Assembling a Tamal

Tamales are a learned art and not everyone is lucky enough to have an awesome friend in their life who will walk them through assembly.

I am lucky.

I am passing the luck on to you.

First, you need to get your steamer-pot situation sorted out. I have a huge pot with a steamer insert – this pot is made specifically with tamales in mind.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comIf you don’t want to go buy a tamale pot, you can use a steamer basket.

If you don’t have a steamer basket, you can use foil. I got over this in more detail in the tamale-makin’ overview.

You want this decided pre-assembly, though, because it helps to be able to stack a just-made tamal directly into the pot, rather than making them all and THEN putting them all into the pot.

If you can’t, though, no biggie. It just saves some time and effort to be able to transfer tamal directly to pot, one-by-one.

Plus, then you know when you can take a break – whenever the pot is full!

Making the masa only requires a handful of ingredients.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comMasa harina (masa flour), lard, liquid, and seasonings.

For the masa harina I use Maseca because it’s everywhere down here – easy to find in the grocery store. That brand offers a (very fine) tamale version of corn flour, but I just used the regular stuff. You can use whatever you’ve got available nearby.

For the liquid, I used the meat broth and the chili broth I set aside from Tamales Day One. To really get a good masa texture I made sure to warm the broths up before I mixed them in. I was using (roughly) a 2:1 ratio (meat:chili) in my masa mix.

A note on lard: the family I learned tamale-makin’ from does not use lard as a major component of their masa. For them, all the flavor and texture should come from the broths and expert mixing.

However, both years I made tamales with them I failed miserably at spreading the masa onto the corn husks. Masa made without lard is sticky and difficult to work with. Spreading it right is a skill learned over many years, as evidenced by all the hermanas laughing at my sad attempts and finally moving me off of the masa part of the assembly line so one of them could take my place and deftly accomplish (in seconds) what I was demolishing.

When I resolved to try tamale-makin’ on my own, I knew I would have to find a solution for the masa conundrum. And lard was the solution. With the addition of fat to the masa mix it all became much easier to work with – a similar texture to chocolate chip cookie dough.

“Seasonings” consisted of salt (always kosher, love the kosher salt), pepper, cumino, a bit of cayenne pepper (we’re talking a half teaspoon for a 4-6 cup mix of masa harina), and garlic powder… because I love garlic.

I actually ended up doing one batch of masa with cumin and one without. I think the taste difference was minimal in the final product, but it does make for a more mellow flavor.

Stand mixers rock, btw. I’ve done this mix by hand and it’s painful. Stand mixers are where it’s at.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comSo all ingredients except broth go in, then I mixed the warm broth in a bit at a time until I got that chocolate chip cookie dough texture I was talking about. (And I’m not talking about the tubes of chocolate chip cookie dough you buy at the store; I’m talking about homemade chocolate chip cookie dough.)

On the back end, I think my masa could have used a bit more moisture, but that’s one of those tweaking things, not really an actual issue. You ever do that? Try making something that turns out better than you could have ever hoped it would turn out and then immediately start to plan how you’ll do it even better next time.

Next, create a tamale-making station, or (if you’re working with a group) create a production line.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comThere’s my station. Masa on the far left, covered in damp towels to keep it from drying out. Corn husks (hydrated!) in the upper left-hand corner. Meat mix in the center. Pot (already used for one batch – can you tell?) on the right.

I was working from left to right and this is the setup that worked best for me. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works and what needs to be moved. Definitely take a break and re-adjust if you’re not feeling your set up.

Let me also mention that having a movie or music playing while you’re working is a must. (I worked through two seasons of Doctor Who – it never gets old!)

Unless you’re working with six other people. Then you can just talk and laugh a lot.

Pull a corn husk from the water pot, pat it dry with a towel you will have on hand.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comReady and waiting.

Grab a chunk of masa and pat it onto the corn husk, spreading it into a rectangular shape.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comThen add some of the meat mix. I set it in the center of the masa rectangle. Others might place it along one edge. Whatever works for you. tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comtamal assembly | a post from tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comI had an easier time folding it when I placed the meat mix in the center. I just couldn’t get that roll down any other way.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comtamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comOnce it’s rolled you’re going to give some attention to the tail.

tamal assembly | a post from tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comThis is how I learned to roll a tamal. Others lay the masa down in the center, with space for a tail on both ends. Again, whatever works for you.

At this point, you can lay the tamal, tail down, on a little pile or into the (sideways) pot. If it’s coming apart you can wrap a little piece of husk around it to hold it all together.

tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comI didn’t bother tying these. As soon as I lay them on their sides they were good.

And like I said, you can either place the just-finished tamal onto a pile, OR you can pile them directly into the pot.

tamal assembly | a post from tamal assembly | a post from sundriedtomatoe.wordpress.comThanks for joining me on my tamale-makin’ adventure!

If you have any tips, tricks, or observations – please share!

Yesterday: chile sauce
Day before yesterday: tamale-makin’ overview


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