You Little Tamalera You

Let's face it, cooking tamales is hard laborious work, but the rewards for mastering the el arte del tamal are great: first, you have made lots of people really but really happy. Second, you have now joined the legions of women who throughout many generations have earned the right to be called tamaleras extraordinarias. If that isn't something to be proud of, then I don't know what is.

Whole books have been written on the subject, so it is impossible to cover the world of tamales in just one blog post. However, you can rely on one unalterable truth: a tamal, no matter how lovingly prepared or delicious the filling and sauce, is only as good as its masa.

The best masa for use in tamales is unprepared masa, which is moist ground corn with no broth, salt or lard. It must smell and taste fresh. Pass up any masa that tastes even a little sour—it is stale or worse. Unless you know and trust the establishment you are buying the masa from, do not buy prepared masa (masa preparada)—the masa that comes already prepared with broth and lard. It is much better to use a little elbow grease and mix in these ingredients yourself. Or, you can do as I do: I sometimes haul my lazy carcass over to my favorite Mexican restaurant that serves tamales and ask them to prepare the masa for me. Perhaps your favorite Mexican restaurant just might be very happy to oblige.

I am also including a masa recipe made from instant corn flour (masa harina) that's especially made for making tamales: perfect for those of you who do not have a Mexican market or deli close by. While using unprepared masa is ideal, there are cooks who like this masa, like my friend Cynthia, who is one good cook. It is available at your local Mexican market, some major supermarkets or online.

For those of you who have never made tamales, I think that Chile-Cheese Tamales are a good place to start. Once you master handling the masa and spreading it on the cornhusks, you can now substitute all kinds of fillings and sauces to create your favorite tamales, from pork to beef to chicken, even fish and seafood.
No, I do not promise that this will be a concise little recipe with no left over masa or chiles, etc. Nor can I tell you exactly how many tamales we made. Suffice to say that the tamales were history before I remembered to count them all. It was enough to feed about 6 adults with some to take home to eat later. But I can promise that you will have a great time making and eating them, you little tamalera extraordinaria you.
Chile-Cheese-Potato Tamales
Tamales de rajas de chile con queso y papas Make a batch of these along with all those pork and beef tamales. One of my hands-down favorite tamales for sheer sabrosidad! If you have a little viejita laying around, forget about my directions and drag her away from her telenovelas and make her teach you how to make tamales! Muchas gracias to mi amiga Amada D. for her inspiring me to write this chile-cheese filling recipe.

What you need for the perfect tamalada:
1 or 2 large, tall cooking pots with lids
a steamer basket, or improvise with a smaller lid as I did below
a very large mixing bowl
a heavy duty electric mixer; or, a pair of big strong macho arms to beat the masa
a pair of tongs
aluminum foil
gallon size plastic storage bags to store tamales to take home and freeze
damp kitchen towel
large platter or bowl
a bunch of friends and family to laugh with, complain to, or fight with as you make the tamales (essential)
Vicente Fernández or Pepé Aguilar playing really loud to get you in the mood (important)
margaritas for everyone (unnecessary, but nice)
INGREDIENTS:For Chile-Cheese Filling and Red Chile Sauce Recipe:2 pounds fresh Poblano chiles, roasted. (Click here to learn how to roast fresh chiles.)
2 pounds fresh Anahiem chiles, roasted. Heck, throw in some Jalapeños if you want!
2 32 oz. packages of Asadero cheese. A good quality Jack cheese is a good substitute.
Red Chile Sauce Recipe
(click here)
About 4 or 5 cooked medium sized golden potatoes, cut into bite sized chunks
Other ingredients:2 prepackaged bags of dried corn husks (available at your local Mexican market, some supermarkets or online).
Recipe for Unprepared Masa for Tamales
(click here)
Recipe for Instant Masa for Tamales
(click here)


Carefully check all of the recipes and make a thorough list of all the ingredients before you go the market. Nothing wastes more time than having to go back to buy something you forgot.

Preparing the filling:Roast all of the chiles. Remove the stems and seeds and cut the chiles into rajas, or strips. Place the chiles in a plastic bag and refrigerate for later.
Cut the cheese into strips, not too fat or too skinny. Place the cheese strips in a plastic bag and refrigerate.

