Recipe–Tamales 101–The First “Fast Food”

Tamales are America’s orignal fast food.

They were eaten my armies, travelers, and men, women, and children on the go.

Tamales are a cornbread meal in a disposable-biodegradable wrapper.

Yesterday, I made tamales as I had been craving them since Christmas time.  In the American southwest and South and Central America, they are often made at Christmas time as they are time consuming to prepare and therefore, a special treat.  Just as you or I might host a Cookie Exchange or a Cookie Baking Day with family members, so tamales are made at a tamalada(Click here for recipes and a menu for a tamalada.)

Tamales is plural for the Hispanic word tamal.  “Tamale is an “Americanized” word, created from the plural “tamales”.  When you say “tamale”, you are talking about a Mexican tamal.”  from

Although I used the word “cornbread” to describe a tamal OR tamale, regular corn meal is not used but a special cornmeal that can be bought in the Mexican section of most grocery stores.  A very common brand is “Maseca” and sometimes all cornmeal flours used for tortillas or tamales are refered to by the same name (just as we use the word Kleenex.)  Here is a photo of Maseca.

If you were to read the Ingredients List on the side of this bag, it would say, “Corn treated with lime.”

“The labels on packages of commercially-sold tortillas prepared with nixtamalized maize usually list corn treated with lime as an ingredient in English, while the Spanish versions list maíz nixtamalizado.”  from Wikipedia.

Now I always thought that meant the little green fruit that I squeeze in my favorite beverage of Coke and lime, but that is not so.  The lime refered to here is Calcium hydroxide.

“Calcium hydroxide, traditionally called slaked lime, is an inorganic compound with the chemical formula Ca(OH)2. It is a colorless crystal or white powder and is obtained when calcium oxide (called lime or quicklime) is mixed, or “slaked” with water. It has many names including hydrated lime, builders lime, slack lime, cal, or pickling lime. It is of low toxicity. Calcium hydroxide is used in many applications, including food preparation.”  from Wikipedia.

Why is the cornmeal treated with lime?  There are TWO VERY GOOD REASONS.  The first reason involves your health and the second makes grinding the corn easier.   A corn kernel is covered with a hull called a “pericarp.”  This pericarp inhibits the absorption of niacin (found in corn, but hard to absorb).  A lack of niacin results is something called pellagra (which is such a yucky disease, I won’t discuss it in a blog about food.)

“Nixtamalization typically refers to a process for the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled. The term can also refer to the removal via an alkali process of the pericarp from other grains such as sorghum. Maize subjected to the nixtamalization process has several benefits over unprocessed grain for food preparation: it is more easily ground; its nutritional value is increased; flavor and aroma are improved; and mycotoxins are reduced. These benefits make nixtamalization a crucial preliminary step for further processing of maize into food products, and the process is employed using both traditional and industrial methods, in the production of tortillas, tamales, corn chips, hominy and many other items.”   from Wikipedia

Since my parents were missionaries, and I grew up in South America, we ate many ethnic foods traditionally prepared.  I had a very vague memory of asking an Indian lady what made her tamales taste so good, and she said, “ashes.”  From that point forward, (I was maybe 12), I thought tamales had ashes in the dough.  It turns out that the Indian lady was correct, but I was wrong.

Tamale dough is called “masa”.  It is made from kernels of corn that have had the pericarp a.k.a the hull) removed.  The pericarp can be removed by soaking the corn in water mixed with ashes.  Water mixed with ashes is called “potash”.

“The word potash has its roots in the Old Dutch word potaschen and is a compound of “pot” and “ash,” reflecting how potassium carbonate was first made. In ancient times, people took tree leftovers, including damaged branches and roots, burned them on a dry day, and left the ashes in pots to decompose. The ashes were soaked in hot water and then filtered, producing lye — a rudimentary stage of potash.”

I found the following article helpful.

“What You Need to Know about Culinary Lime

In its earliest Native American form, culinary lime (aka culinary lye and potash) was a mixture of water and wood ash in which corn was cooked to remove the clear outer coating of each corn kernel. (That cellophane-like coating is called pericarp, incidentally, and you’ll recognize it as the clear stuff that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat popcorn). Simply put, wood ash and water mixed together form potassium hydroxide, a naturally caustic chemical that makes hard proteins in the corn pericarp soluble—it literally eats the pericarp away. Today, more often than not, taking the place of the water-and-wood-ash brew is culinary lime, a white powder purified from natural calcium deposits, that is stirred into water to make lime water.

