Tamales 101: 10 Tips from a First-Time Holiday Tamale Maker

For some, the Holy Grail of Holiday Cooking is the croquembouche. For others, it's the perfect latke or maybe the whole turkey-and-fixin's line-up.

But tamales have always topped my holiday bucket list. Maybe because "Tamale Day" has long been described by friends in hushed tones — romantic in its mystery, involving family recipes, long-perfected techniques, hours gathered around a table gossiping and, of course, a delectable end result.

As a Jewish girl growing up in Phoenix, I didn't have a lot of Christmas traditions to cling to; we just went to the movies and sat out by the pool. When we did have stockings, they were blue and white, and my mom filled them with Carefree gum. And I didn't try a tamale til I was an adult. Make one? No way.

Determined to pop my tamale cherry, last year I took a class from Chef Silvana at Barrio Cafe. The class was wonderful — what I remember of it, anyway. As we walked in the door we were handed a margarita, and the drinks kept coming (at least, I think they did — this year's invite only offers one marg). By tamale time I was tanked, and left none the wiser as far as this art was concerned. I didn't even remember to bring my tamales home with me!

This year, I vowed, things would be different. So I invited a bunch of friends over on the Sunday after Thanksgiving for our own "Tamale Day."

Here's what I learned:  

1. When you are inviting friends over to make tamales, make sure you include an expert.

Once I'd assembled my guest list, I panicked. No one had ever made a tamale — some of these women had never even tasted one. My dear friend Gilda came to the rescue. She does not consider herself the expert in her family, but she's been around the tamale block more than once, let me tell you.

We couldn't have done it without her. Well, we could have, but the results would not have been edible. You can consult recipes (here's a good one from Rick Bayless) but nothing beats having a pro by your side, with her hands all over your pork butt. (So to speak.) I am going to make her a pot of matzoh ball soup as a thank you gift.

2. Take that expert grocery shopping with you.

This was a big fail on my part. I did consult (several times) with Gilda before setting foot in Pro's Ranch Market, so I knew to purchase pork roasts and to get the pre-made masa (the filling) but I was still left with several questions. Just how much masa should I buy? (One bag — instead of four — would have been plenty to make 4 dozen or so tamales.) What form do I get the red chilis? (Buy a jar of Santa Cruz chili paste instead of the dried whole chilis.) And how many bags of corn husks? (Again, one would have sufficed.) A quick trip to Food City the morning of Tamale Day took care of my errors. Be sure toss some chicken broth in the cart, too. (More on that later.)

3. Soak the corn husks overnight.

Very important. I soaked them in water in a large baking dish with a few ceramic dishes on top to weigh them down. Don't forget (as I did) to lay them out to dry an hour before you're ready to use them.

4. Don't throw out the juice from the meat, no matter how fatty (and gross) it looks.

A big fail on my part. Let's just say that a cooked pork butt (put it in the Dutch oven for three hours with garlic and onions, then rip it apart when cool) leaves a lot of fat. I couldn't imagine incorporating it back in — so apologies in advance if my red chili pork tamales are a little dry. Gilda saved the day with some leftover juice from the cooked chicken and a lot of red chili paste. The chicken did well with a few cans of diced green chilis.

5. Doctor your masa.

Yeah, it comes in a big bag, all ready to go — but Gilda insisted on mixing it up with some chicken broth to loosen it into a paste that spread easily on the corn husks.

6. Many hands make light work.

Gather everyone around the table and give each person a spoon. Lay a corn husk vertically, rough side down (it's hard to tell, with practice it gets easier) on your hand and spread the masa from the top of the wide part of the husk down about three inches. Slap on a dollop of meat (or whatever filling you are using) and roll like a burrito, folding the end up and over. (And if you don't know how to roll a burrito, you might not want to have a Tamale Day.)

7. Have a big pot ready.

Gilda brought over a gigantic tamale pot, but you can also use a soup pot with a steamer inside. Do not lay the tamales down. Prop them standing with the open part up (this was news to me) you'll be able to fit dozens in your large pot, comfortably.

8. Don't forget the wet dish towels.

Before you put the lid on the pot, wet a couple of old dishtowels and set them gently on top of the tamales, to increase the steam power. Put them on low to medium heat. For a large pot, check them after two hours; smaller, after one and a half. Make sure the tamale is totally firm; it can't be gooey at all anymore.

9. Clear out the freezer.

Seriously. My freezer is now half-full of tamales and I still have a bag of masa to go. Whoops.

10. Tamale Day really does take all day. So clear out your schedule, too.

I didn't realize you have to cook the tamales before you freeze them — I thought you just stuffed and froze, then steamed later. Actually you steam them, let them cool off, then either eat or wrap and freeze. So even with a lot of help, Tamale Day will take all day. Cancel your other plans ahead of time.

Have fun. And if you don't feel like making tamales yourself, call me — because I have a lot to share.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at