Make the Chile Sauce. Set aside to cool off and refrigerate.
Day 2:Preparing the corn husks and the masa for tamales:
Scour your kitchen sink and rinse thoroughly it with hot water. Take the corn husks and remove all the corn silk from the corn husks. Put them in the sink and cover them with very hot tap water for at least 30 minutes. If you wish, you can add a little chile sauce to the water to tint them slightly. Then, take them out, shake and dry them a bit and set aside.
In the meantime, prepare the recipe for Unprepared Masa OR the Instant Masa. Remember: in order to bring the masa to life, you must first beat it almost to death. This is essential if you want a light tasting tamal that practically floats in the air rather than one that crash-lands in the pit of your stomach. The masa must be FLUFFY, AND I MEAN FLUFFY. You can find yourself beating the masa by hand for almost an hour, or you can use a heavy duty mixer to accomplish this feat. I know that many cooks say that you have to do the "A-Tiny-Bit-of-Masa-Floating-In-a-Glass-of-Water-Test" to determine whether the masa is ready or not, but my mother-in-law never did, and her tamales tasted great. But if you want to do the float test, feel free. As soon as a tiny bit of masa floats in a glass of water, STOP.

Making the Tamales:
To make a medium to large tamal, take one or two corn husks and spread a medium-large spoonful of masa on the smooth side of the corn husk. Try not to coat it too thick. Be gentle as you spread the masa on the corn husks. As my friend Ester D. says, "Respect la masa!"
Spread a generous amount of warm chile sauce on the masa and place a strip of cheese and some strips of roasted chiles and a few potato chunks. Don't be stingy. Nobody likes a tamal that is all masa with hardly any sauce or filling.
Fold the top part of the corn husk downward as shown in the picture below.

Take the right or left edge of the tamal and fold over as shown.
Take the other edge and wrap it tightly over the other side as shown. Make sure it is nice and snug. Place a steamer basket inside la tamalera (tamal cooking pot). Or, you can improvise as I did by placing a cooking pot lid on top of some scrunched up balls of heavy duty aluminum foil. A punctured upside down pie pan works, too. Line the bottom of the pot with unused corn husks (Oops! I forgot to do that!). To load the pot, carefully stand each tamal along the edge of the pot as shown. Make sure that the seamside of each tamal is facing the edge of the pot. It helps keep the tamal from opening up during cooking.

Continue putting the tamales in a circular motion along the bottom of the pot. Then go on to the next layer. Ideally you should have a hole in the middle so you can easily add water or broth if necessary. Do not overload or overly stuff the pot! Use two pots if you have to. Otherwise, the tamales may not steam evenly, and nobody likes an overly dry or soggy tamal coming out the same pot no less. ¡Carajos!
Using a ladle or kettle, pour boiling water or broth into the pot. Be careful not to put in too much water. The water should not touch the tamales.
Place some leftover corn husks over the tamales (optional). Then place a damp kitchen towel over the tamales. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid.

Bring the heat up to high, and lower the heat to a medium or medium-low when you hear the water boiling. Continue steaming the tamales until they are done. This may take anywhere from 1 to 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size and the amount of tamales in each pot. Just as you can't hurry love, you can't hurry a tamal to finish cooking when you want it to or it will repay you in kind. So enjoy yourself. Have your friends help you clean up your kitchen disaster. Play cards, or read a good book if you want, but just wait.
Check the tamales after one hour. Using a pair of tongs or your fire-proof macha fingers, remove a tamal and gently press on the fattest part. If it feels firm to the touch, gently peel back the cornhusk. If the masa doesn't stick, then it is done. If the tamal feels soft or mushy to the touch, it is simply not done cooking yet. Check again after 30 minutes to one hour.

This is also a good time to check if the tamales need more water. If it does, pour some more boiling water in the center of the pot. If at any time you smell the aroma of burning masa then you know that you need to add some water right away! (Tip: A friend of mine suggests putting a coin at the bottom of the pot. When the water level is too low, the coin will rattle and make noise.)

