Hot Tamales!

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I grew up eating tamales from a can. We would usually top them with chili. [They’re a little bland on their own.] Tamales were one of my favorite foods as a kid, but I went a long time without eating them.

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After a long hiatus, I finally had Hormel tamales (affiliate link) again, and they were still nostalgically satisfying with chili.

Since they were one of my favorite foods, I’ve tried ordering tamales in (Tex-Mex?) restaurants. They’re not a main draw on any menu, but they’re usually available as a single item a la carte or in a combo. I’ve usually been disappointed when I’ve tried them, because they’ve usually been dry. I enjoyed ones from Chevy’s. I love the ones at Rosa’s Cafe and Tortilla Factory, and I usually get some when I visit my parents, who live in Texas. Both of those places have tamales that are flavorful, and definitely not dry.

The best tamales I ever had were from a vendor at a Metro subway stop in Mexico City. They were cheap, and they were the largest tamales ever – a square tamal the size of the palm of my hand, wrapped in a banana or plaintain leaf.

I’ve had frozen tamales as well – Trader Joe’s makes some tasty ones. They cost at least $2 for a package of 2. For some reason it seems like a lot to pay, but I suppose it’s not particularly surprising, because they’re pretty labor-intensive to make.

I’ve been talking about tamales for a little bit, but what are they? They’re simply a cornmeal dough stuffed with a filling and wrapped in a corn husk. I get the impression that most people haven’t tried them. I could be wrong. However, I know I think my husband hadn’t tried one until he met me. I’ve also never seen my friends try them at Mexican restaurants.

It’s been a long-standing dream of mine to make tamales. I finally decided this year that I needed to try it. I wanted to make pork tamales. I kept putting it off because I wanted to try an authentic recipe if I was going to take the time to make them. Eventually I decided to make Alton Brown’s recipe for Hot Tamales. Its authenticity is debatable, but Alton Brown knows how to make good food, so I was sure the recipe would turn out.

alton brown's hot tamales
Hot Tamales

This recipe took me all Sunday afternoon to make, so it’s certainly not a process for the faint of heart. You have to make the pork filling, make the masa, soak the corn husks, assemble, and cook.

I started soaking corn husks before I began to cook anything. I actually had some pork already cooked and frozen, so I thawed that to use. It turned out that I had twice as much pork as I needed, so I doubled the spice mixture. I knew I’d need the cooking liquid, so I heated up water to speed up the thawing of my pork. You’re supposed to put half of the spice mixture in the liquid, but I wasn’t making a double-batch of liquid. I added a third of the spice mixture to the liquid, meaning that the water had more spice than it was probably supposed to. I simmered the pork briefly, then let it cool. I sauteed onion, garlic, and jalapeno, added the remaining spice mixture, and stirred in the shredded pork.

While the pork mixture cooled, I made the masa. I only made a single batch of masa to start, even though I had twice as much pork. I used half cornmeal and half fine cornmeal that I happened to have. I mixed it with baking powder and salt. Instead of using my hands, I cut in shortening (in place of lard) with a pastry cutter (affiliate link), which worked just fine. I added about 3 cups of liquid to the cornmeal and mixed it together. I didn’t have any trouble getting the dough to the right consistency, moist but not wet.

Once the corn husks, masa, and pork mixture were ready, it was time to assemble the tamales. I had a little trouble following the directions in the recipe, and I had trouble getting started. Luckily Alton Brown has an excellent video showing how to roll tamales.

Once I took a look at the video, I got back to rolling tamales. I honestly cannot explain how to roll the tamales – the best way to figure it out is to watch the video. It went much more quickly after I did that.

I didn’t have twine to bind the tamales together in bundles, so I put my 8-quart stock pot on its side so I could stack the tamales in it. They fit snugly. I made a second half-batch with the remaining corn husks and (some of the pork), and cooked them similarly in a much smaller pot.

I poured the reserved liquid that I used for the pork back into the pan, making sure to not pour it on top of the tamales. I misread the directions and boiled them for 12 minutes (whereas the directions said to bring to a boil, which would take 12 minutes). I reduced the heat to low and simmered them, uncovered, for at least an hour and a half. I thought they were a little dry, so I put the lid back on them and simmered them for a little longer to try to make them softer.

alton brown's hot tamales
Hot Tamales – what was left after eating them for 10 meals

These tamales had a great spicy flavor. They were very satisfying. Some of them were more moist than others, and I’m not sure what the difference was. I liked the moist ones better than the drier ones. These are better than any tamales I’ve ever bought. I ate 4 tamales for lunch just about every day for a week, and I didn’t get tired of them. I poured a little water over them in my container to help steam them as I microwaved them, and to make them a little softer and less dry. After eating them for 10 meals, I decided it was time to freeze whatever was left. I double-wrapped them in plastic wrap in bundles of 4, and put them in freezer bags.

Tamales took a huge amount of time to make. It easily ate up the majority of my Sunday afternoon. It would have been a little better if I’d made Alex help me roll the tamales, as that was about an hour’s worth of work that would be best if divided among multiple people. That said, cornmeal and pork are not pricey, so this was an inexpensive recipe to make for the quantity of food you get. A single batch yields between 48 and 60, so it’s great if you have a lot of people to feed, or if you’re willing to eat tamales forever like I am. I wouldn’t make this recipe often, but I really enjoyed the final product. They’re also supposed to freeze well, so I can have weeks worth of lunches. I think I’ll try this recipe again.

3 thoughts on “Hot Tamales!”

  • For what it’s worth, Alton’s “hot tamales” aren’t exactly authentic. There are “tamales” and then there are “hot tamales”. Tamales, of course, originate in the region of Mexico, dating back several thousand years. “Hot Tamales”, which is Alton’s recipe, are an adaptation by Mexican migrant workers in Louisiana and Mississippi, trying to recreate their own food from home. They didn’t have masa, so they use(d) corn meal. And cornmeal doesn’t really steam well, compared to masa, so they are cooked in stock instead.

    I’m from Louisiana, we always got hot tamales when we visited New Orleans. I find I like them better than the “real deal.”

    • I didn’t realize that about the difference between cornmeal and masa, although I knew they were different. One day, when I don’t mind adding more ingredients to my pantry, I’ll have to try making something like tamales with masa to see the difference.

      I’ll be sure to seek out hot tamales if I make it to Louisiana. Do you like them better flavor-wise, or do they just have a better/different texture?

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