beef tamales

So I made a recent foray into tamales. It wasn’t the first time I’d made them. I learned how during my Navy years when I was stationed in California from the wife of some long-forgotten co-worker (I hesitate to say shipmate, given the rather unusual nature of my naval service … story for another time.) She was Mexican, though she’d grown up in San Diego, and she taught me that good tamales are all about the masa.

That time is quite nearly 30 years in the past. Oy. With a side of vey.

In any case, I hadn’t had a good tamale since leaving California. Most Mexican restaurants in this area serve a version of tamale consisting of 95% masa and about 5% filling. The masa tends to be pretty flavorless and bland, too. They drench the thing in some sort of sauce and throw a dollop of sour cream on there to try to hide the fact that they’ve basically just served you a hunk of steamed corn flour, and if you’ve never had authentic Mexican food, I suppose you don’t know how terribly you’ve just been treated.

I refreshed my memory by researching a ton of tamale recipes on the handy dandy Google maching, and then furthered my education with some YouTubage. I was pretty happy with the result. I’ll be making more with different fillings soon : )


  • 2 pounds beef shoulder roast
  • 2 onions, peeled and sliced
  • 1 garlic bulb, cloves removed and peeled
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 bag dried pasillo chiles
  • 2 tablespoons toasted cumin seed (don’t skip the toasting step!)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 bag dried corn husks
  • 4 cups masa
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 cups warm beef broth (reserved from preparing the meat)
  • 1 cup lard (Yes. Lard. Stop wrinkling your nose. This isn’t supposed to be healthy.)

Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides in a large heavy pot (a cast iron Dutch oven is ideal) over a medium heat. Cover with water, add one sliced onion and about half the garlic. Cook until the meat is tender and falling apart … at least 2 hours. Move the beef to a platter to cool and pour the beef broth into a container to set aside for making the masa. Shred the beef when it is cool enough to handle.

While the meat is cooking, cut off the tops of the chiles with kitchen scissors and shake out the seeds. Place them in the pot you used to cook the beef and cover them with water. Add the other sliced onion, the rest of the garlic, and the cumin. Boil until the chiles are soft. Working in batches, remove the chiles (and the onions and garlic) from the water into a blender or food processor. Add a ladle of chile water and process until smooth. Strain to get the last of the skin and seeds. Pour into a large bowl and add salt to taste. Once the chile sauce is to your liking, add the shredded beef and mix to coat thoroughly. Refrigerate until ready to use.

(I usually stop here. Tamale making is a 2 day process in my world.)

Soak the dried corn husks in cold water to soften them for about 30 minutes. Go through them and remove any stray strands of silk. While they are soaking, prepare the masa. I do this in my Kitchenaid mixer. If you don’t have one, use a really big bowl. Beat the lard (or vegetable shortening if you got all squicky about the lard) until it is fluffy. In a separate bowl, combine the masa, baking powder, chili powder and salt. Add this mixture to the lard and beat slowly to combine. Begin pouring in the beef broth, a little at a time. Continue beating the masa until it has a light, spongy texture.

(It’s hard to describe how the masa should feel. Look up a few YouTube videos and get a visual. After you’ve made them a time or two, you’ll know when it feels right.)

Drain and rinse the corn husks. There are lots of methods for spreading the masa and rolling the husks. I hold a husk in my hand, scoop out a pretty generous tablespoon (the kind you eat with, not the kind you measure with) into the center of the husk and begin flattening it with my thumbs. Other people use the spoon to flatten it, or place the husk on a plate and spread the masa. The YouTube, again, is a good place to watch the process and get some ideas.

Once you’ve flattened the masa, add about a tablespoon of the meat mixture and roll it up. The masa should not extend to the sides of the corn husk. It should be a thin circle in the center. Roll the sides in first, and then fold up the bottom half of the husk. Continue until you’ve used all the masa. You’ll probably have some filling left, which is awesome heated and served along with the tamales.

To steam the tamales, I use a pasta pot and one of those steamers that opens out like a fan:

You know ... one of these.
You know … one of these thingie dealie hoosits.

Fill the outer pot with water until it reaches the bottom of the inner pot. Then open out the steamer and set it on the bottom of the inner pot. This will keep the tamales from touching any of the water. Load the tamales inside standing up with the open end up. You can probably get the entire bunch in there, but don’t force it. If you have to force any of them in, it’s too full and they won’t steam well. Lay a damp cloth over the tamales and cover tightly. Keep the water at a low boil, and check occasionally to be sure the water doesn’t boil away. Add more when it’s getting low.

Steam the tamales about 2 hours or until the inside pulls away from the husk. The masa should be soft and firm, not mushy. Serve with the remaining filling, avocado, sour cream, fresh pico or salsa … whatever you like : )

The tamales freeze well, too. I like to freeze them in dozens with a little container of sauce to share with friends.

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