Then at looooong last, the tamales will be done. Use tongs to remove them from the pot and place them on a large platter. Cover them with aluminum foil and let them sit for about 5 minutes. Just before serving, carefully open the corn husk and pour some chile sauce on top if you wish. Please inform your non-tamal eating friends that you are not supposed to eat the husk!
To reheat the tamales, do this: put the tamales in a plastic storage bag, add one of two tablespoons of water, seal the bag and reheat them in the microwave for a few minutes or until done. If you are reheating just one or two tamales, wrap a wet paper towel around each tamal and reheat in the microwave for a minute or two.


Anonymous said...

Currently craving tamales!

Gloria said...

Oh yeah! I love tamales. I do make my own masa and add my own lard, etc. I love to make chili/cheese tamales. Now I am hungry for tamales but I just don't have the time this week to do it. Hopefully next week. I want one. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Excellent step by step on how to make tamales, very yummy!

julie said...

OK, that's it! I have been wanting to try to make tamales for a long time and now it's time! Thanks!

Clementina said...

Hola, Julie!
Enjoy the tamalada with your friends, and don't forget the margaritas!

Ruby said...

delish!!! i wish mine would come out i always do something wrong so now i just put in my order with my dad lol he makes the best in the family!!!

Clementina said...

Hola, Ruby
There is only one solution to your tamales problem. Copy exactly every your dad does, and make a vidieo of him making them. Consider it a gift to yourself and future generations.

Judy King said...

Actually a bit of Pedro Fernandez couldn't hurt for tamale mood music. What a wonderful post this is on a really wonderful blog. I've been asked to pass on a sweet little blogging award to seven bloggers. You are in my short list!

Read all about it at

The only negative I can see about your blog is that you don't post often enough! We want more!!

Clementina said...

Hola, Ms. King!
I am very flattered that you awarded me with a Kreative Blogger Award--muchisimas gracias!
So you live in Lake Chapala--wow! My tia lives in Guadalajara. I plan on visiting her sometime this year, and visiting Lake Chapala is on the top of my list.
Perhaps I should blog more often than once a month. Like many others, I get so busy with daily activites, that before I know it, a month has almost gone by. Then I better start cooking and writing something that I hope will not only be entertaining, but informative. I prefer to think of each post as a monthly letter to friends.

elizabethrosasjewelry said...

wonderful! Can't wait for more.

Lorena said...

Love the post, I'll have to try the chili/cheese. Something to remind people of- we made a whole batch of tamales once and didn't realize that the lard had turned until we were all done, so make sure that your ingredients are all good and fresh before your long arduous undertaking. You wouldn't want to go through all that work only to throw them out later. Do you have a favorite tomatillo? I'm starting seeds now, purple and green ones, the purple are just too pretty.

Clementina said...

Hola, Elizabeth!
Nice to hear from you again!

Hola, Lorena!
You are absolutely right. Everything in the tamal must be fresh or you are in a bad experience and a terrible waste of time.

Take Care!

Anonymous said...

Hi, and thanks for posting this recipe.
I need some help with the recipe for using the recipe for using instant masa for tamales. The link DID NOT work.
Thanks for any help you might be able to provide.
I'll check back later.


Clementina said...

Hola, Anonymous!
I checked the link and it worked just fine. However, I copied and pasted the reciped right here just for you.

Instant Corn Flour Masa Recipe for Tamales

If you are making savory tamales, skip flavorless white lard, and head straight to your neighborhood Mexican delicatessen and ask for their “manteca de carnitas”—that great tasting pork carnitas flavored lard. Bacon grease tastes great, too.


6 cups masa harina flour for tamales (Maseca brand)

up to ½ cup chile Red Chile Sauce for savory tamales (click here). Optional.

2 cups lard

Up to 1 ½ tablespoons salt.

2 teaspoons baking powder

warm chicken, pork or beef broth or water—just follow the guidelines. Let your sense of touch and sight tell you how much is enough.

Using an electric mixer, beat the lard until it is fluffy and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, use your hands to fold together the lard and the masa harina until well blended. Add 2 teaspoons baking powder, the Red Chiles Sauce and gradually add the broth or water at about ½ cup at a time until the masa has the consistency of thick butter cream frosting. Taste the masa, and add up to 1 ½ tablespoons of salt or to taste. Transfer to a heavy duty mixer and blend at high speed until the masa is light and airy. Or, use a pair of strong macho hands to do this chore for you. When it does reach that stage, STOP.