What’s Cookin’ Guest Post – Tamales: It’s a Family Affair

Note from Mama:  Our oldest daughter accepted a new job assignment a few months ago, and moved to Tucson, Arizona.  By her own admission, she defines cooking as heating up prepared foods in the microwave.  When she came to me with a request to do a Guest Post for What’s Cookin’ it was more than a little surprising.

She was invited, by one of her co-workers in her new hometown, to make homemade tamales with his family.  When we lived in Dallas, we learned that it is a tradition at the holidays for families to get together and make huge batches of tamales to share with family and friends; however, I never had the opportunity to do so with anyone.  I am jealous, and I think you will really enjoy reading about her experience.  I can’t wait to visit her and eat some of her tamales.

Tamales: It’s a Family Affair

By Leah

(Disclaimer: I did not take Spanish at any point in my life.  I now live in a Spanish-speaking part of the country, and while I believe my Spanish is “mucho gusto,” I apologize in advance for any errors or mistakes.)

Moving 1,500 miles from St. Louis to Tucson is quite an adventure.  I happily traded the highways for mountains, pesky squirrels for little lizards, and the cold and rain for sunny days.  Despite the benefits, it is tough to leave family behind.  After just two months, I was counting down the days when I could come back to the comfort of “home.”

So when a co-worker suggested that I come to his home to assist with his family’s annual tamale-making, I quickly accepted.  If I only knew what I was getting myself into.

Making tamales is a family affair.

Tamale Defined

A tamale is a traditional Hispanic comfort food comprised of masa (corn meal) and filling (typically shredded meat) wrapped in an oja (corn husk) and steamed.  The simple definition belies the hard work required to make these delicious treats.

Listed below are the basic ingredients for tamales:

Pre-cooked, shredded meat (beef, pork or chicken)*
Chili paste (canned)
Chili powder
Corn husks (oja)
Canned jalapeños
Small green olives with the pits
*1 lb of masa and 1 lb of meat make approximately 1 dozen tamales

Tamale-making is organized chaos. When I went to John’s house, a beautiful little ranch Adobe-style house in the Catalina’s, I came prepared with 5 pounds of shredded pork (my husband’s recipe) and all the necessary ingredients for mimosas (we’ll get to that later).

John’s cactus foyer – he thought I was crazy for taking pictures of his floor.

John’s mother, Vera, was definitely in charge. She coordinated and conducted the entire process from meat to masa to oja.  The tamale-making event can be broken down into three phases: meat preparation, masa preparation, and tamale construction.  However, it is important to note that these phases are not consecutive and very much overlap with each other.

Rules of Tamale-Making

Before I describe the tamale-making process, there are a few rules you must know.

First rule of tamale-making:  You do not make “a few tamales,” you make dozens of tamales.  Anything less than 5 dozen is not worth it.

When John asked me how many tamales I wanted, I said, “Oh, you know, a few is fine.”

He balked. “You do not just make a few tamales. How many DOZEN do you want?”

My eyes widened. “One?”

John laughed.  “You want at least 5 dozen.  Bring 5 pounds of meat.”  (BLANCO! – is probably what he wanted to say at the end of that conversation.)

Second rule of tamale-making:  You should not attempt to make tamales on your own.  It’s a family affair.

Third rule of tamale-making:  There is no recipe.  Go by feel and do what feels right.  It also helps to have mimosas on hand.

Phase I: Meat Preparation

First, we took the pre-cooked, shredded meat and put it in a pot on low heat.  Then we did what I fondly call a “reverse roux”. We added flour to the meat, then broth and continuously stirred.

Meat that’s about to become delicious.

Next was the addition of the chili.  There are two ways to add chili to your meat, and we did both – canned chili paste and chili powder added to the broth.  Whimsically, chili in both forms was added to the meat, still continuously stirring.  Vera told me we stir so the meat doesn’t burn.  If I thought my arms were tired at that point, we still had a long way to go.

Chili two ways – muy caliente!

Meat variances: John’s family used shredded beef, and I brought pork.  The biggest difference is the amount of chili paste and broth it takes to properly prepare the meat.  The pork took about three times more liquid than the beef – it just soaked it all right up.

Phase II: Masa Preparation

While the meat was being prepared, we had another activity going on at the other end of the kitchen – masa preparation.  This job involves fifty pounds of masa, several cups of shortening and a whole lot o’ elbow grease.

Masa mixing – it’s hard work!

The goal is to create masa that’s fluffy and consistent enough to float when put in water.  To get there, you add shortening (but the trick is to not add too much, a classic mistake) and hand mix until your arm falls off.  Salt and other seasoning is also added occasionally to the masa mixture.

See? I told you mimosas help.

The final product is called “masa preparada.”

Phase III: Tamale Construction

Are we there yet?  Almost.

While all the other phases are occurring, we are also getting ready for the final step: tamale construction.  First, you have to prepare the ojas (corn husks, remember?).  This is done by soaking the ojas in hot water.

I think oja is such a cool word – and the opposite of oja is ajo which means garlic.  I would like an ajo oja, por favor.  Would you like some ajo in your oja, Señor?”

Once the ojas have soaked in their bath (and their little hands are all pruny), you clean them and stand them upright.  This is the job I was given after telling everyone that my culinary expertise is microwaving taquitos.  And yes, I do believe microwaving frozen food is cooking.

Canned jalapeños and olives are dumped in their own bowls. The tamale stations start forming on two very long kitchen tables put end to end.  Each person has their own station with a box of the ojas, bowls of jalapeños and olives, and a bowl of prepared meat.  Very large bowls of masa preparada are centrally located for easy access by all.

Tamale assembly line? You betcha.

You can stand or sit while making your tamales.  I started off standing and ended up on the floor.

Tamale assembly line.

Once the set up is complete, the actual tamale construction begins.  First, you schmear the masa on an oja.  There are two methods for doing this: spreading and clumping.  Vera is a spreader.  John is a clumper.


I sat next to Vera, so I became a spreader by default. It very much felt like spreading peanut butter on Charmin Ultra toilet paper.  In other words, it is not easy.


Next, you put some of your meat in the middle with a jalapeno and an olive. The olive is traditional and offers a little “present” to whomever unwraps it and also a little salt to the whole package.

Put the meat in the tamale, and drink them both up… put the meat in the tamale and call me in the morning.

My first tamale!

Keep in mind that this entire process, from start to five dozen tamales, is approximately five hours or six and a half mimosas.  John’s family went on for another five hours and ended up with about 40 dozen tamales.  I’m tired just thinking about it.

A pile of tamales ready to be packaged.

Once we had made enough tamales (or just needed a break), we packed up the tamales into freezer bags.  When ready to cook, you  take out however many tamales you want and steam them for about an hour.

A dozen tamales per bag. You can freeze them and eat them all year long!

Final rule of tamale-making:  Take two ibuprofen before bed to lessen the tamale-aches you will get the next day.

Many thanks to John and his wonderful family for inviting me into their home to make tamales.

Some steamed tamales ready to eat.  Yummy!

Final note from Mama:  Thanks, Leah, for sharing your wonderful experience making tamales!

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