Catalina’s Tamales

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catalinas tamales


If there is one thing I know about Mexican cuisine, it is that it is all about the prep work.  Very little goes into the actual assembly, or combining of all ingredients.  However, a lot of work often goes into each individual piece of the finished dish.  Probably the most complex recipe I’ve ever made, is a Mexican recipe.  It is also one of the first things I ever learned how to make, and one, until today, I have never actually measured, but have always done by taste.  These are my Great-Grandmother Catalina’s Tamales, passed on from her to her daughter-in-law, my grandmother, onto my mother and me.




When I was a child, our entire extended family would get together on New Years Day for tamale assembly.  It was a chance to spend time with one another, but also a chance to make hundreds of tamales to freeze for later meals.  These tamales were sometimes given as New Years gifts to friends or neighbors (who, often over the course of the year, would beg for more tamales).  I remember sitting at a table with all of my cousins, a bowl of meat and a heaping bowl of masa in the center, and each of us with a stack of corn husks, spreading, spreading, spreading for what seemed like days.


Tamales are made of several parts.  The main two parts are the meat, and the masa.  That sounds easy enough, but within each of these parts are many others.  Because many ingredients are used for both, it is hard to find a place to start, or to explain one half without explaining the other, as I’ve seen other recipes do.  Instead, the process becomes braid, many pieces coming together from different starts until it is finally one.  I will do my best to explain it in steps, rather than separating everything out, because I think in doing so the entire process will make more sense.



Bag of Dry Masa (This comes in a bag like flour, and can be bought at your local ethnic food store. Brand doesn’t matter so much, but I routinely stick to the one pictured.  However, if you plan to feed an entire army, you can buy the giant bulk bag of massa the size of a bag of dogfood which I recently saw at a grocery store.)

Large Pork Butt (You can make this with chicken, also, or with beef, or I’ve even made it with venison.  I’ve also made vegetarian tamales by using the pepper water in the masa rather than the pork water, which you’ll understand later.)

2 heads of garlic

Ground Cumin



Canola Oil

Package of Chile Ancho Peppers

Optional: Package of Chile Peppers (if you prefer to add a kick to your tamales)



1.  Boil the Pork Butt in water with a few teaspoons of salt and one head of garlic (cloves smashed or diced) for several hours until meat almost falls apart.  Remove from water (BUT SAVE THE WATER!!!), let cool, and shred meat.




2.  Put the water in a container (we often use washed out soda bottles or milk jugs) and refrigerate.




3.  Boil Chile Ancho peppers in large pot until cooked and soft (you may notice the skin start to flake, this is a good sign).  Once cooked, drain water (if you plan to make these vegetarian, save this water and use it in place of pork water for the rest of this recipe).




4.  If you have sensitivity to peppers, you may want to use rubber gloves for  this next part.  On a piece of wax paper, take a pepper, and pull the top stem area off.  Remove as many of the seeds as you can.  The pepper skin should start to flake off, and will be easy to split open.  Once split open, lay it with the “meat” side up, and the skin flat against your wax paper.  Take a teaspoon and gently scrape the “meat” of the pepper off of the skin.  Discard the skin, saving only the “meat” of the pepper.  Do this for all of the chile anchos.




5.  Take all of the chile ancho “meat” and place it in a blender.  Puree it.




6.  In a large (LARGE) bowl dump Masa package (the package should be about 4.4lbs).  Add 1/4 cup of salt, 2 cups of canola oil, 4 cups of pork water (skim the fat off the top of the pork water), and 1 cup of chile ancho puree.  Mix thoroughly either using hands or a large mixer.  Add more or less of any of these ingredients in order to make a thick paste.  This should no be dough-like (Please please please don’t ever call masa “dough,” or I will hunt you down and slap you across the face.  Nothing annoys me more.)  Think of the consistency of ground beef…you should be able to pick up a chunk of it and hold it in your hands without it falling apart, but it should also be more easily spreadable than peanut butter.  If you do not add enough oil, the tamales will stick to their husks.  If you do not add enough pork water, salt, or pepper puree, they may lack flavor.  If you do not have the right ratio of masa mix, they may not stick to the corn husk enough to even be able to cook.  The consistency is VERY important.






