Why This Recipe Works
Tamales are small, moist corn cakes that can be stuffed with a variety of fillings—usually shredded chicken, pork, or beef, or a combination of cheese and chiles. The filled corn cakes are wrapped in corn husks and steamed. On the Mexican table, they can either be served as breakfast or as the main course at dinner, served alongside beans and other hearty dishes like roasted meat or poultry. Often served during the holidays, tamales are time-consuming to prepare, with families gathering together in the kitchen to pitch in. We wanted to simplify the process while staying true to the tamales' subtle but hearty flavor and light texture.
We started with the corn dough that comprises the bulk of the tamale. Although masa dough (made from corn kernels that have been cooked with slaked lime, ground to a flour, and mixed with water) is traditional, it can be difficult to find in many parts of the United States. Instead, we turned to widely available masa harina, but found that when used alone, it was too fine-textured and the corn flavor was bland. We tried adding both cornmeal and grits to supplement flavor and texture. Although cornmeal had great corn flavor, the texture of the tamales made with it reminded tasters of corn muffins. Grits, on the other hand, had a more granular texture similar to authentic tamales and didn't sacrifice any of the flavor. Fresh corn is a common addition in many tamale recipes, and we thought it would reinforce the corn flavor and provide textural contrast. We experimented with varying amounts and landed on 1 1/2 cups of kernels. We also tested tamales made with frozen corn; tasters couldn't distinguish the difference between frozen and fresh kernels, so we opted to call for frozen since they are available year-round and are easy to prepare (no cutting kernels off of cobs).
For the fat in the dough, we tried several options: vegetable shortening, vegetable oil, butter, and lard. In the end, the vegetable shortening and vegetable oil gave the tamales an unpleasant, artificial flavor. We preferred the traditional combination of lard supplemented with butter for richness and flavor. To prevent the dough from cooking up with a hard, dense texture, we added baking powder and used a food-processor mixing method to incorporate some air into the dough.
Traditional Mexican tamales are usually wrapped in dried and soaked corn husks, although in some regions, banana leaves are the common choice. We chose to work with widely available corn husks, and soaked a few extras to make up for any that were cracked or too small. When it came time to fold the tamales, most of the recipes we found required tying each one closed, a process we found we could do without by simply folding the tamales and placing them with the seam sides facing the edges of the steamer basket.
With our dough and cooking method settled, we turned our attention to creating flavorful fillings: a rich red chile chicken filling and a smoky-spicy chipotle beef filling.