Pork Tamales

>> Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pork Tamales

Tamales are one of the first holiday foods created in the Americas. Ancient Incas, Mayans and Aztecs had their own versions of meats, spices, herbs, seeds, and beans wrapped in corn dough and steamed in banana leaves or corn husks. There are over 40 types of tamales made in Latin America; some are only made on special occasions, while others are everyday staple foods.

When I lived with a Mexican family, they usually made these pork tamales (and sweet pink ones with red raisins) for Christmas dinner. Wrapping these bundles takes a bit of skill and time, but all the women would crowd into a kitchen, turn up the music, and laugh and talk their way through a pile of these goodies.

Memories like these are the best parts of a holiday tradition, don't you think? Even though tamales take time, the work seems like nothing when you're doing it with people you love.

Unwrapping a steaming hot, delicately crumbling tamal filled with smoky pepper-simmered pork is like opening a little Christmas present. These are fantastic with the mild pepper sauce and a dab of sour cream.

Tamales Steaming
Did you know? One bundle is called a tamal; the plural is tamales.

By the way, you can make the filling and dough days ahead of time and then wrap them up whenever you're ready. Get the whole family involved and it might become one of your family traditions, too!


50 corn husks, about 8 inches long with no rips or gaps; in specialty stores, these are sometimes labeled hojas de milpa.


1 lb boneless pork, cut into cubes
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tsp sea salt
4 ancho chiles
2 tsp flour
2 tsp oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp ground cumin

Tamale Dough (Masa Harina Dough)

Note: you can often find tubs or bundles of pre-made Masa dough in the refrigerated cases at the grocery store. Read the label for the ingredients; many brands use only water and corn processed with lime. If it does, be sure to beat each cup of dough with salt and 1/3 cup of shortening to reach the proper consistency.

4 cups corn flour (masa harina)
1 tablespoon salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/3 cups solid vegetable shortening (or lard, if you prefer)
4 cups reserved broth from cooking the pork (or more, if the dough is too dry)


Soak the corn husks for several hours; it helps if you weight them down with something so they are completely submerged and get pliable.

In a medium pot, cover the pork, pepper, salt, and garlic with 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes to one hour, until very tender. Allow to cool, then skim off the fat and drain the pork. Reserve the cooking broth and add additional water to equal 5 cups of liquid.

Seed the chiles and tear them into pieces. Place them into the blender or food processor with 1 cup of the pork broth, heated to boiling. Let soften 15 minutes then puree the chiles.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Brown the flour in the oil, then stir in the garlic, oregano, and cumin. Pour in the chile mixture and one more cup of the pork broth and whisk until smooth and thickened.

Sauce for Pork Tamales

Reserve half the sauce in a separate covered container. Shred the pork into the remaining mixture, and allow to simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.

Drain the corn husks and towel off the water. If you have any raggedy-looking ones, peel them lengthwise into strips to tie up the tamales. You can also use kitchen string, which is a little easier to use, in my opinion!

Fill a large steaming pot with enough water to cover the bottom, but not touch the steaming basket. We use our pasta pot to steam tamales. We also add a clean penny to the bottom of the pan. As long as the water is boiling in the pot, we hear the penny rattling and know there's enough water for steaming. Place one or two corn husks on the bottom of the steamer basket.

Masa harina dough

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the masa harina, salt, and baking powder. Beat in 4 cups of pork broth until you have a moist batter. Add the shortening and beat until the dough is fluffy and thick. A traditional way to test if your dough is the right consistency is to float a little ball in a glass of cold water. If it sinks, it needs more beating, and shortening. If it dissolves, it needs more flour and shortening. If it floats, it's just right.

Open up one corn husk with the narrow end toward your wrist. Spread about 1 tablespoon of the dough over half the husk, leaving a generous margin on each side. Arrange 1 tablespoon of pork filling down the center of the dough, then bring up the long sides of the husk and fold one over the other. Be sure the dough completely encircles the filling.

Rolling a tamal

Fold up the pointed end of the husk so that it's even with the top of the leaf, then tie it in the middle or towards the top.

Stand up the tamales in the steamer basket, and top with another two corn husks. Cover with a tight lid and bring to a boil. Don't open the steamer unless you need to add more water. Steam the tamales for 1 hour, then take one out and try to open it. The tamales are done when they separate easily from the husks.

Serve the tamales hot with the reserved chile sauce and sour cream.

If you have leftovers, they freeze really well in their husks and you can heat them up in the microwave or re-steam them.

Makes 30-40 tamales.


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