7.  In a bowl mix together 4 cups of pulled pork and 1.5 cups of pepper puree.  If you wish to add some spice, finely dice a few chile peppers and add them to the chile ancho puree.  Add 1 teaspoon of cumin.





8.  Take a skillet and heat up three tablespoons of canola oil.  Add meat/puree mixture to the skillet, and flash fry it.  Do not overcook it.  This is just to trap in the flavors, as your ingredients are already cooked.

9.  Soak a bag of corn husks in water for at least four hours.  We generally use a tub, a cooler, or line something with a garbage bag and add water to it in order to soak the corn husks.  be sure to separate them and discard any corn silk you might find, or any husks that have too many holes and will be unusable.  Remove a few husks only when you are ready to use them, and leave the rest to soak during the assembly process, otherwise they will dry out.





Wow.  That took long enough, huh?  But you’ve finally made it to the assembly step!  Hooray!  This is usually the portion of the process where I invite friends over to help/eat.  It is also one of the messier portions.

1.  I suggest some basic set-up:

  • Clear a table for preparation.
  • Place two large bowls in the center, one with finished Masa and one with finished Meat.
  • Line the rest of the table with wax paper.  This will need to be replaced periodically.
  • Secure  small rubber/silicone spatulas for each person.  In the past, we have used spoons, but nothing works quite as well as one of these small spatulas, as the masa does not stick to it as much.
  • Set aside plenty of dish towels.
  • Prepare a tray for finished tamales to be placed.

2.  Once you have set up, you can begin assembling.  You will first need to select a corn husk.  Remove your corn husk from the water it is soaking in, and dry it thoroughly with a dish towel.  You may want to have a couple drying as you are assembling (but don’t let them sit too long so they dry out all the way).  Find the smooth side of the corn husk.  Yes!  There is a RIGHT and a WRONG side of the corn husk.  It is usually fairly easy to tell which is which.  No side is perfectly smooth, but one is much smoother than the other.  This is the side that you want face up.  This is the side you will be applying masa to.

3.  Be sure your corn husk is not too small, but not too large.  Usually people say the best are those about the size of your hand.  I have incredibly small hands, so I don’t use this method.  Instead, I think those that have a base of about 5 inches are the perfect size.  Any bigger and you may want to peel a bit off, and any smaller you will want to discard or use for ties later.

4.  With the small end facing away from you, spread the masa in a smooth layer over most of the smooth side of the husk (leave empty the space about two inches from the top of the thin end.  The layer should be thin and even, maybe a few millimeters thick.




5.  Then, place a few pinches of meat in a line down the center of the husk on top of the masa.




6.  Fold one side in a little under halfway to the middle, and then fold the other side over it so it overlaps a centimeter or two.




7.  Fold down the top two inches, and use a bit of corn husk to tie it closed.

8.  When you have a dozen or so ready to go, use a large pot with a steamer to steam them (upside down so the open end is facing up, and don’t let them touch the water) for 1 hour or until the masa changes consistency and falls easily off the husk.




9.  Serve warm.  You can store them in the refrigerator or freezer (obviously they last longer in the freezer).  To reheat, you can either place them in the microwave for a few minutes, or put them in the oven on the top rack with a pan of water on the bottom rack so they don’t dry out.


NOTE:  DO NOT EAT THE CORN HUSK.  I don’t know how many times I’ve given these as gifts, or served them to friends, and forgot to mention this fact.  I just assume it is common knowledge, but it is not, because people still try to eat the husk.  While the husk is natural, and wont kill you, it does not taste good and probably will make the texture of the tamale really weird.  Unwrap them before eating.

Let me know if you make them, and how they turned out!


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2 Responses

  1. I love tamales! I usually buy them already prepared. It seems a very daunting task to make them myself, but now I want too. I am also curious if dry masa is gluten free?

  2. Julia, it’s so worth it! They’re absolutely delicious! Masa should be gluten-free because it’s all corn, but definitely double check the ingredient list if you have an allergy. I think Bob’s Red Mill has a variety that’s certified gluten-free.

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