Perfect Homemade Tamales and Carnitas
Our expert in Mexican and Southwest style cooking, Cynthia Detterick-Pineda of Andrews, TX, shares her Homemade Tamales Recipe and Carnita Recipe making secrets and lessons learned through the years. Cynthia says, “In all the years my husband and I have been married, I cannot recall a single Christmas or Thanksgiving without tamales. Though not “native” to New Mexico, tamales have been adopted by the state and are very popular. Numerous adaptations have been made on the basic tamale, including vegetarian tamales, chicken tamales, and even chocolate tamales.”
For most Mexicans and Mexican-American’s, Tamales are a Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition, especially in the state of New Mexico. Most people are intimidated by making tamales, but there is no need to be. This step-by-step process will insure that you make wonderful tamales!
Learn how to make perfect Homemade Tamales and Carnitas in your own home. For this recipe, we are covering the more traditional tamale using a pork filling although various different fillings can be used. Pork is probably the more traditional, but this recipe can use any sort of meat “stuffing” which has been marinated and cooked in a red chile sauce. We are also providing instructions to steam the tamales on the stove top or in the slow cooker.
Molajete: For sake of time, and most likely sanity, I am listing more modern ingredients. I have never actually used a molajete to grind down corn for masa, but I can imagine that this would have been a time consuming and difficult job. In the distant past, metates and molcajete (see photo on right) were common place in the preparation of tamales, as well as many other dishes. I have used my molcajete, but more often I will use a food processor or blender, and am glad that I have these! Thankfully we now also have a corn masa for preparing tamales that can be found in almost all grocery stores.
There are three (3) important components to a tamale:
(1) Filling (Carnitas – Shredded Pork)
(2) Tamale (Masa) Dough
(3) Corn Husk Wrappers (hoja de ma)
Carnita (kahr-NEE-tahz) – Mexican for little meats. This dish is simply small bits or shreds of well-browned pork. It’ is made from an inexpensive cut of pork that’s simmered in a small amount of water until tender, and then finished by cooking the pieces in pork fat until nicely browned all over. This recipe for Carne Adovada may also be used in place of the below Carnitas Recipe.
Homemade Tamales Recipe:
Tamales Recipe – Carnita Recipe
Carnitas cook time: 2 hrs
Tamale dough prep time: 15 min
Assembling tamales: 30 min
Cook (steaming) time: 1 hr
4 to 5 pounds boneless pork shoulder, fat trimmed and meat cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons salt
2 onions, coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves
1 dozen whole peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
IMPORTANT: Make sure that you have all the ingredients and equipment needed for the recipe before you start preparing. This is called Mise en Place.
In a large soup pot over medium heat, combine pork cubes and just enough water to cover the pork. Add salt, onions, garlic, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and oregano; bring to a boil. To keep the peppercorns and cumin seeds separate, place them in cheese cloth and tie before adding to the meat pot (or you can do like me and use a tea ball - these work great).
As the meat comes to a boil, a foam will rise to the surface; skim this foam off, then reduce heat to low, and let mixture simmer. You will need to simmer the meat for approximately 1 1/2 hours, adding water as needed to keep the pot from going dry. Do not allow this to boil during this time, simmer only. When done, remove from heat.
Allow the pork to cool in it’s own broth. Once cooled, removed the pork from the broth; reserving the broth for later use in making the Masa Dough. Shred the pork by using two forks to pull the meat apart, or you can use a food processor fitted with the plastic “dough” blade to shred.
Thoroughly mix the cinnamon, black pepper and paprika thoroughly into the meat. Refrigerate the cooked pork and the pork broth, covered, until ready to make the tamales. Cooked pork carnita meat may be stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days. Reheat before using.
Crock Pot/Slow Cooker Method: Cook on low heat for 8 to 10 hours or on high heat for 4 hours. Once the meat is tender, remove from slow cooker and let cool slightly before pulling apart with a fork.
How To Make Tamales:
Corn Husk Wrappers:
Corn husks hold the tamales together and help keep them from drying out.
1 (16-ounce) bag of dried corn husks (hoja de maiz)
Dried corn husks can be found online and in the ethnic food aisle of most grocers. The corn husks allow the steam to penetrate just right, so the tamales are well cooked. There are some people who use aluminum foil or other wrapping materials, but I cannot see making tamales and not using the original ingredients.
At least 30 minutes before assembling your tamales, soak the dried corn husks. Fill a large pot, or your sink, with hot water and place the dried corn husks in the hot water to soak (a dinner plate may have to be used to hold corn husks under water). Corn husks need to be pliable enough to wrap, but don’t have to be soft).
Tamale (Masa) Dough:
4 pound bag of prepared Masa/Mase*
3 tablespoons paprika
2 to 3 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons garlic powder
2 cups corn oil**
2 quarts pork or chicken broth (use your reserved pork broth)***
* Do not confuse Masa with cornmeal, as they are made from different types of corn and you will not achieve the same results in your tamales if you use cornmeal. Masa mix can be purchased in Latin American markets or supermarkets that carry Latin American products. It can also be purchased by mail order (online) if not available locally.
** Originally lard was used in making Masa Dough.
*** Skim the fat off of the chilled pork broth before using
Preparing Masa Dough:
In a large bowl (and I mean a very large bowl), place 1/2 the bag (approximately 2 pounds) of Masa/Maseca mix. To this add the paprika, salt, chili powder, and garlic powder.
Using clean hands, work the dry ingredients together, mixing well so that you don’t end up with clumps of spices (this wouldn’t taste too good, and the rest of the masa would not be seasoned well).
Once you have the masa and the other dry ingredients well combined, add the corn oil all at once.
