December 2021

Toad Tamales

Bahia Asuncion, BCS, Mexico, December, 2021

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish made with a corn based dough mixture and filled with meats or beans and cheese. After making them a few times you will appreciate the street vendors that sell them for 25-30 pesos each. (~$1.75)

Making tamales is an involved process, easier with someone to help with the wrapping and tying. Prep and cooking is extensive, so planning ahead is important to get them done on time. This recipe makes about 16 tamales (cooked standing on-end), or 12 bigger ones cooked lying on their side. We’ll usually cut the recipe in half for the two of us, and have left-over tamales for the next day. For a party of 4-6, it’s about right.

There are two main elements; the “Masa” dough, and the filling. The dough is spread on a softened corn husk and the filling is spooned onto the dough and rolled up inside the corn husk like a little burrito. The corn husks hold the dough and filling together when steamed. Tamales are served wrapped in the husks, with a common bowl for the discarded wrappers.

Recipe for “Masa” Tamale Dough:

  • 4 cups Harina de Masa (NOTE: You want Corn Flour, not corn meal.)
  • 3 cups broth (beef, chicken, or vegetable broth)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 1/3 cups lard. Lard is used in authentic Mexican tamales, although shortening works as a substitute. Vegan alternatives are available.

How to Make the Tamales: (Steps 1 & 2 can be done ahead of time.)

1. Masa dough: In a large steep-sided bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the lard and 2 tablespoons of broth until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. (Bowls with slanted sides allow the lard to be thrown around the galley by the mixer.) Combine the masa flour, baking powder, salt, and cumin separately in a different bowl, Stir the corn flour mixture into the lard mixture and beat well with an electric mixer. Then add the remaining broth, little by little while mixing to form soft dough. Beat on high speed for several minutes. The dough should spread like peanut butter and be slightly sticky. Cover the bowl with a damp paper towel to keep it from drying out.

2. Tamale Filling: You’ll need about 3 ½-4 cups of filling for a batch of tamale dough. We generally use left-over carne asada, chicken (deboned), or pork. Chop the meat finely and add Magic Mexican Red Sauce (another Hoptoad recipe) with sautéed onions, carrots, celery, or whatever vegetable is about to go-off. Add just enough red sauce for color and taste, but don’t let the filling get too runny. Nopales (peeled prickly pear cactus) are a tasty option for vegan/vegetarians.

3. You’ll need a package of dried corn husks. They are called “Hojas” (O-Has) if you are shopping in Mexico. Soak the corn husks in a bowl of hot water for 20 - 30 minutes until softened.

4. Assemble the tamales: Lay a corn husk, shiny side up, on the counter with the wide end at the top. Scoop about ¼ cup of dough onto the top in the center of the corn husk. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and use your hands or rolling pin to press and spread the masa into a layer about ¼ inch thick. Spread the dough on the top half of the corn husk, allowing room to fold the bottom of the husk up before cooking. (Remove the plastic wrap for the next tamale-doh!)

Place 1-2 tablespoons of tamale filling in a line down the center of the dough. Fold one long side of the husk over the filling. Then roll up the other side, overlapping the first. Fold back the upper husk so the masa just touches the first side of dough - this makes a solid tamale when unwrapped. Finish rolling the husks together and fold the bottom of the husk up. Tie it with a long strip from one of the soaked corn husks to hold it all together. Tying the tamales with different materials helps you differentiate them if making more than one filling. (i.e.: vegan/non-vegan)

If you want larger tamales, place two corn husks overlapping by a few inches at the top, then spread the masa dough in the middle. Press the dough into a flat square in the middle of the husks then add filling. Roll the husk (long sides) over like a burrito, again folding back one side of the husks so the masa dough just meets the other, then finish rolling them together. Fold both ends to the middle and tie. This approach makes fewer, but larger tamales. Steam these lying on their sides, rather than stacked on-end.

Cooking the Tamales: Cook on a stove-top steamer or Instant Pot/pressure cooker:

Add water to the bottom of your stove-top steamer or Instant Pot/pressure cooker. (Don’t fill water above the steamer rack.) Place tamales standing upright with the open end up. Pack them just tightly enough to keep them all standing. (Sometimes I’ll trim the tops of the corn husks so they fit in our steamer.) If you made the larger double-ended tamales, stack them loosely on their sides.

For steamer cooking, bring water to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and steam for 1 1/2 hours. Check often and add more water to steamer, when necessary. If using an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, cook on Manual/High Pressure for 25 minutes. Allow the pressure to naturally release for 10 minutes, and then do a quick release.

Let the tamales rest for 15 minutes (the Masa dough will firm as it cools) before serving. They can also be frozen and reheated in the oven if you want them for later.