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September 15, 2010 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I want to make tamales. From scratch. Including and especially the masa. My understanding is that NY Mexican food and tamales are not good because everyone uses bagged masa and apparently even the fancy restaurants use this. I want fresh masa and it seems that I can find everything I need online.

But I'm confused. If it is so easy to get the field corn, slaked lime, and grinder online, then why aren't more people doing this? So my questions are for any one who has done this whole process from scratch. Will this do the trick as far as getting that authentic taste? Am I missing something?

I fully intend to use lard and make my own sauces and understand that this can be a multi-day process. I'll be on my 2 week vacation (staycation) so this is the ideal time.

Any recipes and additional sources would be much appreciated. Also, if this works out, what else can I do with this magical masa?
posted by mokeydraws to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Like tortillas, or pate de choux, tamales are one of those foods that are deceptively difficult to make- it has only a few ingredients, but technique and experience mean as much as the quality of ingredients. Consider this your first foray into enchilada making, rather than the ultimate tamalada. Also, since it's such a big task, it's best to make tamales with friends. A good tamalada is a party-- offer lots of beer and gossip!
posted by pickypicky at 6:17 PM on September 15, 2010

Whoops, I left a typo in there- I know that you are not making enchiladas. In exchange for my error, I offer a pro tip: the lard must be whipped until it is so light that it floats on top of water. My grandfather insists on this, and won't let anyone else mix the masa because he likes it just so.
posted by pickypicky at 6:20 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Making masa yourself is time consuming and that's why most home chefs don't do it.

As for restaurants, I don't know about everyone using bagged masa in NY, but I know that in Chicago, you can get fresh-made masa (or prepared masa) at several of the tortillerias (tortilla factories). I would be shocked to learn that everyone in NY, even at fancier places, isn't doing the same. Because the thing is that it's not that bagged masa inherently tastes bad because it's bagged, it's that it's more likely to be OLD. And when making tamales (or corn tortillas) you want your masa to be as fresh as possible.

But you can certainly make your own, especially if you have a lot of time and really want to do it authentically. So to that end...

While I think a lot of good online sources have perfectly serviceable tamale recipes, my favorite is from a book called Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert by Melissa Guerra. (That book is also where I learned about the difference between fresh and bagged masa. Unfortunately it's in storage right now or my response above would be more detailed.) I believe she also has instructions for making your own masa, but I could be wrong about that. (I've never done it.)

Of course, the best way to learn how to make awesome tamales is to spend a week in a kitchen with someone's abuelita.
posted by devinemissk at 6:21 PM on September 15, 2010

Because the grinding is a total bitch. I know some people in the online world who have done this and the ones who are serious have ended up importing grinders from Mexico at considerable expense. The food processor really doesn't do a great job and texture is so key to the final product.
posted by JPD at 6:23 PM on September 15, 2010

Davidmsk- there are only two places in the five boroughs who grind their own masa everyone else uses masa harina
posted by JPD at 6:25 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that NY Mexican food and tamales are not good because everyone uses bagged masa

my mexican friends all say the main reason nyc mexican isn't good is that most mexicans here are from puebla and puebla food just isn't that great! masa is pretty time intensive to make, which is why most restaurants don't bother. you can buy fresh masa or tortillas made with fresh masa at tortillería nixtamal in corona, queens.
posted by lia at 6:30 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, JPD, that's crazy.

If you can't get prepared masa locally, try making it it yourself. But also consider using Maseca along with your own rendered lard, for instance, to help with flavor.
posted by devinemissk at 6:33 PM on September 15, 2010

Here is a great lecture by food historian Rachel Laudan about why more people don't do this these days. Like everyone said, the answer is: it's a ridiculous amount of work.

Depending on how good you are, it takes somewhere between fifty minutes and an hour to do enough maize for tortillas for one person. That means for a family of five someone is going to be spending four or five hours a day doing nothing but grind.
It is a very, very time-consuming thing. It’s terrible for the individual: arthritis, bad knees, no time to spend with the children, and no opportunity to go to school. It’s also, obviously, not a great thing for the society if you’ve got one fifth of your adults doing nothing but grinding.

posted by neroli at 6:33 PM on September 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

People don't do it for the exact same reason that they generally don't grind their own meat for burgers. All the ingredients are ready for you in the store, grinders are available everywhere... it's just easier. My mom tried this once, and after that we stuck to Maseca. We stuck with grinding our own flour for bread by hand longer. Heck, in some states we had to go out of our way for the stuff (and my grandmother had tortillas shipped to her across country when they lived in rural-ish KY in the 1960s; she complained bitterly for years afterward.)

