use and buy less premade mixes at the store. Your body (especially your taste buds) will thank you.
Rinse about 6 cups of your dry organic field corn, and then dump into a large stock pot. Add enough filtered water to cover, and then add 2 tablespoons of Mrs. Wage’s Pickling Lime.
Leave on high until boiling, and then simmer for 10 minutes. If you see any corn that floats to surface, toss ‘em out.
Pour water and corn into a large glass or enamelware container. Cover with plastic wrap, and let corn soak at least 36 hours. The longer you let it work its magic, the more digestible it becomes – up to two weeks.
2. Preparing the Corn
Okay – if you’re thinking this process is already sounding long, just repeat after me:
“This makes 35 mouth-watering tamales. This makes 35 mouth-watering tamales.”
Now, rinse off your corn super well. Add about a cup to a food processor. Pulse a few times, and then let it run. You’ll need to scrape down the sides a few times. Then, add a tablespoon of water, and pulse really well. Keep adding 1 tablespoon at a time (while running your processor REALLY well in between) until the mixture is no longer crumbly, and it’s all sticking together. You shouldn’t have to use more than 4 tablespoons of water.
Add another cup of corn and repeat the process.
Done right, it will form a big ball and won’t stick to your hands (kinda like bread dough).
3. Make your Tamale Dough
If you’ve got a KitchenAid mixer, now’s the time! Or, grab your electric hand mixer and the sturdiest attachments you’ve got.
We’re going to whip up the lard until it’s smooth and creamy. Some people use leaf lard because it doesn’t have flavor, but for tamales, I like the pork taste added to the dough. If you’re not sure how to render lard, here’s a great primer. We use good ol’ back fat in these tamales because a little extra pork taste adds to the overall flavor profile.
Measure about 8 ounces of lard, and mix on medium speed for 3-4 minutes. It will look like frosting – now serve some on top of cupcakes and give to your kids, but be sure to film it and put on YouTube.
Next, add in 2 pounds of your corn dough, ½ pound at a time and mix thoroughly in between. If you started with 6 cups of corn, you should be right on the money (although you might want to prepare extra corn for tortillas, shepherd’s pie, more tamales for later, etc.).
Now add in 2 teaspoons baking powder, 2 tablespoons salt, and about 1 C chicken stock.
Mix very well. I let mine run while I went and did other things. At least 3-4 minutes. This helps keep your dough as light as possible.
The consistency should be spreadable – kinda like wet cookie dough.
4. Some Assembly Required
We’re getting close now!
Now you’re going to take a presoaked corn husk and set it on your table with the flat part facing you. Spread the dough fairly thin (1/4 inch or so), but keep it about 1-2 inches from the bottom, and leaving about 2 inches on the left and the right.
I didn’t do a great job of spreading it uniformly (first try an’ all), especially at the top and the sides. This made the finished product thick in some parts, and thin and fragile in others. Next, time my focus would be to get that right.
Spread about 1 tablespoon of filling (recipe for pork chile verde filling in the recipe at bottom) down the middle while still leaving space at the top and bottom.
Now, take the left side of your corn husk, and fold it over to the middle. Take the right side, and fold over to the middle, or overlapping the other side just a smidge.
Take the tapered end and fold that to the middle as well. Pull a thin string from one of your soaked corn husks, and use that to tie a knot around your tamale to hold the tapered point down!
It took me a few to get the hang of it, but then it went really quick. If you get a helper, you could crank these out in 20 minutes or so.
5. Cooking Your Tamales
For this, you’ll need a large steamer. Place your tamales in the pot vertically, open side up. Fill the bottom of the pot with about an inch or two of water – just make sure your tamales are sitting in a sauna, not a Jacuzzi.
Steam those puppies for about 60-90 minutes, checking occasionally that there’s still water in the bottom. Check for doneness by pulling one out and seeing if the dough is completely set.
And that’s it!
Sure, it takes time, but authentic tamales are just the best, and I literally made 35 of them. They’re now in my freezer, waiting for me to take a couple to work for lunch tomorrow. If you feel like your life is an endless cycle of “wake up, feed kids, go to bed,” then you need a recipe like this one to save your sanity.
We’re all about practicality. We love preparing foods that we’ve always loved – just with healthier ingredients than we used BRF (before real food). If you’d like even more of the most delicious dinners, snacks, and desserts recipes, than download our eBook! It’s called 17 Guilty Pleasure Recipes Without the Guilt because each recipe tastes so good that it can’t be healthy. But, it is.
Enjoy the tamales, and I’m curious what you guys think!