Mexican Tamales: Our Family Recipe
My earliest Christmas memories are not of Santa or opening presents or even decorating the family Christmas tree. What I remember is my mother, grandmother, and aunties, laughing, loudly, in the kitchen. My great aunts merrily singing the songs of their childhood, my mother and grandmother working diligently by the stove, and me and my cousins playing all around them. Even today, I can vividly remember the sounds of these women’s voices and the joy with which they filled the family kitchen.
If we were lucky, the kids would get to help clean the beans. But always, when it was time, everyone would gather around and help assemble the tamales.
These beautiful memories are, of course, the memories of a little girl. If you ask my mother, she would probably laugh and tell you that I came into the kitchen HOURS after the women in the family had started cooking. What I didn’t see as a child was all the prep time and effort it took to start to assemble the tamales- the fun part.
It wasn’t until I was a mother myself, in my own home and kitchen, that I realized all the work that actually goes into making tamales. Yes, as a teenager I had sat in the kitchen catching up with my aunties as they cooked the chicken and meat. As a young woman, I had stood with my cousins as we diligently watched our mothers prepare the masa. But, not until the day I uttered the words “let’s make tamales” in my own home did I realize the time commitment involved. Silly me.
Tamales Take Time
I venture to say that tamales, from the moment you start to cook the chicken to the moment you sit down to eat, take approximately 6 hours.
It’s totally worth it. Seriously.
I know what you are thinking: no. No way. I’ll just buy the darn tamales.
But it’s not the same. Once you make your own tamales you can never just buy them again. In a pinch, yeah, ok. But for a special meal? Nope. Those have to be made with love and laughter and time and sweat. The taste reflects the effort. Really.
To make it easier, I have shared 10 Easy Steps to Make the Perfect Tamales. Alas, you will still have to follow this delicious recipe.
Why 6 hours?
Well, you have to get the meat ready to cook (cut, chop, mix, etc), cook the chicken and/ or meat, shred it, use the broth to help make the masa, prep the masa, and then actually assemble the tamales. Once everything is done you also have to actually cook the tamales- another hour is spent there. In between, you are also making the beans and Mexican rice. You can’t have tamales without sides! C’mon.
So, how do you make tamales?
There are three parts to tamale making: the chicken or meat, the masa, and the assembly.
For our purposes, I am going to pretend we are making a batch for a family of four (multiply recipe as needed). Of course, the big joke is:
so proceed as needed. Don’t like the idea of not having exact numbers and measurement… tamale making, my family way, is about to get real for you.
The Meat: Chicken Tamales
You can make chicken or beef tamales. Really, you can make tamales out of anything but since chicken tamales seem to be the most popular we’ll start with chicken.
What you need:
- 2 chicken thighs per person
- 2 celery sticks cut up into little pieces
- 2 Potatoes cut up to look like french fries
- 3 Carrots cut up to look like french fries
- 1-2 tbsp of Knorr Suiza (chicken bouillon) (really, season to your liking)
- your favorite chicken soup seasonings (we use oregano for example)
Essentially you are making a delicious homemade chicken soup- with lots of broth. You will be using this chicken broth later on so do not throw it away. Cook to perfection (I do not need to tell you how to make chicken soup).
You want to take out the chicken thighs from the broth and place them on a plate to cool. Once cool enough, you will take the chicken off the bone and shred it.
While the chicken is cooling you will want to take out the potato and carrot sticks and place them in a separate container.
At this point, take the corn husks out of the bag and place them in a pot filled with lukewarm water. You won’t be doing anything with them at this point but they do need to sit immersed in the water for a while. Just place them out of the way- you’ll come back to them.
The Masa for the Tamales
Once the chicken broth is ready you can start making the masa. The following instructions are per batch. Depending on how much chicken you place into each tamale you can probably make up to 15 tamales with one batch of masa.
What you need:
- 2 cups of Masa Maseca (the one that says “tamales” on the front of the bag)
- 2 cups of chicken broth
- 1/2 tbsp of salt
- 2/3 cup of Crisco or lard
- 1 tsp baking powder
- chiles pasilla (1 bag)
The Chiles Pasilla
First, you want to start with the chiles pasilla. Take the chiles out of the bag and place them in a pot with about 2 cups of water. You will bring them to a boil.
Once the chiles are boiling, turn off the stove and take the chiles out of the water. Let them cool a minute and then cut off the top and bottom part of the chile (a small piece of the top and bottom) and cut each individual chiles so as to open them up. The reason you want them open and exposed is that you are going to use your knife to scrape the inside of the chile until all the seeds are gone.