The result of corn soaked in lime or potash is hominy.  (This website has some excellent pictures of the process.)  Here is a picture of hominy.

Tamales can be made from two different types of “masa”.  Once the pericarp has been removed, the hominy can be dried and then ground into a corn meal.  Or the hominy can be ground while it is still “wet”.

 (Tamale recipe:

I made my masa from Maseca as it is easy and I don’t have any “field corn” available.  Some commentators found prepared cornmeal (Maseca) to not have the strong taste of the wet masa.  I would agree, but practicality (i.e. time/space/energy/kids/soccer practice/guitar practice/Boy Scouts/etc. . .) means that most moms will probably use the dried Maseca.  One option I did see was to add 2 tsp. of calcium hydroxide (a.k.a pickling lime and found in the canning section–used to “crisp” pickles) to your Maseca.  I suppose that would give your masa more of the traditional “ashen” taste.

The second main ingredient in the masa is lard.  I reviewed various recipes and found that some used corn oil, some butter, and some lard.  I used a mixture of butter and lard that I melted.  After reading different recipes, I discovered that some beat their lard until it is fluffy (like creaming butter), then add the corn flour (Maseca) or wet masa.  Other recipes melted the butter or even used corn oil.  I haven’t compared the differences, but I do know that the traditional tamales were delicious and they were all lard.  I also know I have a very hard time adding lard to any recipe–butter just somehow seems like a healthier alternative.

The liquid added is not water or milk, but chicken broth or beef broth.  Of course, the better tasting the broth, the better tasting the tamal/tamale.  I usually have some frozen chicken broth/stock so I used some great tasting home-made stuff.

Salt is also added.  I made two different recipes and both called for 1/2 teaspoon.  Since I like my food a little on the salty side, I heaped the 1/2 teaspoon a bit.  And in both recipes, it wasn’t enough salt.  The kiddos and I all added some table salt when we ate our tamales.  Consider this when making your masa.

Once you have your masa made, the options are endless.  Some tamales are savory, and others are sweet.  You can add plump raisins to have more of a “pudding” or pulled pork and chiles.  Although we often think of tamales as Mexican, they are served in most Central and South American countries.  However in Mexico, they are a high art.

“Mexican tamales differ from one region to another in the fillings and leaves used to wrap them.  Here are some of the types you can find throughout Mexico:

  • In Culiacan, Sinaloa they use small sweet brown beans, corn and pineapple.
  • In Veracruz they use corn and pork seasoned with hoja santa.
  • In Oaxaca tamales are large and seasoned with black yellow and green moles.
  • Tamales in Monterrey are small and made with smooth or coarse dough filled with red chilies and strips of meat.
  • Tamales in Yucatan are seasoned with Achiote and are baked or cooked in a pit with chicken and pork fillings.
  • In Michoacan tamales are wrapped in corn leaves and have no filling.
  • The largest tamales come from North Western Mexico where they cook them in large pits or bake them in ovens.  These tamales can be three or four feet long and use coarse masa filled with pork seasoned with red chilies.


Tamales are wrapped.  Most are loaded and wrapped in dry corn husks that have been soaked in water.  Soak the corn husks overnight or heat up water and soak them in almost boiling water for about 20 minutes (or until they get soft.)  You can also use green corn husks or banana leaves or even kale.  Corn husks can be found at most Wal-Mart’s or in the Mexican section of your grocery store.

I used the dried corn husks.  I soaked some overnight (they float, so you have to put something on top of them to keep them submerged.)  I also heated up some water and softened some husks right before I made them.  The corn husks that I softened in hot water lost some of their “corn flavor” to the hot water, so in the future, I think I will just soak them overnight.”

I read several ways to wrap tamales.  Some leave the top end open.  But I will show you my way, and promise you that it is the best.  🙂

Open up a corn husk.  If the corn husk is small, you can layer two and have them overlap a bit.  One package of corn husks is WAY too many to use up for a regular size batch.  I only use about half of the corn husks and still have enough to be “picky” about which ones I use.  (Be sure to brush off all the corn silks.)

Load on the good stuff.  Here I added masa, spicy chicken, and finished it off with a square of sharp cheddar.

Fold up the bottom and hold it with your thumb.

Fold over one side and hold it with your thumb.

Fold over the other side and again hold it with your thumb.

 Fold the top down.  Now, you can just put it in the steamer with the loose end down.  As you add tamales, they will all keep each other from “flipping a lid.”  Once steamed they hold their shape.  OR. . . .

