18 November 2014

Small Batch Tamales, First Round

We had our first tamale fest this weekend.  This round was to work on trying different styles of masa and to figure out if I have the right equipment.

I'm not really planning on using masa harina while I'm here so all of these start with fresh masa.  You can probably find fresh masa in Latino grocery stores in the US, or you can reconstitute some masa harina, or you can wait till I have no fresh masa and work out a good recipe using harina.

I was able to make 18 small tamales using a small collapsible steamer and a 4-quart 8-inch pot that's about 5-6 inches tall. But it was tricky, so I'm getting a taller pot that's slightly wider.  I wouldn't get one just for tamales, but I already needed one for homemade pasta (I can make pasta for 3 in a 4-quart pot, but we need something larger for the whole family) and I didn't want to get one just for that, but it's worth it now.

You could use a shorter, wider 6-quart or 8-quart pot, but there's no way I'm going to bother with wrapping and tying the tamales completely so I need them to stand up straight.  If you wrap and tie better than I do, you have more pot options.

I used simple fillings this time instead of making them (rajas with adobera, potatoes with chorizo, chicken and salsa verde, Mexican chocolate, and pecans).  There are so many options for tamale fillings.  That shouldn't be your biggest concern, although a bad filling can obviously ruin a tamale.

So, the masa.  Pork lard is what's traditionally used, but I'm just not a lard person.  Also, there is certainly no pork lard in Riyadh so I don't want to rely on that.  I tried butter, mashed potato, and coconut milk (for sweet tamales) instead.  You're supposed to whip it forever, but I don't have a mixer and there's no way I'm whipping by hand so I used my blender.  I never passed the float test but the masa worked for me.  I am obviously not a perfectionist though. You're looking for something like really thick cake batter.  Some people use an ice cream scoop to give you an idea of how thick they have it, but mine wasn't quite that thick and it worked.

The basic idea is to whip up your butter/potato/coconut milk/lard/whatever, then add the masa, enough broth/milk for the right consistency, and some salt and some baking powder if you like.  You spread that on cornhusks, add a filling, fold, and steam for an hour.  It took about 5-10 minutes to make the masa and another ten to make the tamales.  The steaming obviously takes a long time, but it's nice to have some time while they're cooking.

The potato version took longer to cook and was just a touch stickier, but the flavor was really good.  I used about 2/3 of a cooked potato with a little over a pound of masa, along with about 2/3 cup broth, 3/4 tsp salt, and a bit of baking powder.

For the butter, I used a little over a pound of masa, about 2/3 cup butter, and the broth, salt, and baking powder.

Sweet tamales can use the lard and broth which is yummy, but butter and milk are also used.  Since I'd already done butter, I wanted to try something else and thought of the coconut milk.  I used that in place of both the fat and liquid and it worked well.  I also added about 1/2 cup sugar to the masa for the sweet tamales and a little less salt.

I liked all three versions and would use them all again.

This is just the beginning of the tamale fest.  After I've done more testing, I'll do some recipes with photos too.  But I definitely think it's very possible to make a small batch of tamales for dinner without making it a huge production.


  1. Maybe your definition of a big production is more ambitious than mine, because this still sounded kind of complex to me. How long did dinner actually take you that night?

  2. I did these three different nights. It took 5 minutes to make the masa, then another 10 to fill and wrap them, then the steaming. If I'd had to make the fillings it would have taken longer obviously, but it was easily less than 30 minutes of active prep time and less than 2 hours from start to finish if the cornhusks are already soaked, and you can just dump them in water in the morning or the evening before. There's no way to cut down on the steaming time.