Continue to work this with your hands, mixing the corn oil into the dry ingredients. Once this is distributed well, begin adding the warm pork or chicken broth, 1 cup at a time. Keep mixing, and adding broth, until your masa is the consistency of paste or peanut butter. You will probably be using both hands before you get to this point. NOTE: You may need to add more masa mix, or more liquid as you are mixing so you obtain the right consistency.
It is important that the prepared masa must be very moist and light. When you’ve prepared your masa, do the “float” test: spoon a little bit of dough into a bowl of water. If it floats, it Is done. If it sinks, it needs more liquid, a little more fat and several more minutes of mixing.
If you masa dough does not float – if it sinks, it needs more liquid, a little more fat, and several more minutes of mixing, ideally with a high-powered mixer. Once the dough is whipped with enough air and sufficiently aerated, the masa dough will float. Your dough should be soft and spoonable, but not runny or crumbly.
Making Masa in advance: Cover the Masa Dough with plastic wrap or put in a plastic bag until you are ready to use it.
Assembling the Tamales:
Carefully separate the soaked corn husks, and place them on a towel on the counter top. Arrange your ingredients in the order you will be assembling them (at least that is how I have found is easiest).
- Corn Husks first
- Shredded meat (Carnitas)
- Steamer pot to cook the tamales in
(1) Take 1 (or 2 if the corn husks are very narrow) softened corn husks and place them in your hand (pinched-looking end toward your fingers and smooth side of a corn husk up).
(2) Slightly overlap the corn husks.
If a corn husk rips or one is too small, overlap two and continue wrapping tie as usual.
(3) Using a butter knife or your other hand, take enough of the Prepared Masa to spread over the corn husks covering the top 2/3 and 2/3 of one side, about 1/4-inch thick. If you spread it too thick, it will be difficult to roll up with the meat added and it will squeeze out onto your hand or counter. If you make it too thin, you will have the meat falling out in the steamer.
The photo shows an idea that I came up with after watching the little kids use their hands to flatten out the Masa Dough. I took a hoja and used it to press down the Masa Dough under it. It makes it easy to get an even layer that is just the right thickness.
(4) Add approximately 1 to 3 tablespoons (according to your desires) of the prepared shredded meat (Carnitas), spreading it evenly down the center of the masa (careful to leave 1/2-inch at the top and bottom, and room on the sides for the masa to close around the meat).
After you have put together a few, you will be able to better gauge the amount to add and still be able to roll up your tamale.
(5) Carefully roll the tamale, starting with the side covered with the Masa Dough. Turn right side over to center of filling; fold left side over filling, allowing plain part of husk to wrap around filling. Fold top end down over bottom end.
(6) Roll it snug, but not too tight. Too tight and you might end up with a hand full of Masa and this really cannot be used to make a new one.
You may want to make your tamales “conveyor” style, or make several husks with Masa Dough, then proceed to the next step. Because of the amount of work put into making tamales, a great time to make them is when friends and family are present. Conveyor style allows you to get them into the pot faster, which means everyone gets to eat faster!
Stove Top Tamale Steaming Instructions:
Stand the tamales upright (folded side down) in a large steamer pot fitted with a steamer basked and a lid. For best results, the tamales should be firmly packed, put not too tightly, as the dough needs room to expand some. I use my pasta pot, or my extra large stock pot with a wire rack supported on two clean bricks (very well washed bricks). There are also “tamale” pots you can buy that are made specifically for tamale making.
Once you have a full pot of assembled tamales, fill the bottom of the steamer pot with water, making sure the bottoms of the tamales are not in the water. Cover and bring just to a boil. Keep the water bubbling, not a hard boil. Once steam has begun to escape from the pot, reduce the heat to medium; keep these steaming for at least 2 hours, adding water as needed so the pot does not go dry.
The tamales are done when the Masa Dough around the meat feels firm there are no parts of uncooked dough left. To test the tamales for doneness, remove one tamale from the steamer. Let this cool for a moment or two. As you open the husks, the dough should come away easily from the husks and be completely smooth. To make doubly sure, open up the tamales and see if they are spongy and well cooked throughout.
Remove the tamales, and let them rest on the counter for a few minutes. This will help them finish “setting” up and let them cool so no one burns their mouth. Well at least not from the stove heat, they may get a burn if the chile is extra hot!
They can be eaten right way, stored in plastic bags or containers in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, or they can be frozen for up to 3 months (that is if they last that long). If you use a vacuum sealer they can be kept frozen up to a year. To reheat the tamales, wrap in foil and place in 350 degree F. oven about 30 minutes.
IMPORTANT: Remember to remove the corn husk wrapper before you eat the tamale.
Slow Cooker Tamale Steaming Option:
Tamales are meant to have the dough steam cooked. If you want to use your slow cooker, it is critical to make a steam barrier to keep the tamales out of the water at the bottom of the cooker.
Pre-heat your slow cooker on high heat and line the sides of the slow cooker all the way around with aluminum foil. Pour in 3 1/2 cups water into slow cooker. Next, take an aluminum pie tin and poke holes all around the bottom of the pie tin. Place the pie tin upside down in the slow cooker so it creates a rack for the tamales to stay out of the water while steaming. Place the tamales in the slow cooker standing them upright (with folded side down). Do not overcrowd the tamales as they need room for the dough to expand while steaming. Cover the tops of the tamales with extra corn husks, then cover the top with a layer of aluminum foil to help trap in the steam.
Place the lid on top and find something heavy to weight down the lid to hold in the steam. Cook the tamales on high heat for 4 1/2 to 6 hours. Check the tamales after 4 hours. The tamale dough is done cooking when the corn husk wrappers easily pull away. If not, then continue cooking and checking every 45 minutes until the dough is cooked.