It’s no wonder tamales are the perfect holiday food. Steamy masa, often stuffed with red or green filling, is unwrapped from its corn husk like a delicate, edible gift. These magical little meat caves, in particular, attract the whole family like a magnet. So get excited! ‘Tis the season for red chile pork tamales!
While tamale making imagery might bring to mind kitchen-sized assembly lines, tamales don’t have to be an all-day affair. The steps can be broken up over a couple of days or scaled down to a small batch for two. Let’s break it down to the basics, so you can start living your best tamale life.
When it comes to flavorful fillings, there are countless options. Meats, seafood, veggies, and cheese are all fair game for the center spot. Sweet tamales are even a thing if you have a sweet-and-salty tooth. While this recipe features pulled pork simmered in a red chile sauce, feel free to try any combinations you’d like! For fewer servings, look for leftovers you already have on hand to combine, like shredded chicken and green chiles, or black beans and Monterrey jack cheese.
The pork is similar to the carefully curated pork shoulder from my pulled pork sammies recipe, but with salt only. Using Chef Samin Nosrat’s salt by weight chart, I let the bone-in shoulder sit coated in kosher salt overnight in the fridge. I use the same slow cooker method, and the end result is fall-apart pulled pork perfectly seasoned right to the center.
Rehydrating dried chiles is the easiest ticket to red sauce, and California or New Mexico varieties make a hearty, mild base. Guajillo peppers are slightly spicier without being overwhelming. Or, throw in an arbol chili or two to increase the heat dramatically. A combination of two or more peppers helps to layer these spices. You should be able to find these in the Hispanic foods section of your local grocery store or order online from my personal fav- Penzey’s. Just remember, the sauce and the meat can both be made ahead of time.
No matter which filling you choose, you’ll need a moist and flavorful masa dough to encase it. Sadly, masa is frequently off the mark. It won’t matter how great your filling is if your masa is dense, bland, or dry- it won’t get eaten. The good news is there are some simple fixes for must-have masa.
- Air- incorporating air is key for light and fluffy tamales. I like to combine everything using a speedy hand mixer. At a minimum, fluff extra air into any solid fats before combining with the rest of the dough.
- Baking Powder- as a leavening agent, baking powder helps to lighten and aerate the dough. Just don’t overdo it, since baking powder can impart bitterness.
- Fat- be it oil, shortening, lard, or even butter, the fat mixed into the masa dough will help to retain moisture, and obviously makes them taste great too. Traditional tamales are made with lard.
- Liquid- equal parts masa harina and liquid will keep the masa moist. While you can use water, I use broth any chance I get for extra color and flavor infusion.
- Seasoning- you can’t just blend masa harina and broth together and expect it to taste any good. Like with most things, good masa needs adequate seasoning- some salt, garlic, and a little chili powder is a good foundation. The red chile sauce also helps provide some color and spice.
Full Steam Ahead
When it comes time to cook, the water level is also key. Too much, and the bottoms of the tamales will get soaked. Too little, and the tamales will dry to a crisp. A steamer basket helps protect the tamales in the pot- the water level should come to just beneath the basket.
A tightly sealed steamer pot using plastic wrap and/or foil will help retain steam and moisture. If you see steam escaping from your pot, tighten up. Some people will put a coin in the bottom of their pot and listen for its rattling. A silent coin means the water needs replenishing.
If you don’t have a tamalera (a large, tall pot with an insert specifically for cooking tamales), your tallest stock pot will also work. Like the filling, you can make the masa up to 3 days ahead of time, refrigerated in an airtight container.
Unfortunately, this may be my last twinge of spice for a while. Thanks, pregnancy hormones! But now that you’ll be making these tasty meat treats, I can live vicariously through you over the holidays. Enjoy!
For the meat
- 1 bone-in pork shoulder take note of the weight
- 1 onion sliced
- 3-4 cloves garlic smashed
- 32 ounces chicken broth
- kosher salt use 1 1/3 teaspoons per pound if using Morton's, or 2 1/8 teaspoon per pound if using Diamond Crystal*
For the red chile sauce
- 24 dried mixed red chile peppers- California, New Mexico and Guajillo washed, stem removed and seeds removed
- 6 cups water
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 1 Tablespoon garlic powder
For the masa
- 10 cups masa harina for tamales
- 10 cups chicken broth
- 3 Tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 3 Tablespoons garlic powder
- 2 Tablespoons baking powder
- 1 Tablespoon chili powder
- 3 cups lard room temperature
- 3 Tablespoons red chile sauce optional
For assembling and cooking tamales
- 6 to 8 ounces corn husks soaked in very warm water about 30 minutes, silk strings removed
- water to fill bottom of tamalera
For the meat
- Pat the pork shoulder dry with paper towels, and as soon as you can prior to cooking, coat with salt (preferably several hours in advance, or overnight).
- Prepare a crockpot by lining the bottom with sliced onions and smashed cloves of garlic. Pour the chicken broth over the onions and garlic.
- Add the pork shoulder. Cook on low heat for approximately 8 hours, or high heat for approximately 6 hours, or until the meat is fork tender.
- Remove the meat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Remove and throw away the fat cap and bone. Then, working with your hands, two forks, or meat shredders, shred the meat, setting fattier pieces aside.
For the red sauce
- Cover the dry chile peppers in water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until softened. Discard the water once finished cooking.
- Place the chile peppers into a blender with the chicken broth and garlic powder. Blend until smooth and adjust seasonings and liquid as needed.
- With a bowl underneath, pour the red chile sauce through a fine mesh strainer, squeezing as much of the liquid out as possible.
- Combine the red sauce with the prepared pulled pork. Refrigerate if not using immediately.
For the masa
- In a very large bowl, combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly with a hand mixer until well incorporated and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Use a silicone spatula to scrape the side of the bowl as you go. The masa should be moist but not watery. Add a little extra broth or masa harina if needed to adjust the texture.
Assembling and cooking the tamales
- Pat dry the soaked corn husks and orient them with the wider end pointing towards you, smoothest side up.
- With a spoon, spatula or masa spreader, place a few Tablespoons of the masa in the center of the husk. Spread the masa into a thin rectangular layer, leaving some space on the left and right side, and also at the narrow end. Make sure the thickness is fairly consistent. If there is a hole or tear in the husk, feel free to double up and use another husk behind the first.
- Once the masa is evenly spread, place about one Tablespoon of the meat and red sauce length was in the center of the masa rectangle. Avoid the very top and bottom of the masa, as the meat and sauce can spill out.
- Gently fold the right side of the husk over the meat, and bring the left side up and over to make a rounded tamale. Take the long narrow end of the husk and fold it under the tamale to tuck it in. You can also take kitchen twine or small thin ribbons of soaked husk and tie them around the tamale to help secure the fold in place.
- In a tamalera or tall stockpot fitted with a steamer basket on the bottom, fill with water until it barely reaches the steamer basket. Place the tamales open side up in rows inside the pot. When you can't fit any more in the pot, cover the top of the pot tightly with plastic wrap and/or aluminum foil and place the lid on.
- Turn the heat to high to bring the water up to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for one hour. After an hour of steaming, you can open a tamale to check for doneness. The masa should be moist but firm and cooked through.