Monday, May 9, 2011

Chez Michelle and Justin: Mexico City-Style Tamales... Made in a Chinese Bamboo Steamer

Tamales have a street rep. They're known to be hard, mean, unmanageable by anyone except for the toughest abuela. I've had a package of corn husks kicking around my kitchen since around 2006 (the same package, mind you), but never mustered the courage to attempt tamales. Today, in an effort to procrastinate on something else, I finally found the right moment to make them. The results were fantastic.

Traditionally, tamales are steamed upright in a tamale steamer. Since I didn't feel like buying another piece of kitchen equipment without more tamale making experience under my belt, I used a Chinese bamboo steamer I had on hand, instead. The bamboo steamer worked well, but it does affect the way you wrap the tamale (described in more detail, below). The number of tamales you can steam at once is also more limited than if you use a large, upright tamale steamer.

Mexico-City Style Corn Husk-Wrapped Tamales
Makes 8 medium-size tamales


  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 1/2 cups to 2 cups good quality, warm broth (in our case, we used broth made by boiling the bones, skin and attached scraps of meat from the grilled chicken thighs we used for the filling, over medium heat, for 1 hour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or lard at room temperature 
  • 8 corn husks (about 1/2 an 8 oz package), or more, if some are torn and you see the need to double wrap the tamales + 4 extra husks for lining the bamboo steamer
  • Leftover chicken thigh meat from approximately two cooked thighs, with fat and skin removed, roughly shredded in large pieces. Our chicken was left over from a prior, grilled meal, and had been marinated in salt, pepper, garlic powder, rosemary and a splash of bourbon. You could just as easily broil or bake the chicken thighs in the oven, or even boil them. Just make sure it is flavorful enough to work as a tamale filling. 
  • About 1/4 cup chili paste or other salsa. In our case, we used leftover sambal ulek, an Indonesian chili paste, which worked nicely.  
[*Note: You can use almost anything you like for the filling. Delicious vegetarian fillings include corn and cheese, huitlacoche, or rajas and cheese. Common non-vegetarian fillings include shredded pork and red chile, shredded beef, etc...] 

Special Equipment
  • Large bamboo steamer
  • Large stock pot that fits tightly with the bamboo steamer
  • Dish towels to wrap around steamer
  • Electric mixer (or a strong arm and a strong whisk)


Soak the corn husks in near-boiling water for one hour or until very soft. Older husks may need a longer soak to become properly pliant. Make sure you clean off any foreign substances sticking to the husks (dirt, dead bugs, etc...). 

Using a mixer, whip the butter (or lard, if using) until very fluffy. Add masa harina, baking powder, salt and garlic powder. Mix until you have a uniform, crumbly / grainy mixture. Add broth by the half cup, mixing thoroughly after each addition. After about 1 1/2 cups, hand knead the dough until it comes together easily, with the soft, spreadable consistency of creamy American peanut butter (i.e. Jiffy, not natural peanut butter). If it is too dry, add up to 1/2 a cup more of broth. 

Drain the corn husks well and shake off remaining liquid. I worked on top of a dish towel, which helped dry the husks. Use two husks to fully line the bottom of each layer of the two-layer bamboo steamer (a total of four husks). 

Arrange one of the remaining husks so that it is flat, with the narrow point facing up. Spread 1/8 of the prepared masa mixture (approximately 1/2 cup) in a 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick square, near the middle of the husk. Leave about 1 inch of husk on the right and left, with plenty of uncovered husk above and below the masa. (Ordinarily, for tamales steamed upright, you would spread the masa all the way to the bottom of the husk, leaving this end open, facing upward. But we need to seal the husk all the way around, since our tamales are steaming in a horizontal layer.) 

Place shredded chicken in a 3/4 inch-wide strip down the middle of the masa square. Evenly spread 1 to 2 tsp chili paste or other salsa over the chicken. The quantity you use depends on your tastes, how much seasoning and moisture is already in the chicken, and the level of heat you're going for. 

Fold the left side of the husk, with masa, over the chicken, and then fold the right side of the husk over. Tuck the top and bottom ends of the husk under, and place the sealed tamale, seam side down, in the bamboo steamer, in a single layer. Wrap in another layer of corn husk if the first husk is torn, anywhere, and you worry the filling may leak. (You can tell which ones are double wrapped in the pictures because the husk's "stripes" run horizontally, instead of vertically.) 

Tamales in the Steamer

Bring a full pot of water to boil, in a pot that fits well with the bamboo steamer. Place the bamboo steamer over the pot and wrap the steamer with a towel all the way around, to help hold in the steam.  

Keep water boiling on medium to medium high heat and steam for 1 hour. (Adjust your heat on the basis of how tightly the steamer fits to the pot. If it's a very close fit, you don't need quite as much steam and you can use a medium flame; if it's a looser fit, use higher heat for more steam. You want to see a little bit of steam escaping from the top of the towel-wrapped steamer, but it should not look like a chimney.) 

Towel-Wrapped Steamer

When you're ready to eat, unwrap and enjoy! We had ours with homemade quick cucumber pickles, a green salad, and more shredded, leftover chicken, tossed with barbecue sauce. You can freeze leftovers for much later or just refrigerate and reheat in the microwave, if you plan to eat them in the next few days.

Tamale Unwrapped

Not so hard after all, eh? 


  1. These look amazing. Have you made zhong-zi?s tamale more difficult?

  2. Hi, AG, no, tamales are really not more difficult than zhongzi. The method is actually pretty similar, huh! The difference is really that I have a reliable, consistent zhongzi vendor and not a reliable tamale vendor. El Idolo's are ok, but very inconsistent (sometimes actively bad), and I haven't found better tamales near where I live.

  3. all of your creations look amazing, but this one I thought I would let you know that you;re making me hungry.