How to make tamales and make your own masa at home

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How to prepare masa

Tamales are filled with masa, a paste made from nixtamalized corn, water and calcium hydroxide. Castrejón likes the simplest way, with masa harina, an already ground corn treated with calcium hydroxide.

Zack Wangeman, chef and owner of Brooklyn’s Sobre Masa, thinks nixtamalizing with your own corn makes all the difference, and it’s something home cooks shouldn’t find intimidating. “I think the great thing about tamales is that masa doesn’t have to be tasty,” Wangeman says. “It’s a coarse masa, so you don’t have to worry about it being soft like a tortilla.”

Wangeman says you can easily get your hands on calcium hydroxide at any Mexican grocery store and at an Amazon crank grinder. “An easy recipe would be, say, one pound of corn, three liters of water and 30 grams of calcium hydroxide,” he says. You will need to dissolve the calcium hydroxide in the water, add your corn and cook it until al dente. After letting it sit overnight, rinse it the next morning, then throw it into the hand crank mill.

But whichever route you choose, you’ll want to end with a spreadable masa. “My mom always says that once the mix looks like Play-Doh, then you know it’s done,” Castrejón says. And it gets better over time, as the masa benefits from oxygenation, so letting it hydrate for an hour will ultimately help your tamale texture.

Many tamale recipes call for lard, but both Castrejón and Wangeman go for oil. “A lot of times I use grapeseed oil and think of fun ways to flavor it,” Wangeman explains. “I’m going to put some chard, onions, garlic and a bunch of dried shiitake mushrooms and leave them candied in the oven for about two hours.”


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