Tamales in Texas: A Christmas Tradition

Tamales in Texas: A Christmas Tradition

Posted by Mary P on Dec 22nd 2014

I moved to Texas from Delaware in 2008 with my family. Throughout our first year here, we experienced the various cultural differences between the northeast and southwest, one of them being tamales at Christmastime. Before I moved, I couldn't even tell you what a tamale was, but there I was—in Texas in December—seeing signs for tamales all over the place. If you’re not already enlightened to the awesomeness that is a tamale, then this blog is for you.

What are tamales?

Tamales originated in Mesoamerica many, many years ago (I think around 7000 BC, but don’t quote me on that). They’ve evolved into many different variations depending on where you live or how previous generations in your family prepared them. In Texas, tamales are most commonly made with masa (a starchy, corn-based dough) and a variety of other ingredients depending on your taste, which could include chile peppers, pork, chicken, beef, beans, spinach, cheese, and more. The ingredients are wrapped up in a cornhusk bundle and steamed or boiled. You eat them by unwrapping them, removing the corn husk (you don’t eat that part!), and digging in with a fork.

Why do people in Texas have tamales at Christmas?

Really, tamales can be made at any time of the year. The traditional tamale-making process can take several days to complete, so they’ve become associated with special occasions, such as Christmas. Plus, people usually make tamales in large quantities because they take so long to prepare. This makes them a perfect meal to have during the holidays when families gather together to celebrate. Over the years, the process of making the tamales became a traditional event in itself, called a tamalada. Family members create a kind of assembly line in their kitchen to prepare the tamales as they enjoy each other’s company and socialize. Many families in the Hispanic community recall “Christmas Eve Tamales” as a tradition that has taken place for generations.

How do you make tamales?

This will be the first year that I attempt to make tamales myself. You can get premade tamales at local restaurants or you can order handmade, frozen tamales online and reheat them yourself. The most common type are probably the pork tamales, so I’ve included my friend’s recipe for that below. The recipe requires tamale sauce, so I put my friend’s red chile pepper sauce down there as well. She said it’s pretty much unheard of to use a store-bought sauce in a tamale recipe, so she strongly recommends using the sauce recipe and not replacing it with something pre-made.

Tamales are seriously delicious and inexpensive to make in relation to how much food you get out of a recipe. If you’re looking to start a new tradition in your house this year, consider hosting your own tamalada.

Red Chile Pepper Sauce for Pork Tamales

Remember to wear rubber gloves to protect your skin from the chili oils!

- 15 large dried Anaheim or California chile peppers
- 4 - 5 cloves of garlic
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp olive oil

1 - Preheat oven to 350°F.
2 - Cut the stems off the chilies; then split the chile peppers lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a spoon.
3 - Lay peppers out (in a single layer) on a baking sheet.
4 - Place in oven and roast at 350°F for 2 - 5 minutes. Keep an eye on the chilies to avoid burning.
5 - Remove from oven and place chilies in a large pot. Fill pot with enough hot (NOT boiling) water to cover chilies and let them soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (Note: Save the water you used to soak the peppers in. You'll need some for the next step and some for the final step!)
6 - Combine chile peppers and 2 1/2 cups of the soaking water into blender.
7 - Add salt, garlic, and cumin.
8 - Cover and blend until smooth.
9 - In a 2-quart sauce pan, stir flour into oil and heat over medium heat until browned.
10 - Stir in blended chili mixture.
11 - Simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Hint: If the sauce gets too thick, stir in up to 1 cup of the remaining soaking water until you reach the desired thickness.

Pork Tamales

Makes 50 tamales

- 3 1/2 lbs pork butt, trimmed of fat and cut up
- 10 cups water
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 1/2 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup shortening
- 6 cups masa harina
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 50 dried corn husks (about 8 inches long)
- 4 cups Red Chile Sauce (see recipe above)

1 - In a 5-quart Dutch oven, bring pork, water, onion, garlic, and 1 1/2 tsp salt to boil.
2 - Simmer covered, about 2 1/2 hours or until meat is very tender.
3 - Remove meat from broth and allow both meat and broth to cool.
4 - Shred the meat using 2 forks, discarding the fat.
5 - Strain the broth and reserve 6 cups.
6 - In a large sauce pan, heat the Red Chile Pepper Sauce and add meat. Then simmer covered for about 10 minutes.
7 - Start soaking corn husks in warm water for at least 20 minutes; rinse to remove any corn silk and drain well.
8 - While the corn husks are soaking, make masa by beating the shortening on medium speed in a large bowl for 1 minute.
9 - In a separate bowl, combine and stir masa harina, baking powder, and 2 tsp salt.
10 - Alternately add masa harina mixture and broth to shortening, beating well after each addition, adding just enough broth to make a thick, creamy paste.
11 - To assemble each tamale, spread 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture on the center of the corn husk. Note that each husk should be about 8 inches long and 6 inches wide at the top. If husks are too small, you can overlap 2 small ones to make one. If husks are too big, tear a strip down the side.
12 - Spoon about 1 tbsp of meat and sauce mixture in the middle of the masa.
13 - Fold in sides of husk first and then fold the bottom up.
14 - Place a mound of extra husks or a foil ball in the center of a steamer basket placed in a Dutch oven.
15 - Lean the tamales in the basket, open side up.
16 - Add water to Dutch oven just below the basket.
17 - Bring water to boil and reduce heat.
18 - Cover and steam for 40 minutes, adding water when necessary.
19 - To freeze these for future meals, leave them in the husks and place them in freezer bags. To reheat, thaw and wrap in a damp paper towel and microwave 2 minutes for one or two tamales.