Tamales are little pouches of stuffed corn dough wrapped in either corn husks or banana leaves, and cooked by steaming. In Mexico they are one of our traditional Christmas foods and I’d like to share a vegetarian version that I love to make. Please read the full instruction and watch the video to see how these tamales are made!
Tamales (for plural and tamal in singular form) are made in so many variations, with their fillings ranging from the meat or vegetable ingredients to the different colour and flavours of the sauces used. If the savoury choices aren’t enough, there’s also a huge selection of sweet flavoured tamales.
Yet another variation is found in the individual family or Mexican region that is preparing the tamal. For example in the Yucatan Peninsula the traditional tamales made by the Maya favoured banana leaves instead of the corn husks that are more commonly used in other regions of Mexico. Both the corn husk and banana leaf versions are delicious and each give the tamales a unique look and touch of scent and flavour.
My family makes tamales every year for Christmas, and after getting married (and once I learned to cook) I continued the tradition in our home. Of course now instead of using chicken or beef for the filling, my tamales are either vegetarian or fully vegan versions. But let me tell you these meatless ones are just as delicious, if not more so than the meat filled ones.
I know many people hear tamales and feel too intimidated by the labour involved in making them. I used to feel that way too, but there are many ways to try to make it go smoother and faster. One such way is making smaller batches, like this one with can make up to 2 dozen tamales — which is still a lot, but not undoable.
You can also break up the process into two days, which is what I like to do, so that way on the first day the fillings and sometimes even the masa are made, and on the second day all there’s to do is assemble and steam the tamales. If you want to take it a step further you can always volunteer your family or invite friends over to help make tamales.
Once you make tamales for the first time you’ll see that it really isn’t such a big deal. Also after you assemble a few you’ll get the hand of it and find the way that works best for the size of your hands and for speeding up the preparation.
Also don’t stress it if the first few don’t look as “pretty”, it doesn’t matter because you’ll see that they still taste AMAZING!
Okay amigos, here’s the detailed recipe and video guide — please read through the whole recipe and watch the entire video before you begging the process.
- 276 grams or 9.745 oz of white onion, cut in half then thingy sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly minced
- 1 kilo or 2.2 lbs green jalapeño peppers, sliced into slivers
- 368 grams or 12.95 oz of roma tomatoes, chopped
- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil or oil of choice
- fine sea salt to taste (I added about 1.5 teaspoons)
- 300 grams or 10.5 oz of chihuahua cheese, cut into small pieces
- 500 grams or 1.1 lbs of corn masa harina (I use the tamale specific flour by Maseca brand)
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 1.5 teaspoons of fine sea salt, to start
- 150 grams or 5.25 oz of vegetable shortening (non-hydrogenated)
- 600 ml to 700 ml OR 20 to 23 ounces of vegetable broth**(add a pinch of ground turmeric for colour, if desired)
- I highly suggest either getting started early in the morning or preferably the day before. This way you can save yourself sometime and the extra long day in the kitchen. So, on the first day prepare the jalapeño stuffing. You can completely remove the seeds and membranes of the jalapeños for a milder version — if your peppers have striations you may want to consider removing some of the membranes/veins to lessen the heat.
- In a very large pan heat the olive oil, once warm add the onion and sauté until softened. Next add the garlic and sauté for one minute before adding the jalapeño slivers into the pan, sprinkle in the salt and carefully stir the ingredients. If you have a lid for the pan use it and cook over medium-low heat until the peppers have softened. Next mix the tomatoes into the mixture and cook until the tomatoes have broken down into the vegetable mix. Taste and if needed add more salt. Allow to cool completely before storing in the refrigerator overnight. (You can prepare the masa this day if you'd like, but you may need to add a little more water the next day to make the masa more spreadable.)
- Take the cooked jalapeño stuffing out of the refrigerator and let it sit on your counter.Unpack the corn husks and under running water separate them and throughly rinse to remove any dirt or debris or corn silk. Fill a large container or your sink with hot water and place the cleaned and rinsed corn husk into the hot water. Allow to soak for at least 40 minutes or until they have rehydrated and are pliable and fold easily.