With the seeds gone, take the chile and place it in your blender. You will do this to all the chiles you boiled. Add the chiles and about half the water they were boiled in into the blender and puree. If the substance is too thick, keep adding water until it is runny enough to pour but not broth. I know, it’s a delicate balance. Depending on the size of the chiles you may use half of the water or all of it. Heck, last time had to add even more water afterward! Blend completely and then use a sieve to run the liquid through. You want any bigger or thicker pieces to stay behind and be separated from the liquid part.
The end product, a chile liquid, will be added to the masa later on. For now, just keep it in a cup to the side.
The Masa Dough
Now, the fun part. I recommend using a tray to make the masa. Take the masa, add in the crisco, baking powder, and salt. Mix them all together and then create a circle with an indentation in the middle. Slowly add the chicken broth. I would add a little bit and then mix, create the circle again and add some more. Do this until you have added all two cups of chicken broth.
Looks like a wet mess? Good. You are on the right track.
Once you add all of these ingredients you will knead the masa- much like you would if you were making bread. Keep kneading until all the runny liquid has been absorbed. Then, it’s time to add the chile pasilla liquid.
I know, you just got it to stick together. I use a spoon to add the chile pasilla liquid onto the masa- probably 6-8 spoonfuls. Mix everything together and you will start to see the masa turning from a yellowish color to a reddish color. That’s a good thing. It means your masa is absorbing all of the yummy flavors from the chiles.
Family secret: you can also add some chile pasilla to the chicken to add more flavor!
How do you know when you are done kneading and mixing? When the masa no longer sticks to your fingers. Yes, it can take a while. Yes, I’ve been known to cheat and just add an extra spoonful of dry masa. Ok, maybe two. It’s ok.
Once the masa is no longer sticking to your fingers you can stop and let it sit a bit.
The Tamale Assembly
You have delicious chicken ready, a flavorful masa you made from scratch (congratulations!), and you’re now ready for the fun part: the tamale assembly line.
There are two ways to assemble tamales (ok, more than that, but only two respectable ways): the assembly line or the individual tamale maker way. Both ways are pretty self-explanatory: the assembly line means that each person gets a job assignment (i.e. add chicken, add carrot, etc) and the individual maker is for those who want to create the perfect tamale all by themselves.
If you are starving at this point I highly recommend the assembly line- it really does go much faster. If, however, you are having a blast with family and friends, the individual tamale maker approach is a lot of fun.
What you need:
What goes into a tamale?
It’s a matter of deep discussion in homes across Mexico, this whole “what goes into a tamale?” question. Purists are distraught to learn that some enterprising citizens are now making chocolate tamales or seafood tamales. Abuelitas (grandmothers) always have family recipes that have been passed down from one generation to another- and good luck getting them to agree that tamales can be made in any way other than theirs. For my family, tamales are made with chicken, meat, rajas, or pineapple.
For our purposes today, we are making chicken tamales. The interesting thing is that the debate does not end with the meat product. Some people, I have found, do not bother putting potatoes or carrots or even olives into their tamales. Personally, I find it, well, wrong. What’s a tamale without all the trimmings? Why would you eat chicken and masa with nothing else??
I don’t understand, but some people do it. You will not be one of those people. You will use delicious potatoes, carrots, and olives to accompany the chicken in your homemade, traditional tamales.
Step by Step Instructions on How to Assemble a Great Tamale
First, take your meat, masa, carrots, potatoes, olives, and corn husks (out of the water and in a plate now) and place them all near each other in your working area. You should have everything within arms reach.
Next, set the kids, friends, and family all around the table to take part in this fun tradition.
- take a corn husk (if it is small, make it bigger by using two next to each other but overlapping a bit)
- spread some masa on the corn husk- think of the size of a corn tortilla.
- put some chicken on the masa- spread from top to bottom (don’t use too much, the tamale needs to be able to close!)
- add some potatoes, carrots, and an olive or two
- now close the tamal as if you were rolling a burrito and fold the bottom part up about an inch
- place the finished tamal into the large pot or onto a plate until you are ready to place all the tamales into the pot
- repeat steps 1-7 until you run out of ingredients
Once you assemble all of the tamales you will place them into a large steamer pot, fill it up with about an inch or two of water (depending on the size of your pot), close the lid, and turn the heat on medium for an hour (an hour and fifteen minutes if the tamales are bunched together). Always have the open part of the tamales facing up!
Ready to Enjoy Traditional, Homemade Chicken Tamales?
60-90 minutes later, take out one tamal, open it up completely, and check that the masa is fully cooked. It will be soft and warm but should not be raw and gooey. If not completely done, just let the tamales steam for another 15 minutes and check again.
Voila! Homemade, delicious, traditional Mexican chicken tamales. Provecho!
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