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From-Scratch Pork Tamales Are the Cooking Project You've Been Looking For

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I’ve always wanted to learn to make tamales. So when I had the opportunity to cook with my wonderful friend Janet, I asked her if she would show me how they are made in her home country of Mexico. Before we started, she warned me that tamales are a labor of love: While certainly not a quick dish, they would be worth the work, she ensured me.

Janet's Mexican Pork Tamales
Janet's Mexican Pork Tamales

Many countries have their own version of tamales. Even in Mexico, tamales vary from place to place, family to family: Some wrap their tamales with corn husks, while others use banana leaves. Janet told me that where she is from in northern Mexico, corn husks are the preferred cooking sleeve, and she feels that they yield a tender, softer exterior. The fillings, too, are matter of preference. Some like to add refried beans or chicken to the masa dough, but for Janet’s family, the favorite is slow-cooked pork flavored with ancho chile. (And she uses any leftover pork to make tostadas or fill tacos.)

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Because the pork simmers for three hours, Janet makes it the day before. With the pork shredded and flavored ahead of time, she can focus on making the masa dough and assembling the tamales.

Spread the masa over the husk, then spoon the pork on top. Photos by James Ransom

Making the masa is a bit time consuming—but very important. Janet told me that in Mexico, you can go to the mill to pick up freshly ground masa, which is softer and fresher than what we purchase in the grocery store here. In the States, she prefers to buy “instant” masa, as she feels it has the closest flavor to what she was able to buy back home.

Once the masa is ready, she lays the pliable husk in her hand, using her palm as a base, and spreads the masa up and down. She wants the masa to be thin enough that she can put a generous helping of pork down in the middle. Then, she expertly folds it up and ties it with a bow made of corn husk. In Mexico, she would make a simple tie on the pork tamales and a bow on the bean tamales so that her guests would always know what they were going to find inside.

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Fold n' tuck. Photos by James Ransom

When she’s ready to cook, Janet lines the steamer basket with broken pieces of corn husks before nestling in the tamales—the steam will heat the husks before the tamales, which prevents against soggy bottoms. Then, she places a plastic bag over top of the tamales to catch the condensation (another moisture protection device), followed by a dish towel and, finally, the top of the pot.

Then, it’s just a matter of waiting two hours—one for the tamales to steam, and one from them to hang out in the steamer with the heat off. Janet covers the finished tamales with homemade salsa verde made with tomatillos, onions, and cilantro. The combination of the savory pork, soft corn masa, and fresh salsa verde makes all of the labor worthwhile.

Cooked Green Salsa (Salsa Verde)
Cooked Green Salsa (Salsa Verde)

You can make the tamales ahead of time, too: Freeze them, steamed or un-steamed, in a plastic bag for up to a month. Defrost the tamales before steaming or, if they've already been cooked, defrost them in the microwave on a dish wrapped in Saran Wrap for two to three minutes.

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Janet's Mexican Pork Tamales

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Makes 40 to 50 tamales

For the pork filling:

  • 3 pounds pork butt, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 6 cups water, to cover pork and make broth
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 1 tablespoon ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 ounces ancho chile
  • 40 to 50 corn husks

For the masa:

  • 1 1/3 cups refined pork lard
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 cups instant masa
  • 4 cups reserved pork broth, from above
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
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What's your favorite type of tamale? Tell us in the comments below!