Rip off a strip of softened husk, and tie up your tamale.  It is quite easy.  If the “string” breaks, just grab a new one.  They just look so cute this way.  (You can also use cooking twine.)

You can also use it to distinguish between tamales–the chicken tamales are tied, while the corn and cheese tamales are just folded.

Tamales are steamed.  I don’t have a proper steamer, so I used a colander in one pot and a “sieve” in another pot with a cookie cutter on the bottom to keep the sieve up.  The tamales steam for 1 1/2 hours, so don’t make them at 5:00 if the kiddos will want supper at 5:30.  You can put a penny at the bottom of the steamer.  As long as you hear the penny rattle, you know that there still is water in the steamer.  If the penny stops rattling, then you know you need to IMMEDIATELY add water.

Now a rattling noise for 1 1/2 hour would drive me crazy, so I just periodically checked to make sure there still was water in my steamer.  If you let the steamer run out of water, several hours of work will go to waste as the tamales will pick up a scorched taste.  You can also use a pressure cooker.  Read your pressure cooker’s directions, but I saw 20 minutes cooking time for savory tamales and 15 minutes for sweet tamales.  I even read you can put in a second layer (on a metal insert shelf) as long as you don’t pack the tamales too tight.  Pressure cookers can be finicky, so be careful.

If tamales were going to the spa, this would be their corn wrap, followed by a steam bath.

Tamales really are a two-day process.  If you are making savory tamales, the meat stuffing can be made the day before.  Also, the corn husks need to soak in cold water overnight if you are using that method.  Add the prep time and the 1 1/2 hours of steaming, and you have a two-hour job.  HOWEVER, if you use prepared Maseca, have some leftover taco meat, heat your corn husks to soften them, steam your tamales in a pressure cooker, and don’t have any interruptions, I think you could go from start to tamale in 1 hour and 15 minutes (maybe even a little less.)

The other good news is that if you make a large batch of tamales, they freeze wonderfully.  Just pop them into a microwave for 1 minute or so, and you can have a steaming hot tamale.

Last note.  My kiddos did not like tamales the first time I made them.  They had forgotten about tamales, and this time when asked what I was making, I said, “Oh it is just like that corn casserole that you like except it is wrapped up like a present.  You can eat the corn ones with honey or the Mexican ones like tacos.”  The kiddos all ate the tamales this time around.  SCORE!!!!

And on April Fool’s Day you will hear about my Hot Tamale Story, so stay with me.

la cusinera,

–Senora Rebecca

P.S.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I think that a corn tamal/tamale loaded with three cubes of different cheeses would taste divine.

And for the record, I am an American, so I say “tamale.”

And now for a Give-Away.  If you can tell me what color the fringe on my apron is, there might be an apron in the mail for you.

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9 Responses to Recipe–Tamales 101–The First “Fast Food”

  1. Kathy Tanner says:

    Well miss high energy Mama, I am smiling that you even wear and apron! I do, all the time, because it makes it look like I am busy. And if I am busy, I am messy.
    So if you are really busy with your beautiful tamales, the fringe could be red from all the sauce.
    But whatever, it would be fun to see you in your apron.
    Your cousin had a photo of yourself in an apron, just like mine and it has black ruffle trim,
    Blessings to you, and I hope you go to bed soon,

    March 16
    Proverbs 16:20 He who gives attention to the Word will find good.
    ( and don’t forget it )


    • whitsendmom says:

      It is not red, (but the part about the red sauce made me smile.) Look at the pictures to see a small glimpseof my apron.
      And the reason I had time to make tamales was because my car was in the shop for two days. I had NO wheels!


  2. Lisa Buchanan says:

    aqua-ish? I can’t tell if that’s your apron or what you’re wearing.


  3. Abigail says:

    Rebecca! Thanks to you I am now starving hungry. We moved away from our neighbor that would pass a tray of fresh tamales over the wall occasionally (a trade off for the time their power was turned off we tossed an extension cord over the same wall for their fridge) so it has been a while since I have had one.
    Would it be an Aqua-ish color?


  4. Laura says:

    It looks Verde to me 🙂 is it terrible that my mouth watered more for the avacado on your salad then your tamales?!?


  5. Bel McCoy says:

    Yes, the avacado and salad look mouth watering. Can’t imagine spending that much time and
    effort on tamales…. never have tasted one, so maybe that’s why. Just got home from ADM in
    Kirkland and am stuffed with great food and couldn’t eat a bite more.


  6. Bel McCoy says:

    Also couldn’t see any “fringe”………


  7. Lisa J says:



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