Wrapping Up Tamales

3rd Mar 2009


My wife has been bugging me for months now to make tamales , and it's always been the next project, the one I'll do after I finish whatever I'm doing at the moment.  When that time comes I've usually forgotten about them and have moved onto something else.  Truthfully, I didn't see much of a rush.  I love tamales, but I can indulge in them whenever I'd like around my neighborhood.  The possibilities are endless:  I can buy fairly decent ones by the pound at my local grocery store, or individually from their little taqueria.  If I want something a little more upscale I can visit the really delicious sister restaurant of Maize ( which I wrote about here ), aptly titled Tamalii (they are amazing).

Hell, I can just sit at any bar in my neighborhood, drink some beer, and soon enough vendors will swing by with their coolers stocked with homemade pork or chicken tamales ready to eat.  It's these ones that I love the most, and they get better the more drinks I've had.  Served with a little fresh salsa, they are hard to beat.

Of course, little things kept me interested.  Like the fact that I could buy bunches of corn husks at my local Mexican market.  And that I could get freshly made masa specifically designed for tamales so I wouldn't even have to use the Masa Harina, which might make mine a little uninspired.  Finally, after reading through Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican , I realized how utterly crucial corn was to the dish.  I know that sounds kind of evident, but hear me out.  I was wrapping corn husks around a flavorful corn mixture, and then steaming the whole thing in a basket completely lined with mounds of even more corn husks.  This wasn't just a dish, it was a celebration of corn.

I found this fascinating.  I grew up in a small town in Indiana completely surrounded by corn fields, and yet I can't think of a single dish that utilizes corn in such a dramatic way.  Why isn't this Midwestern delicacy?  For as much corn as the Midwest grows, I find it kind of remarkable that this dish isn't our main currency.  Was I missing out on something?


Part of the reason they aren't as ubiquitous throughout the Midwest, is that they aren't exactly easy to make.  Tamale masa is much different than the stuff used to make tortillas.  It's wetter, and a little chunkier.  Most surprisingly, while tortillas are cooked in a matter of seconds, these tamales needed to steam for about an hour and half before they were firm and ready to eat.

Then came the issue of the stuffing.  I wanted to go for the classic chicken with tomatillo sauce, a combination I fell in love with at the restaurant Tamalii.  To do this I had to poach a whole chicken and make a tomatillo sauce, which meant an extra hour or so of preparation before I could even think about wrapping the tamales up in corn husks.  This was an all afternoon event.

But like every Rick Bayless puts his name on, this recipe completely exceeded anything I could have imagined.  If you're used to dry, flavorless tamales that you need to dunk in salsa to get down, these are a revelation.  All I topped these with was a sprinkling of a salt, and let the filling do the rest.  The corn is sweet and succulent, the chicken gushing and tender, and the tomatillo sauce bright, spicy, and acidic.  And it's all wrapped up in a little personal container just for you.  I'm sold.

This version also has a lot of something I'd never thought of a tamale having before, and that's lard.  For some reason I just thought it was just masa rolled up in corn, with maybe a little filling.  But the lard helps, making the masa less a block of ground corn, and more of a full-flavored dough.  I don't know why I never thought of tamales like this.

These certainly aren't as easy as waiting around for the tamale vendors to run through the bar, but they ultimately more satisfying.  And if you make a huge batch like I did, you'll be able to freeze some and feast on them whenever you'd like.  You know, just in case you ever need a little snack after a few drinks.

Step 1: Prepping the Corn Husks


  • 8 ounces dried corn husks


Place the husks in a large pot.  Cover with water and bring to a boil.  Weigh the husks down with a plate or a bowl, or both, and reduce the heat to medium.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Then turn off the heat and let sit submerged in water for a couple of hours.

Step 2: Cooking the Chicken


  • 1 chicken, quartered and backbone removed
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 7 cups water

Pour the water into a large pot.  Plop in the chopped onion and the salt.  Bring to a boil.  First add the dark meat along with the oregano and bay leaves.  Turn the heat down to medium and cover.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Then add the white meat and cook for another 13 minutes.  Turn off the heat, remove the cover, and let the chicken cool in the liquid for an hour or two.  Bayless says this is really important.


Then remove the chicken pieces from the water, remove the skin and bones, and then shred the chicken with your fingers.

Step 3: Tomatillo Chile-Sauce


  • 1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and sliced in half.
  • 3 jalapenos, stemmed and seeded
  • handful of cilantro, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 tablespoon lard
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add as many of the halved tomatillos that will fit in a single layer.  It took me two rounds.  Cook for a few minutes on each side until it is soft and slightly blackened, about 5 minutes total.

Toss the tomatillos in a blender along with the jalapenos, cilantro, onion, and garlic.  Process until smooth.  This might take two batches as well.


Wash out the large skillet and then add the lard.  Turn the heat to medium-high.  When the pan is real hot dump in the contents of the blender.  It will splatter, but that's the point.  Stir constantly and cook for 5 minutes.  Then add the chicken stock and reduce the heat to medium.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Season with the salt.  Set aside and let cool.

Step 4: Constructing the Tamales


  • 8 ounces lard
  • 2 pounds fresh masa for tamales
  • 1 1/3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • salt
  • shredded chicken
  • 1 cup of the tomatillo sauce

This recipe makes about 32 tamales


Dump the lard into the bowl of a Kitchen Aid.  Using the paddle attachment, beat the lard for a minute until it is light.  Add half of the masa, a tablespoon or so at a time.  When incorporated, add 1/3 cup of the broth.  Then alternate between adding the rest of the masa and the rest of the stock.  When both are in the bowl, add the baking soda and a big pinch of salt.

Mix together the shredded chicken and 1 cup of the tomatillo sauce.

Remove the corn husks from the water.  Sort through them, saving the larger ones for the tamales.  An ideal one would be about 6 inches wide and 6 inches long.


Take a few of smaller ones and tear them in to 1/4 inch strips.  These are to tie the tamales.  Make sure you have enough strips for the 32 tamales.


It's time to start.  Place a large corn husk on cutting board.


Scoop about 3 tablespoons of the masa and place it in the middle of the corn husk, about 1/2 inch from the top.  You want to leave about an inch and half at the bottom.


Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the chicken mixture right on top of the masa.


Grab the two sides of the corn husk and bring them up to the middle.  Don't make the package too compact, it will expand a little during cooking.  But you want the package to close, and they will probably overlap.

Fold the empty bottom of the tamale up to about the middle.  Tie the bottom up with one of the strips.  I found this the hardest part.  The top is empty, so if you squeeze too hard the contents will spew out the top.  The strips will also occasionally break.  I finally got the hang of it when I realized I didn't need be so aggressive.  The knot doesn't have to be as strong as a shoelace.  Repeat with all 34.  It'd probably be best to have some help for this.


Line a steaming basket with extra corn husks.  Fill the pot with enough water to almost come up to bottom of the steamer basket.  Bring to a boil.


Add the tamales and then cover with more corn husks.  It's all about the corn.  I could, once again, only fit about half of mine.  That's fine.  I stashed the other ones in the fridge and then steamed them the next day.


Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for about an hour and half.  Check the water level occasionally.  If you have a smaller pot the water might boil off.  Add more boiling water if this is the case.


Remove the tamales, unwrap, and eat.  They might need a little salt, or even a little of the extra tomatillo sauce.


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