Wikipedia teaches that you can make drinks with your masa.
posted by SMPA at 6:35 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: My wife and I (with her family's help) have made tamales from scratch once a year for the last 8 years. It is a giant pain in the ass. I assist my wife in this as she feels she is the last member of her family who will do it, and I support her. She's Mexican American and I'm not. But this is all beside the point.

We get the masa harina fresh ground from a tortilleria in Chicago. What we get is fresh ground field corn with nothing else. It's coarse, damp, heavy and cheap. Buy more than you think you will need, because it's chep and you are better off running out of filling (meat) than you are running out of masa dough (batter).

We have made tamales with lard. We have made tamales without lard, using vegetable oil. We have made tamales using just the broth from the dried peppers and the meat. When I say we've made tamales I mean we've made up to 30 dozen, with relatives helping in the assembly.

Here's my thoughts on tamale making after several years:

• don't use the pre-mixed masa with lard that comes in a plastic tub. It will turn out heavy, and it's more expensive. Also it's too smooth and greasy and generally sucks.

• Lard vs. no lard doesn't make a huge difference. In fact, I'd say it makes next to no difference. This is heresy to some, but seriously, I can't tell much of a difference. We even used whipped Crisco one year as a test. Seriously, I don't think it makes much difference in the end. Yo soy un gringo, pero mi esposa agrees with me.

• The most important part of good tamale making is making a good filling. Period. Read the last two sentences over again a few times. You are aiming for a heavily seasoned stew, whether you're using chicken, pork or beef. Over-season the filling to taste, because it will combine with the very bland masa when you eat it. Make it saltier and spicier than you think it should be. My personal favorite tamales are filled with jack cheese and sauteed poblano and jalapeno peppers.

• The second part is to follow the rule above. I am not shitting you.

• The third part is to use a big tamale pot with a large reservoir of water at the bottom. We've had to steam some of our batches for nearly 2 hours, depending on the gigantic amounts of tamales we were making. If the water at the bottom evaporates, there will be a burning sludge that will fill your home with a disgusting smell. Avoid this by buying and using a good tamale pot which you add water to once in a while. In a Mexican store, this will set you back a whopping $30. We put a chimney of aluminum foil in it to make adding water easier. Add the tamales in a layer aligned vertically, so they're all sitting like (IIIIIIIIIIIII), then put a layer of foil, pierce it a bunch and repeat the vertically stacked layer of tamales.

Again, I've made seriously huge loads of tamales, and the important parts are listed above. Good luck, and man oh man do I wish I never have to make another tamale ever again in my life.

They freeze really well in ziplock bags. Heat in the microwave with a sprinkling of water.

The second year you make them they will be better, no matter how awesome you are or who's advice you follow. I keep alluding to making them per year. This is because: Tamales in my wife's family are associated with the Christmas/New Years holidays. And once you make a batch, you won't want to make another for a year.

Oh man I just realized... buy a ton of corn husks (elotes). Buy more than you think you will need, again, because they are really cheap and also, you will throw many of them away because they're too small. Buy lots and lots and lots because you don't want to have to go back to the store at 9pm to get more 30-cent bags of corn husks....

Good luck to you.

posted by jeff-o-matic at 6:57 PM on September 15, 2010 [164 favorites]

coincidentally I was wondering why the hell I couldn't *get* tamales from my local burrito truck - I mean, hell - they're just like Puerto Rican pasteles, except with different wrappers and fillings - but same concept, right?

But just like, pasteles, it seems, they're a howling pain in the ass. Sigh.