- While the corn husks are soaking you can prepare the masa (that's of course if you didn't prepare it the day before): In a large bowl combine the corn flour with the baking powder and salt, mix to well combine. Now place the vegetable shortening into the masa and either with a wooden spoon or your very clean hands, work the shortening into the flour. Slowly it will come together and resemble crumbs. Slowly begin adding the vegetable broth and work it into the dough. Continue to do so until the ingredients are well combined and the dough is airy, fluffy, smooth and spreads easily — you may or may not use all of the broth, or you may need a little more depending on the conditions in your kitchen. (If the climate is dry you’ll probably need more broth, if it's humid you may need less.) The masa shouldn't feel too wet nor too dense, and since we're using ingredients that have more liquid in them, we don't want the masa to be too wet other wise it will take longer to steam and firm up. Grab a tiny pinch of the dough and taste it, if needed add more salt. Set the masa aside.
- Once the corn husks are soft and bendable place them in a strainer to remove all of the excess water. While you wait for them to drain off you can slice the cheese into even-sized strips or pieces — you will need enough to stuff 20 to 24 tamales. Set the cheese aside. If the corn husks still have too much water try to shake off as much as you can or use a clean kitchen towel to pat dry them.
- (Watching the video will really help you see how they come together.) You can make the process go quicker by setting up an assembly line with all of your ingredients. First grab a corn husk, (you can place it on the palm of your hand or on a plate or cutting board) the long pointy end will be folded up so you need to spread the masa on/towards the wider end. The smooth side of the husk should be facing up and it's where you'll be spreading the masa. Using the back of the spoon begin spreading the masa around but leave a small space on both the left and right side (this will help when folding it up by preventing the dough to squeeze out the sides. Now place some of the jalapeño mix in the center of the tamal, then add a piece of cheese.
- Grab one side of the corn husk and fold it into the centre about ¾ths of the way, then fold the other side on top of the first. (Watch the video for a visual guide) Next fold the pointed end up to the tamal and your done! The folded tamales should stay folded and not need to be tied with a strand of corn husk or kitchen twine -- but if you're making a variety of tamal stuffing then doing this is a good way to keep track of which tamales have what stuffing. Now set the assembled tamales on the side, and keep repeating these steps until you've run out of masa and filling.
- This recipe makes a small batch of up to two dozen tamales, so you need a steaming pot large enough to fit them all or you'll have to either use two pots or cook in batches. If you don't have the traditional tamal pot you can use any ordinary pot with a steamy tray or insert or use a vegetable steamer basket. Pour water into the pot and fill it just until it is right underneath the steaming tray. Next arrange the tamales in the pot standing up and fit as many as you can without overpacking them -- they expand and if you pack them too tightly the dough may overspill. Cover the tamales with some corn husks, place the lid on the pot, and put over a high flame. Allow the water to boil (you'll know because you'll see steam rising), then quickly turn the heat down to medium-low and steam for 1 hour. After the hour you can carefuly take one tamal out and check for doneness, they are ready when the dough easily peels away from the husks and it feels firm. Most likely the tamales will need anywhere from another 30 minutes to an hour. So at this time you'll want to check the pot to make sure there is still water at the base, I do so by picking it up and giving it a little shake to detect how much water is left. If the water is low, carefully add more to the pot, cover and place back on the stove over low to medium heat. After another 30 to 40 minutes check on the tamales again for doneness.
- So once the masa peels away from the corn husk carefully remove one tamal from the pot. Try not to burn yourself and gently unwrap to check if it peels away from the husk, if it does then let it sit for 5 minutes before completely unwrapping to double check that it is indeed cooked through. Now you can take your first taste test!
- Remove the pot from the heat, uncover, and allow to cool before serving -- if you'd like you can remove the tamales from the pot and place them on a large plate or container to cool and serve.
- That's it, congratulations you've just made tamales!!!
•• Yes, tamales require some work. But they are not only worth it, they really aren't that difficult to make. Just give yourself plenty of time and if needed get some help to make the process go quicker.
••• For a vegan version simply omit the cheese!