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The secret to really great tamales…

Addie Broyles

Love tamales?

If so, you’ll enjoy today’s lead story about making the most out of masa, the key ingredient that makes tamales tamales.

(If not, who are you and how are we friends?)

For that story, Fresa’s Chicken al Carbon chef Rene Ortiz and “Tamales” author Alice Guadalupe Tapp shared their tips on getting even more flavor out of masa harina, the dried cornmeal flour used to make the masa. Ortiz will toast some of the masa harina in a dry skillet before adding the fat and stock, and he’s even been known to crush up corn nuts in a coffee grinder to add even more “perfume” of corn.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I made a batch of pork tamales with my friend, Kristina, and experimented with some of their advice. We used both butter and lard and various ratios of salt, baking powder and liquid in the masa before steaming the tamales, but I must say, the biggest difference between the batches was whipping the lard or butter before incorporating it into the masa harina with your hands. (I used a handheld mixer, but you could use a stand mixer if you have one.)

The last batch of the day, I simply mixed the unwhipped lard with the masa harina, and the tamales were noticeably more dense than the ones we’d made earlier in the day with whipped fat.

I was surprised how wonderful the masa made with butter tasted, and that idea came from Tapp, who has written several tamales books and runs a tamales shop in Southern California with her daughter.

Here’s her basic recipe for masa, and I’d love to hear any lessons you’ve learned about making tamales in the comments.

Oh, one last trick: I didn’t have an official tamalera for steaming the tamales, but I crumpled up balls of aluminum foil in the bottom of a big soup pot and place a small plate on top of them. We then added water to the pot and placed about 15 to 20 tamales upright on the plate (in the middle) and on the balls of foil (around the edges) to steam them for about 40 minutes.

Ortiz’s trick about putting a penny in the bottom of the pot so that you can hear when there’s water boiling worked great. As soon as we stopped hearing the penny, it was time to add more water to the covered pot.

Basic Fresh Masa

1 lbs. butter or margarine, softened

5 lbs. fresh masa (unprepared)

2 to 3 cups stock (chicken, pork, beef or vegetable)

2 Tbsp. salt (or less to taste)

Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add one-third of the fresh masa alternating with one-third of the stock, then add the salt. Beat until well mixed, adding more stock if needed, turn the mixer to high and beat for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the dough resembles spackling paste.

Take a small piece (about 1/2 teaspoon) of the dough and drop it into a cup of cold water. If it floats, it is ready; if it sinks, whip for another minute and test it again. Repeat this process until the masa floats.

Note: The fresher the masa, the faster it will become light and fluffy enough for use. Refrigerate for up to three days. Makes about 60 tamales.

— From “Tamales” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99) by Alice Guadalupe Tapp