Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pork Tamales

I'll admit, these may seem like a lot of work; and if you're making tamales by yourself, then yes you have your work cut out for you. The best way to make tamales (and the most fun) is to have a Tamalada, invite your friends and family and have everyone take part in the process. Set up an assembly line and start cranking 'em out! You'll have dozens of tamales finished in no time and have fun in the process.

This year Hank and I tackled making the traditional pork tamales way in advance (they freeze extremely well) so it was just the two of us and a very messy kitchen. We may do some other varieties as it gets closer to Christmas.

I started prepping on Friday night by cooking the pork. I don't actually use the pig's head, I prefer to use the pork picnic (shoulder) instead. It fits neatly in my crockpot, yields an impressive amount of meat, and makes its own lard. The next morning I removed the perfectly cooked meat and let the remaining fat and bones simmer for several hours. Everything was refrigerated and waiting to be put together the next day. Sunday I prepared the masa using the lard and broth from the pork, then shredded and seasoned the meat, soaked the husks, and brought Hank in to help roll. Read on for the recipe and how to.

Pork Tamales
(printable recipe)

7 lb. pork picnic, skin on is preferable*
1 onion quartered
6 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. pepper
8 ancho chiles
corn husks
5 lb. bag masa preparada para tamales**
1 tbsp. paprika

*if skinless add 1 lb. grasa de puerco - cuts of pork fat
**this is a wet dough, usually found in the meat or refrigerated section at Hispanic markets

Begin by cooking the pork in a crockpot overnight. Place the pork (and grasa if needed) in the crockpot and cover with water. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Cover and turn on low, cook for 8 hours. I do this right before bed and wake up to a house full of pork smell, flip on the ventihood if you're lucky enough to have one (I don't) or crack a window.

The next morning pick through and remove the meat. Refrigerate until ready to use. Keep the crockpot on low and let the remaining fat and bones cook another 4 hours. Strain and refrigerate. The lard will rise to the top and the rich broth will be left below.

When you're ready to finish the filling set a pot of water to boil. Put the ancho chiles in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over. Cover and allow to cool. Reserve the soaking liquid and remove the stems and seeds from the chiles. Puree in a food processor with enough of the soaking water to form a runny paste. Add the paste to the finely shredded pork, season with salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Add a little liquid if it seems dry, I added 1/2 c of the chile soaking liquid and 1/2 c broth.

Soak the husks in water for 30 minutes, add a heavy pot on top to keep them submerged.

To make the masa skim the lard from the chilled broth and measure, you will need 1 1/2 c of lard (can substitute any extra needed with commercial lard). Whip the lard and gradually add the masa and 2 c of warm broth. This may be done in a mixer (my KitchenAid will just barely hold it all) or the traditional mix-by hand method. Add the salt and paprika and mix well. Taste the masa for seasoning, adding more if necessary.

Towel dry the husks and begin spreading, filling and rolling.

Thinly spread the masa with the backside of a spoon on the smooth side of the husk. You can either lay the husk flat on the table or hold it in your palm, whichever works for you.

Don't spread the masa too far, you'll need enough room to be able to fold the end over to close the tamal. I spread this one to about 5" x 4".

Add about 2 tablespoons of pork to the center, roll and fold the end over. If you like tie a spare strip of husk around each tamal to keep it closed. Tying becomes a bit tedious and its not really necessary, but do what you like. I stopped tying after this one.

Now, spread, fill, roll, and repeat. Like 100 times. No really.

Don't forget to roll one that's all masa. That's the trick one, hahaha. I like to put a little dab of meat on the end to really disguise it :)

Place the tamales (open end up) in your biggest steamer.
Cover and place the steamer on the largest burner at the highest heat setting. Steam for about 2 hours until the masa is firm and cooked through. Test for doneness by removing the largest tamal and unrolling slightly. It should be cooked through and easily separated from the husk.

Remove the tamales and eat immediately or freeze dozens or half dozens in foil. Serve with chili con carne, tomato sauce, or salsa. Makes 100 tamales.

Extra tips!
  • Have plenty of newspaper handy. Your masa spreading area will get messy and need fresh paper from time to time.
  • Protect your table. Hank refinishes furniture, and so I must tell you if you're setting up assembly on your wood table lay a plastic table cover over the top and then several sheets of newspaper. A shower curtain liner works too.
  • That steamer is going to get heavy. Place it in a sturdy chair at the end of the table as you assemble and fill it up. Also go ahead and fill it with water now, or be sure to leave a space where you can fill it once its on the stove.
  • My great-grandmother always used paprika in her masa for color, you could also reserve some of the ancho paste to add to the masa instead.
  • Another great-grandmother tip (via my mom): Gross as it sounds you must taste the raw masa. If its bland raw it'll be bland when its steamed.
  • Aim for consistency. Its a good idea to have only one person doling out the meat. Their responsibility is to make sure the meat to masa ratio is perfect, and to make sure there's enough meat filling to go around.
  • Get the whole family involved. As a kid for years I was tasked with drying the husks, then eventually allowed to spread masa. Masa spreading can be slow work so several people should be spreading while one person fills. Kids can get it on the fun by drying husks or tying up finished tamales.
  • If the husk is too big simply tear away the excess. If its too small put it together with another small husk to make it the right size. Just overlap them about 1/2" and use masa to help hold it together.
Share your tamale making tips in the comments!


  1. I was honored to be invited to my friend Josie's tamalada a few years back. She's from Mexico, as are all her sisters, nieces, mother and grandmother. But I remembered enough of my six years of Spanish to get along fine, and the wine helped, too. It was so much fun! (I took notes throughout, of course.) I was taught to make them just as you describe, with the masa on the backside of the spoon, and I soon got the hang of it. They did not make their dough from dry, as we lived in Chicagoland, and there are many sources for fresh masa. Their choice was 'La Guadalupana,' 'La Masa de la Casa,' and that's what I now buy when I get up there (which will be next week). We made well over 200 that day. Most were pork like yours, but there were some chicken as well as some sweet, made with ricotta (I think) and raisins and others with pineapple. I can't wait to make my own again, thanks for the great tutorial.

  2. Ah Girlfriend, if you come to my house and walk me through this I'll have a nice 6-month old goat kid cooked and ready for the filling!;-) I'm kind of intimidated to try this all by myself. I guess I will just have to overcome my fears....

  3. I would have to say that one thing I learned from this (because I spread ALOT of Masa, at least this last couple of weeks) is the dryer the inside of the husk is, the easier and more evenly the masa spreads, so you might want to have a paper towel or dishrag handy if you are having trouble, so you can give another pat to dry it more. Good fun though, and obviously great eating and a great learning experience.

  4. @Peggasus: Mmm, pineapple sounds so good. I may try that with a pineapple jam I put up in the summer.

    @stonemaven: Cabrito would be fantastic! Thats on next year's list for sure!

    @Hank: I know, you've really gotten the hang of masa-spreading! Thanks for all your patience and help, you're wonderful!