If you are interested in making the best tamales you must start with good ingredients, especially the fat, a key component. The lard you find in the grocery stores often in the baking aisle is not what I use. The lard that comes in blocks has been over processed and shelf stabilized to last for years. The best available is a creamy white and can be found in Latin and Mexican stores in the refrigerated section or if you have some time and some pork fat that you were going to toss in the bin you can render your own lard easily. After reading Jennifer McLagan’s book on the subject I’m convinced that fat is not as unhealthy as we have been lead to believe. Pork fat is a mixture of different kinds of fat including: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and saturated fats. I’ve also used duck fat for tamales, and although not authentic is certainly acceptable.
To render fat on the stove take 5oog (1 lb) of fat and cut it into small pieces, you can leave the skin on and it will make delicious crispy bits to snack on. Place the fat in a deep skillet over the lowest heat on your smallest burner, stirring occasionally for 3 or so hours until the fat has rendered. Let this cool a bit and then strain out the bits. If you are interested in snacking on the bits of skin, place them back in the skillet and fry over medium heat until golden brown, then lightly salt. The rendered lard can be stored in the fridge for 2 months or in the freezer for 1 year.
Important: Don’t leave the house while rendering fat and be careful not to get any water in the pan or hot oil will splash out at you. If you have more than 500g of fat you can render it in a dutch oven with 1 cup water in a 250F oven.
Making tamales is a lot of work and it’s great if you have helpers, but if you don’t just spread the work over a couple of days. Make the filling and batter a day ahead and refrigerate. Make stock from some leftover bones a day ahead. Then the next day all you have to do is assemble and cook! I also like to make 3 batches and freeze the leftover cooked tamales for future lunch and dinners. Also be sure to use masa harina for tamales, it is a coarser grind then the stuff for making tortillas and will produce a much better tamal. Or use freshly prepared masa if it is available.
Red Pork Tamales*
Makes around 12, adapted from Rick Bayless
18-24 dried corn husks
6 dried chiles (ancho, guajillo, pasilla or a mixture)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1⁄4 tsp black pepper
1⁄8 tsp ground cumin
350 g pork shoulder, cut in cubes
1 tsp salt
2⁄3 cup lard or duck fat, chilled (don’t use shortening)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 3⁄4 cups masa harina for tamales mixed with 1 cup hot water or stock, cooled
2⁄3 cup stock
Soak corn husks in hot water for 1 hour, make sure they are submerged in the water. Tear some 1 cm strips from the small corn husks which will be used to tie the tamales. These strips can be tied together if they are not long enough. Keep wet until ready to use.
For the filling: Toast the chiles in a skillet over medium heat for 1 minute taking care they don’t darken and burn. Tear the chilies into pieces and remove the seeds. Soak the chiles in 1 1⁄2 cups water for 20 minutes. Bend the chiles and their soaking water with garlic, pepper, cumin. Strain the mixture into a medium pot to remove the pieces of chili skins. Add pork, 1 3⁄4 cups water, salt. Cook 1 hour over medium heat, stirring occasionally until a thick sauce forms and the meat is tender. Reserve 3 tbsps of the sauce for later. Let cool and then break up the meat into smaller pieces.
While the pork is cooking make the batter. For the batter:
Beat the lard, baking powder and salt until fluffy, by hand with a wooden spoon or with a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Add 1 cup prepared masa and 1/3 cup stock, beat to combine. Add remaining masa and 1/3 cup stock, beat until fluffy, 2 minutes.
Let sit for 1 hour. Adjust the consistency if necessary with additional stock or water until it is light and fluffy like cake batter. Mix in the reserved 3 tbps of the red pork sauce to the tamale batter.
Assemble the tamales:
Take 1 soaked cork husk and lay on the table in front of you, pointy side up. Spread batter on it, 1⁄4 inch thick, leaving a 1 inch boarder on the sides, and a 2 inch boarder on the bottom. Add a small spoon of filling, then bring up the sides of the husk to the middle. fold under the top and bottom ends. Secure with strips of cork husk. Make sure you leave a bit of slack for the tamale to expand during the cooking process. Place the tamales upright in a steamer that has been lined with corn husks. Lay more corn husks on top. Steam the tamales for 1 1⁄4 hours, let tamales rest 10-15 minutes before serving. Freeze the extra, steam to reheat.