LMK if you get that going. I can totally help you with quality assurance.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:57 PM on September 15, 2010

Best answer: I feel I should finish this up... Sorry if this is TMI:

First night we make the fillings, like I said, heavily seasoned stews. Heavily seasoned. Heavily. This also involves taking dried chile peppers (ancho and anaheim) and steeping them in boiling water. Once they have steeped for a few minutes, the peppers and water are put in a blender and pureed. Then the contents of the blender are poured, smushed through a sieve. This is a huge mess and is very time consuming. I wish I never, ever had to do this ever again. But I'm a good sport! This is seasoned with salt. Some of this mash is added to the meat.

That takes all night, then is cooled in big tupperware. Later when cooled, it's shredded by hand.

The next early afternoon- do it early because you will be up all night f**king around with all this! , my wife takes a Kitchenaid mixmaster and starts blending the masa with some salt and ( maybe some lard, more likely the vegetable oil and some of the meat broth). The goal is to make a bland but somewhat seasoned batter that is smooth and sort of spreadable.... a little softer than toothpaste.

Batch after batch of this is made. In the meantime, the husks (elotes) are soaked in the kitchen sink and cleaned of the silk. We put a big disposable plastic tablecloth on the table and then start putting the husks out, hand spreading each one with a spoonful of batter, then a spoonful of filling. Then you sort of fold it. Do not think of rolling it. Fold it over, then fold it up from the bottom to seal the bottom, then fold over the other side. Do this one million times. Then repeat.

You want them wet, but not drippy. Spoon-spreadable is the key.

If you have questions, send me an email or just reply. Again good luck and I hope for your sake you never have to do this again.

(I am actually head over heels crazy about doing all this and have found that tamale making is essential to my holiday season now. I will be making these damn things for the rest of my damn life, and damn well enjoying it)
posted by jeff-o-matic at 7:13 PM on September 15, 2010 [32 favorites]

Also, all your clothes will have ancho pepper stains (ancho is the key pepper to use, BTW) and your house/apartment will stink of tamales for days. Ask yourself: is it worth it?
posted by jeff-o-matic at 7:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

This guy uses masa harina (and he skips over a few steps), so maybe it's crap.
He's the season 6 Bravo Top Chef, and the magic of editing makes him seem rocket fast; a lot easier than it really is.

But he's fascinating to watch prepare-- and explain how to prepare-- food.
posted by at the crossroads at 7:33 PM on September 15, 2010

If you would like my tamale recipe, here it is, along with a link on that page to a pictorial of our tamale making process.

These days, we render our own lard and it makes a lot of difference in the flavor.
posted by Addlepated at 8:24 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nobody that I know actually grinds their own corn. Do you really want to buy a metate? Buy masa from a molino, and if you must use masa harina, make sure that it's been ground for tamales, not tortillas (which is a finer grind).
Season your meat (generally pork shoulder) with garlic, salt, and ancho and pasilla peppers that have been boiled. Hang on to the boiling water, as you will need to add some to the masa, along with your lard, until a desired consistency is reached. Only add hot water. My family also adds chile to the masa.
The masa will be somewhat loose when you're ready to go. It should come up a bit on your finger tips when touched.
Hopefully, your husks have been soaked already. Use the back of a spoon to spread a thin even layer of masa on the husk (this is harder than it seems), then fill and roll. If you own a molcajete, you can put it at the base of your steaming pan, to help you stack without all your filling falling out.
Good luck!
posted by Gilbert at 9:58 PM on September 15, 2010

(I am actually head over heels crazy about doing all this and have found that tamale making is essential to my holiday season now. I will be making these damn things for the rest of my damn life, and damn well enjoying it)

I am so glad you wrote this, jeff-o-matic, because I also think tamales are essential to the holidays. I love me some tamales, but it's only at the holidays that I really have to have them -- and that's when I really miss mi tia who made them for us all for so many years. Thankfully, Chicago has some good tamales.

