Most tamales are gluten free, while many are dairy free; you can also make them vegan with a seasoned black bean filling. They are a big project, but well worth your time (if you are a fan). Making them yourself cuts the cost dramatically, and they freeze successfully for up to a year. It is a Mexican tradition to make tamales for Christmas. While they can be made at any time of the year, it makes the most sense to me to make them at Christmas when all of the ingredients go on sale at the ethnic markets. It’s also the only time of year that you can easily find banana leaves.
I started making tamales when we found out that Buster couldn’t eat peppers. Trust me when I say that the only way to find a pepper free tamal is to make it yourself. (Language nitpicking: Tamal is the proper Spanish singular, while tamale is the American misunderstanding of the word.)
We hit a hitch last year after we discovered Little Man’s corn allergy. Tamales are a staple of our almost-everything-from-scratch diet. What would I do without this emergency meal? That’s when I found out that some tamales are steamed in banana leaves instead of corn husks. With that hurdle passed, all I had to do was tackle the masa. What other gluten free flour would produce comparable results? After my experience baking, I knew sorghum reacts similarly to corn in baking. I decided to try it. A little tweaking later and now Little Man (and my mom) can eat tamales!
Each year I spend two days making a large batch, and then they serve as a quick meal straight out of the freezer many times throughout the year. The first day you simply simmer the meat until it’s tender and season it for the next day’s work. Don’t forget to save the broth too. The second day you mix the masa, assemble the tamales, and steam them.
This website is the one I used to learn how to prepare tamales. I simply leave out the spices that contain peppers and follow the rest exactly. Well almost exactly… I now skim the lard off the top of the chilled broth from the first day’s meat preparation. Then, I use that as the fat in the masa. I only use cooking oil after the lard runs out. Waste not, want not.
The only special piece of equipment you need is a steamer pot. You can buy big fancy pots just for tamales, but I just use my pasta pot with it’s large insert.
Before I get to the recipe, I must point out that tamal making is a big job. Be sure to have at least one helper, but many hands make light work. This year we invited friends for cooking and eating on New Year’s Day, and afterwards we sent them home with leftovers. Thanks for coming, Patrick and Heather, we had a great time!
When I make vegan tamales, I soak and cook 3 lbs. of black beans, drain, and season them with the same spices as described in the aforementioned linked recipe. You can also add fresh corn off 4-6 cobs to the blend for added texture–unless you are making corn-free tamales.
Also take a look at the flavor options on this site. They even have dessert tamales. I see experimentation in my future!
1 package fresh banana leaves
prepared meat or bean filling (1.5-2 cups for this amount of banana leaves)
Masa (start small, you can always make more if necessary)
2 cups sorghum flour
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp salt
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/3 cup lard, canola, or safflower oil
Warm broth (quantities vary by day and humidity)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash and dry the banana leaves. Cut them into strips about 8″ X 10-12″ and remove the tough spine if necessary. Kitchen shears make this job go quickly.
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut in oil until well distributed. Add warm broth about 2-4 tbsp at a time until the masa is a thick peanut butter consistency. The masa should spread well without cracking too much. It is very forgiving at this stage, so you can add more flour if you get it a little too thin.
On a cookie sheet warm 3-4 cut banana leaves in the oven for 2-3 minutes. Be careful not to over warm them or they will dry up at the edges. This process keeps them from splitting when you fold the tamales.
Spread about 1/4- 1/3 cup masa (to taste) in the middle of the leaf. Spread in a circular motion or press down with your fingers. Fill with about 2 Tbsp of meat or beans (to taste).
Gently fold the banana leaf around the fillings to make a long tube, then fold the ends towards the seam to make a small rectangular envelope. Now many recipes will tell you to tie the package with cooking string, but I simply let gravity help the process and lie them on their flaps to keep them closed.
Place the tamales in your steamer and steam for one hour over medium heat. Check the water level periodically to make sure that you don’t scorch your pot. Don’t ask me how I know this little tip.