Tamales: Where to buy ’em, how to make ’em and why it’s not ‘tamale’

It’s not Christmas without tamales in many Central Texas homes.

You can find the most common Mexican-style tamales at food trucks, restaurants, gas stations, corner stores, grocery stores and even a cooler at a neighbor’s house, but you might also celebrate with Puerto Rican-style pastelada or another variation.

No matter which kind of tamal you’re enjoying, stick with “tamal” and not “tamale.” It’s the difference between potato and potatoe, and nobody wants to be the person who misspells “potato” or “tamal.”

Here’s a list of place where you can buy tamales this time of year, but they aren’t as hard as you might think to make at home.

RELATED: Austin360Cooks: Friends gather for Puerto Rican pastelada

Making tamales? Get the most from your masa

I’ve made them off and on over the years, and I always love to eat them. If you are lucky enough to get invited to a tamalada, say yes, and if you feel adventurous or brave in your skills, don’t be afraid to host one. I had a friend over for a two-person tamalada one year, and we had a wonderful time splitting the work between ourselves.

It’s easiest to make tamales in a group because they require so many steps. Contributed by the Beef Loving Texans.

RELATED: Why you should stop saying “tamale”

Where to buy tamales in Austin

The filling for beef tamales. Contributed by the Beef Loving Texans.

Beef Tamales

Beef Loving Texans, the consumer-facing site run by the Texas Beef Council, has a great step-by-step tutorial on how to make tamales: and the following recipe for beef tamales.

For the beef filling:
6 lb. brisket
1 onion
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tsp. salt
6 peppercorns
8 dried ancho chiles
1 tablespoon cumin (comino) seeds
Water to cover
1/2 lb. lard (or 1 cup canola oil)
For the masa:
6 lbs. prepared, storebought masa or
4 lbs. masa harina
1/2 lbs. lard (or 2 cups canola oil)
6 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups of broth from beef filling

To prepare the corn husks/hojas: Hojas are corn husks that are dry and papery but usually clean of silks, trimmed, flattened and ready for use. To soften them, pour plenty of very hot water over them and leave to soak for several hours or overnight. Shake well to get rid of excess water and pat them dry with a towel. You’ll need about 3 pounds of husks for this recipe.

To make the beef filling: Cut the brisket into large squares and put into a large pot with the onion, garlic, salt and peppercorns.  Cover the beef with water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer until tender – about 3 hours. Set the beef aside to cool off in the broth. Strain, reserving the broth, and chop beef with garlic roughly.

Cover chiles and cumin seeds with water and bring to a boil. Let them stand until chiles are soft and water cools.  When they are cool enough to handle, slit  them open and remove seeds and veins. Using a molcajete or a blender to grind/blend them along with the cumin into a paste.

Melt lard, add chile paste and sauté for about 3 minutes stirring all the time. Add beef and garlic, continuing to cook for the flavors to meld. Add 1/2 cup of the broth and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes over a medium flame.  Filling should not be watery. Add salt as necessary.

If you have access to freshly prepared masa that’s ready to use in tamales, buy it. If you want to use Maseca or another masa harina, buy the one for tamales and follow this step: To make the masa from the masa harina, melt the lard. Use a large mixer to mix masa, salt, baking soda, broth and the lard (one cup at a time). Continue beating for 10 minutes or so, until 1/2 teaspoon of the masa floats in a cup of cold water. If it floats, you can be sure the tamales will be tender and light. If it doesn’t float, beat more melted lard into the mixture. Beat until fluffy and semi-shiny. Masa should be of a stiff consistency but spreadable.

To make the tamales: Using a tablespoon or a knife, spread a thin coating of the storebought or homemade masa over the broadest part of the corn husk, allowing for turning down about 2 inches at the pointed top. Spread the masa approximately 3 inches wide and 3 ½ inches long.

Spoon some beef filling down the middle of the dough, about 1 tablespoon. Fold the sides of the corn husks together firmly. Fold up the empty 2-inch section of the husk, forming a tightly closed “bottom” and leaving the top open.

To cook the tamales: Fill the bottom of large soup pot or a tamale steamer with 1 inch of water and bring to a boil. If using a pot, either put a molcajete, bowl or ball of aluminum foil at the bottom of the pot and fill in with leftover corn husks. Stack the tamales upright, with the folded part down at the bottom. Pack firmly but not tightly. Cover the tamales with more corn shucks. Cover the top of the steamer with a dishcloth or thick cloth, or cover the pot with a tightly fitting lid.

Cook tamales for about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours over a medium flame.  Keep water in a teapot simmering so that you can refill the pot when necessary. If you use a tamale steamer you should not have to add any more water.

To test the tamales for doneness, remove one from the center, and one from the side of the pot. Tamales are done when you open the corn husk, and the masa peels away easily from the shucks and the tamale is completely smooth.

— Ellen Riojas-Clark

You can put so many different fillings in tamales, including pork, beef, chicken and beans. Contributed by the Beef Loving Texans