I admit I'm a little surprised that Chicago has better tamales than NY -- I always figure NY has everything that Chicago has plus a little more -- but I agree that it's not so much the masa that matters as the filling. With that, I guess I have an additional question for the OP:

What kind of tamales are you used to or hoping to create? Because where I come from (South Texas), tamales are basically pork (and sometimes beef) with ancho. I never had a cheese tamale until I moved to Chicago. I also have very specific feelings on the masa-to-filling ratio (about 2-to-1), how fat each tamale should be (not too fat), and how much grease should drip from your tamale (more than 1 drop but not more than a teaspoon worth). But since I've been in Chicago, I've seen a wide variety of tamales that, though they follow the same basic formula I'm used to (so, definitely in corn husks rather than banana leaves, that sort of thing), are distinctly different (pork with GREEN chiles? CHICKEN?).

Are you wanting to make good, old fashioned greasy, down home style tamales? Do you want to experiment with fillings? What is your hoped-for end result? That may play some part in how people answer.

(Oh, and to answer your very last question: you can make corn tortillas with masa, but you can also make champurrado, which is very good, but definitely a cold weather beverage. I'll again recommend Melissa Guerra's book -- she has a whole section in there what to make with masa.)
posted by devinemissk at 10:04 PM on September 15, 2010

If it is so easy to get the field corn, slaked lime, and grinder online, then why aren't more people doing this?"
Why don't more people make homemade cakes, pies, cookies, or any other number of goods, and instead we buy crappy Hostess or Little Debbie? Because it requires some work, and they prefer the convenience.

pickypicky is right about having a tamale party. When I lived in Oklahoma and Texas, that is what Mexicans there did.

Alton Brown had a whole episode on making tamales, including making the masa, with recipes. I made his Turkey tamale dough (the one with the masa, not the corn meal) and the pork filling (from the Hot Tamale recipe) and they were excellent. As good or better than the restaurants I have eaten. I did use store bought masa though.
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:47 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it is hillarious so many of you are comparing grinding nixtamlized corn to baking a cake from scratch or grinding meat.
posted by JPD at 7:18 AM on September 16, 2010

Response by poster: Devinemissk – I’ll be ordering that book. As for the kind of tamales I want to make – ideally the masa is light and fluffy. The first tamale I ever had was from a Peruvian place and was like a brick. The filling I’m going for is pork. I think the Trader Joe’s tamales are good. Costco had a really really tasty chicken tamale a while back. I’ve tried them from various street vendors and Mexican restaurants. Generally it seems like I can go somewhere and get a good tamale OR a good taco. Never both from the same place.

Lia – I went to tortilleria Nixtamal and was just underwhelmed. Had tacos and tamales and I was not moved. I may try them again during my time off.

Jeff-o-matic – Wow and thanks. I have been making Puerto Rican pastels with my family for years. We all bitch about it but secretly love it. I do anyway. I did it by myself at one point, just about 2 dozen though. While the processes seem similar the tamales are taking the lead in terms of time commitment.

Instead of using a metate I was considering using a grain grinder. My brand new blender blew out on me last night while I was blending a mangu in there. So if the cost of a grinder is too much then I will absolutely use the maseca.
posted by mokeydraws at 8:11 AM on September 16, 2010

Not to totally shill for Melissa Guerra, but her store also sells a corn grinder. It's likely you can find one cheaper locally, but this is basically what she recommends in the book. (I LURVE that book. I mean, really really lurve it. It's all the food from my childhood. She's also a really nice person -- my mom works at the bookstore next door to her store and had her sign my copy and said she is just a lovely lady.)
posted by devinemissk at 8:41 AM on September 16, 2010

I'm not a tamale expert, but here's a blog post that made me want to make them! She starts with masa harina, but I thought the pictorial might be useful to the OP & others.
posted by peep at 10:26 AM on September 17, 2010

I just came across this recipe for sopes that may help you use up some of the remaining masa.
posted by superquail at 11:10 AM on September 17, 2010

It's hard to get masa flour in Australia - does non-masa corn flour (e.g., fine polenta) work the same way?
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:43 PM on September 19, 2010

Joe -- no, it doesn't masa is nixmatalized (soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution), and corn that is not nixtamalized will not behave the same way.
posted by devinemissk at 6:06 PM on September 19, 2010

Joe in Australia: "It's hard to get masa flour in Australia - does non-masa corn flour (e.g., fine polenta) work the same way?"

the Alton Brown episode I linked to above does have a recipe (Hot Tamales) that uses corn meal instead of masa
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:53 AM on September 20, 2010

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