We love tamales in our home. There’s just something about the sweet corn masa pared with pork or some other type of braised meat that is just heavenly. Sometimes I even include a few veggies into the mix but today is all about chicken tamales since beautiful whole chickens were on sale when I decided to make this recipe. I’m all about using what’s on sale because it allows me to get awesome ingredients for so much less, which leaves room on my budget for some of those unique ingredients I like to try and play with.
The one thing I don’t like about tamales is the lard used to make the masa dough but it just doesn’t work without it. I’ve tried those recipes that use shortening and other substitutes but nothing tastes as good as they do with the lard in the mix, so I’ve given in. It’s lard all the way, don’t try to substitute unless you are willing to give up the flavor as well.
And don’t be afraid to make tamales. One of the first things people said to me when I moved to Colorado and decided I wanted to learn how to make them, was “they are hard and time-consuming. Forget making them at home and just buy them already made.” Well if there’s anything any of you have figured out yet, it’s that I’m hardheaded and I’m also not afraid of a hard recipe. So I made them anyway! I don’t think they are that hard at all. Time consuming yes. It’s even more fun when you can get a group of people together to help make them. Add in a little wine and get to spreading masa on the corn husks. Loads of fun and the reward to so worth the effort.
10 guajillo dried chilies, seeded and stemmed
3 negro dried chilies, seeded and stemmed
2 cups hot chicken or veggie stock
1 head of garlic cloves, peeled (about 10 to 12 cloves)
2 chipotle chilies in adobe sauce
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
salt to taste
1 3-4 lb. chicken, cut up
6 cups hot water
In a large skillet or casserole, oven medium-high heat, toast the chilies until fragrant.
Place the chilies in a blender and pour in the hot stock. Pulse to a couple of seconds to roughly break up the chilies.
Let the mixture stand for about 20 minutes, then add the chipotle chilies, garlic, pepper, cinnamon and oregano and purée.
While sauce is setting, return the large skillet* to the medium-high heat and add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once hot, almost to the point of smoking, add the cut up chicken to the pan and brown each side. Leave the chicken cooking in the pan and turn heat down to medium.
Using a strainer, strain the sauce into the large skillet or casserole, pressing on the solids to get all the sauce out. To make it easier, slowly add one cup of the hot water at a time to the strainer to gain more of the flavor and sauce. Bring the chicken and sauce to a boil and partly cover the pan with a lid. Turn heat down to low.
Simmer over low heat for about 45 minutes or until chicken is tender and falling off the bone.
Using tongs, remove the chicken from the pan to a large bowl and allow to cool.
Turn the heat back to medium on the sauce and boil until the sauce is reduced to about 4 cups.
Shred the chicken with a fork, removed the skin, bones and any tendon or fat pieces.
Add the shredded chicken the reduced sauce and continue to reduce until the sauce is thick and coats the chicken.
Season with salt and allow the chicken mix to cool.
*You can also cook the meat in a crock pot until done, just handle the sauce the same, expect strain it into the crock pot. Cover meat with water and cook until tender. You will need to reduce the sauce in the pan on the stove.
2 1/2 cups masa harina
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 cup cold lard
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup cold chicken or veggie stock
About the time, you add the chicken to the sauce to reduce, start making your masa dough.
Add the masa harina and hot water to a large bowl, mix well and set aside to cool.
Using an electric mixer (if using a stand mixer, fit with the paddle) beat the lard, baking powder and salt until fluffy.
Add the masa slowly to the lard, mixing well and then slowly pour in the stock and beat the masa until smooth.
Continue to beat until the masa becomes fluffy, about 3 minutes. The texture of your masa should look like soft hummus. Add more stock if needed.
To make sure your masa is ready to use, you can fill a glass with water and drop a small piece of the masa into the glass. If it floats, it’s ready to use. If it’s sinks, continue mixing and repeat the test.
Tamale Assembly and Cooking
30-40 dried corn husks
Large pot with steamer insert and lid
Start soaking the corn husks in hot water in a large bowl at the same time you start cooking the chicken, so they will be soft and pliable by the time the dough and meat is finished.
Once the masa and the meat is ready, drain the corn husks and get ready to assemble your tamales.
You’ll want to lay things out in a convenient way with your masa dough one side, where it’s easy to get to. Your filling on the other and a steamer pot close by to add the finished tamales to (check out my picture above to see how I do it). You’ll also need a butter knife, large spoon or spatula to spread the masa (use what works best for you, I use the back of a large spoon).
Line the bottom of the pot with small corn husks or ones that won’t work for the tamales.
Lay several wide husks out on your work surface. Drop a large spoonful of masa on the husks and spread to about 1/4″ thick, leaving about 1 inch on each end of the husk free of dough.
Add about 2 tablespoons of filling down the middle of the dough, leaving about 1/2″ of masa at each end with no filling.
Roll up the sides of the husks until the overlap and then fold up the bottom of the husk to make a packet. Press the top of the masa edges together and lean the tamales against the side of the steamer insert with the top up.
Repeat until finished. Do not over crowd the tamales in the steamer, leave a little room in between for the steam to get in around them.
If you have leftover tamale filling, you can freeze it for later or use to make tamale pie or another dish.
Place about 1 1/2 inches of water in the bottom of the steamer pot, add the insert and cover tightly with the lid. Bring to a boil.
Turn down the heat to medium to keep the water steaming and cook the tamales for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
To tell if the tamales are done, you can take one out of the pan and gently pull the husk open. If the masa dough is still sticking to the husk, they need more time in the steamer. If it lets go cleanly, remove the pot from the heat. Take off the lid and allow the tamales to cool to edible temperature.
Serve warm plain or with salsa, sour cream, green chili or the toppings of your choice.
More sumptuous tamale recipes: