A Tamale Troubleshooting Guide

Learn from my mistakes, lest you end up with dry tamales.

I forgot to take a photo of my completed tamales because I was so tired. So here’s this instead.

Last week, I began my tamale journey, which felt insurmountable at the time, but in retrospect was an enjoyable project that helped me curb my school-related anxiety. Yes, I had to make salsa three times because I kept screwing up. Yes, my boyfriend and I spent two hours or so wrapping up the tamales. Yes, we made about 60+ tamales. No, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve been eating tamales every day for breakfast and lunch simply because there are too many tamales in my damn fridge. And that’s after I gave a quarter of them to my landlord and a classmate. But with every new bite, I am reminded of my tamales’ flaws. The fillings were just right, but the masa, dare I say, was a bit dry. Granted, I wasn’t even working off a recipe, just vague memories, but that’s not the point — I am an overachiever in everything I do. My tamales should have been perfect. Dear reader, I want you to avoid my fate the next time you make tamales, so here’s where I went wrong:

Salsa

As I’ve already mentioned, my salsa just wasn’t hitting the mark. I just wasn’t in the right headspace, but I also didn’t give it the proper attention it needed. Be sure to make more than you think you need. You have to reserve some for the masa.

Peppers: If you’re doing a traditional red salsa, be sure to use guajillo and pasilla chiles. Maybe toss in an arbol chile or two if you want your salsa on the spicier side. Otherwise, stick to those two. Oh, and when you’re toasting the peppers, don’t use any oil or fat. Some folks do, but I think they make it easier to burn the chiles.

I haven’t made a salsa verde specifically for tamales, but I imagine I would toast jalapeños and serranos. Who’s to say!

Tomatoes: If you’re making a red salsa, boil roma tomatoes with your stock in water first and then toast. I had initially used tomatoes on the vine in my first batch, but they were way too sour, even after I cooked them. My theory is that they have way too much pectin (which is great for making jam or ketchup, not great for a silky salsa). Please fact check me on that, but not when you’re making a giant vat of salsa. You will regret it.

Tomatillos for a salsa verde should be fine. Just get a ton of them. A little does not go a long way.

Onions and garlic: I am usually pro-onion, but I don’t think you need it in this salsa. They make the salsa a bit too chunky. But that also could be because I am using a tiny food processor instead of a proper blender. If your blender can pulverize those suckers, I say go for it. As for the garlic, yeah duh, use 3–4 cloves.

Seasonings: Use a generous — and I mean generous— amount of salt, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne, and dried cilantro. Plop in a bay leaf or two. Remember: this salsa is going to season not only the filling, but the masa. It needs to pack a punch.

Masa

I made two kinds of tamales, one pork and one rajas (cheese and chiles). I decided to make the rajas one all vegetarian, so the masa couldn’t have lard while the pork ones did.

Vegetarian masa: Whip up that Crisco vegetable shortening before you put in the instant masa (I have never worked with fresh masa, so…ask your abuela about that). Because you won’t be putting in any lard, you’re also gonna rely more on the vegetable stock and salsa for seasoning. My vegetarian masa was the only thing that went right, so trust me on this one. Pro tip: If your masa doesn’t leave make your hands shiny with fat, there’s not enough Crisco.

Non-vegetarian masa: Same process, but with lard and whatever broth your meat has produced. Be sure to taste throughout because there are way more flavors going on in here. Your masa, again, should leave your hands shiny.

Wrapping

Do not put too much masa!!! Use a cookie scoop. Of course, the amount used will depend on the size of your husk, but hopefully, you will have already chosen uniformed husks and soaked them in water for 30 minutes.

Anyway, use a cookie scoop and then spread with a spatula or your hands. Only put masa on half of the tamale. Plop in your fillings, and then fold in thirds, much like a tri-fold poster at an elementary school science fair. Then fold in half. Now repeat that dozens and dozens of times!

Writing about climate, culture & comida wherever I go. Work in: GEN, Bitch Media, VICE, Jezebel, and then some. Medium’s resident Gen Z kid.

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