It’s Time to Make the Tamales!

Tamales are a Christmas Eve tradition in our house. Even more fun than eating the tamales is making the tamales. We have so few group projects these days like old-fashoned quilting bees. It’s time for family and friends to get together and bond over laughter, drinks, and wrapping tamales.

Call every Mexican restaurant/deli/store in your neighborhood and find one that sells the masa pre-prepared (masa preparada). Some may call it cheating, but it makes this process much more manageable. You just have to stir stock and red sauce into the masa and you’re ready. If you have to, buy masa flour near the wheat flour in the grocery store (directions are on the package).

You should make the meat and red sauce the day before wrapping. You will need to warm it up a little before wrapping to met the fat. If you make the meat the same day, make sure it had time to cool enough to touch.

On the day of the wrapping and steaming, you will need a big pot on the stove with a steamer basket and lid. Three pots going is best if you can get them, though you may not be able to fit them all on your stovetop. You will also need a kettle or additional pot to keep water boiling to fill steamers, as well as tongs for removing tamales.

Cover the table with a big vinyl picnic tablecloth. Put a bunch of big spoons and spatulas and some damp kitchen towels on the table. You will need A LOT of bowls for everyone to be able to reach the masa and filling, plus empty steamer baskets or bowls.

At least an hour before filling tamales, fill the sink with warm water. Pour in the dry cornhusks. Let them soak for a while. Pick a person who doesn’t mind grunt work and won’t holler if they see a smashed beetle. When husks are pliable, set this person to work separating the husks and removing the cornsilk and occasional small, dried beetle (I don’t see these as often as I used to). Take them out as needed, and wipe or let dry so masa won’t get runny on them. Some husks are too small for a tamale. You can just overlap them, or make strips with them to tie the other tamales with.

This seems much harder than it is. It will be simple as you do it, but I don’t want to forget any detail you may need. Be flexible with quantities, you may need more red sauce or meat or masa depending on how fat you make the tamales. Most of all, have fun! It’s always a great bonding experience. Your first tamales will be goofy and fall apart – just laugh. Some end up pencil thin or “pregnant” looking – that is the beauty of homemade. This is a “starter” recipe…we usually order 25 pounds of masa.

You can also fill the tamales with chicken, chile verde, pork shoulder, Jack cheese and green chiles, or even make sweet ones.

BEEF TAMALES (Thanks to my mom and the ladies at Our Lady of Guadalupe church)

5 pounds prepared masa

5 pounds boneless beef roast

1 Tablespoon salt

1 medium onion, chopped

Red Sauce (recipe below)

1/2 pound cleaned and soaked corn husks

Rub salt and garlic into the meat, place in roasting pan and top with sliced onions. Pour about 3 cups of water or beer in the bottom of the roasting pan. Roast, covered, at 300 degrees for 5 hours. Shred meat, reserving the stock. Add some red sauce and stir. Let cool a little.

Mix masa in an electric mixer with a little of the stock from the meat and some red sauce to give it flavor and get the proper consistency. As with anything, there is a certain “look” to masa when it is just right. You want it spreadable like frosting, but without any trickles of liquid coming out when it is spread.

Place bowls of meat and bowls of masa around the table for everyone.

To wrap a tamale: Lay out a cornhusk flat, long side perpendicular to you, wider part at top. With a rubber spatula, spread the masa about 1/4 inch thick, covering half of husk from the top down, a 1/2-inch or so away from the sides. Spread a heaping tablespoon of filling/beef down the center. Fold over the sides of the husk so the masa touches, completely encasing the meat. Fold bottom up. (Some people tie the bottom, but we don’t bother because we cram so many in there they don’t unravel).

Set tamales, folded bottom down (the top will clearly have masa showing…it will be obvious as you do it) in a steamer basket. Cover top of steamer basket with foil and set in pot. Pour about 4 cups boiling water into pot, being careful not to let water touch tamales. Place lid on pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer 2 hours until tamales are steamed (check every 20 minutes or so to add more hot water if needed). Serve with red sauce. After the tamales have cooled, freeze in storage bags, a dozen tamales per bag, until Xmas eve.


5 ounces California dried chiles

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 medium onion

1/4 cup oil

2 Tablespoons flour

Remove stems and seeds from chile pods. Rinse and then soak in 3 cups hot water for 1 hour. Drain, reserving water. Put chiles, spices and onion in a blender. Blend, adding water until the sauce is the consistency of gravy. In a saucepan, heat the oil. Add flour and stir until brown. Add red sauce from blender to pan and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Turkey Chile-Cheese Tamales

1 Turkey , roasted

2 pounds Jack cheese

3 cans whole green chiles

2 small cans chile verde

Shred turkey and put into bowls. Slice cheese into strips. Drain chiles and cut into strips. Pour chile verde into small bowls.

Each tamale should have a strip of cheese, a strip of chile, a few Tablespoons of turkey and a half teaspoon of salsa.

Roll and steam as usual.

You can substitute chicken, or just make chile-cheese

Elise Thompson

About Elise Thompson

Born and raised in the great city of Los Angeles, this food, culture and music-loving punk rock angeleno wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city. While Elise holds down the fort, her adventurous alter ego Kiki Maraschino is known to roam the country in search of catfish.
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