Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dutch Oven Tamales


As luck would have it…

Many years ago, when we lived in West Jordan, there was this Mexican family that lived down the street. I don’t recall their names, but one of the young boys was named Miguel. He’d come by and say Hi occasionally.

His Abuelita moved up from Aguaprieta, in the north of Mexico, if I recall correctly. She was a nice lady, and about once a quarter, she would take a couple of days and make pots and pots of tamales.

Now, I liked tamales, but this lady made tamales like there was no tamale! They were the most incredible I’d ever tasted. And she would send Miguel and his sisters door to door with these 5-gallon buckets full of these corn-wrapped delicacies, selling them for a buck apiece. We’d always get as many as we had cash for, sometimes up to twenty.

I was told you could freeze them, but they never lasted that long at our house.

Well, the family ended up moving. Some of them went downtown, I think, and the Abuela moved back to Mexico, again, if memory is serving me correctly. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect tamale. No restaurant has ever equaled the magnificence of La Maestra De La Cocina.

Well, of course, I also had to try my hand at making tamales. At first, I wanted someone to show me how. That would be cool. But scheduling and everything is just too tough. But last week, while we were in San Diego, we had some Tamales in a restaurant that were almost, but not quite, half as good as the ones I remembered. It was then that I determined that Tamales would be my next dutch oven project.

Immediately, I began my research. I bought a steaming rack that would fit in the dutch oven. I bought the corn husk sheaves. And tonight, I made my first batch, of about 15-18 tamales. I didn’t count.

Oh, they were delicious. I’m biased, so I’m not sure I can claim if I got it close or not. And frankly, it was kind of a happy accident, because the instructions on the recipe I ended up choosing weren’t very clear, and I bungled the spices.

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to make a second batch, ostensibly to freeze. We’ll see if any survive that long.

Mark’s Dutch Oven Tamales

Several Dutch Ovens (I used my 12” shallow, my 12” deep, and my 8”, but I guess I didn’t really need the shallow 12)

Lots and lots of coals below, about 10 or so on top, depending on the stage of the project.


  1. 3-4 lbs boneless chicken (I used frozen chicken tenderloins). You can use pork or beef, too.
  2. Lots of water, maybe 6 cups or so
  3. 1 medium onion, sliced and quartered.
  4. 1 heaping teaspoon of chopped garlic
  5. 4 bay leaves
  6. 2 Tbsp salt
  7. 32 whole black peppercorns (I don’t know what’s so magical about the number 32, I just followed the directions)
  8. Liberal shaking of dried oregano (2-3 tsp)
  9. 3 Tbsp ground cumin
  10. 4-6 Tbsp flour (added later)

Masa (Dough)

  1. 4 Cups Masa Harina Flour
  2. 2 tsp baking powder
  3. 2 ½ Cups broth from cooking the filling (see below)
  4. 1 ½ Cups shortening
  5. Dried Corn Husks to wrap the Masa and the filling.


  1. 3 Tbsp oil
  2. 3 Tbsp flour
  3. 2 ½ cups water
  4. 2-3 Tbsp chili powder
  5. Liberal shakes of garlic powder
  6. Liberal shakes of salt

First of all, I made the filling. Now this recipe was one that I originally found on, but since I bungled it, I rewrote it to reflect my “mistakes”, or as we like to say “enhancements” or “innovations”.

To start with, I put the frozen chicken into the dutch oven (I originally did it in my 12” shallow. I could have saved some cleaning and done it all in my 12” deep, but I didn’t), and added the other ingredients for the filling, except the flour. I put that pot on a lot of coals, probably around 20 or so, covered, and let it start boiling. After about 45 minutes or so, the chicken was boiled and it was smelling really good.

I brought it in, and used a straining spoon to lift the chicken and the onion out of the dutch oven. I shredded the chicken into a bowl with a couple of forks, then sprinkled some of the broth back onto it. Onto that, I sprinkled the flour and stirred it up. That gave it a bit of thickness, and also shredded the chicken up a little bit more. I also added a bit more of the cumin powder, oregano and a bit of ground black pepper. Not too much, just some sprinkles to replace what was settling in the bottom of the dutch oven.

Now if I were in more of a hurry, I’d have been soaking the corn husk hojas in hot water while I was cooking the meat. But, then again, if I were in a hurry, I wouldn’t have been making tamales in a dutch oven, now, would I? So, at this point, I put the hojas on to soak, and started to mix the masa.

The masa was easy to make, just put all the ingredients into a bowl. There really are only two special instructions. At the bottom of the dutch oven I used to cook the meat, the spices had settled to the bottom. When I dipped out the broth to mix in the masa, I tried not to disturb it so as to get a clearer broth. I did pick up some of the spices and powders, but not too much. The other thing I did was to get out a pastry cutter/mixer to blend it all. I guess you could just mix in the shortening by hand, but the pastry cutter worked really well.

Once the masa was mixed, and the hojas of corn husk were softened, I started making tamales. I have to confess that I’ve never watched it be done, I’ve only read about it, so my technique is not necessarily authentic. Nonetheless, it worked. I laid out a single hoja with the pointed end toward me. I spread a small ball of masa out so that it covered about a 2 ½” to 3” square toward the top of the hoja. Then, I spread out a 1” wide line of meat filling the top to the bottom of the masa. Then, I folded the right hand side of the hoja over the filling and pulled the corn husk back. I folded the left hand over and held the hoja there, and re-folded the right hand hoja back over, wrapping the masa and the filling up in corn husk hoja. Then, I folded the point up into a nice tamale envelope. These I stacked aside.

When I’d made all the tamales, I put the steamer rack into the 12” deep dutch oven, and put water in the bottom up to the level of the steamer. I started to stack the tamales in the oven, on the steamer, so that the open end of the tamales was up. This was kinda tricky, since they didn’t always want to stack. Still, I managed to get them all in. If I’d made more of them, I’d have been able to stack them all the way up against the walls of the dutch oven. As it stood, the recipe didn’t make enough to do that. There was plenty of meat, but I’d have had to make more masa. I decided to cook what I had and test it, rather than risk making a bigger disaster.

This dutch oven, now covered, went out on some fresh coals. Again, about 18-20 coals went underneath, packed in, well, like the tamales were. Another ten or so coals went on top, around the outer rim. Within about 15 minutes, I could start to see steam coming out of the edges of the lid, and that’s when I marked the timing to start. I steamed them for about an hour, refreshing the coals once. I only opened the lid once, and that was just to make sure that they were all still standing up, and that all was well.

Finally, after about an hour, I pulled one out, cooled it, and tasted it! Wow! It was great.

Also, in my 8”, I made a milder version of that enchilada sauce that I’d done a few months ago. The only real difference was not so much chili powder. It started out by heating the oil and the flour into a roux in the 8” dutch oven (I still had plenty of coals left over), and then adding the remaining ingredients once the roux was browned. Those I stirred and simmered for about another 20 minutes or so, until it cooked down and thickened.

Finally, you unpeel three or so tamales, spoon on some sauce, and enjoy. Wow!


  1. Mark , try pork butt instead of chicken...........much better ! my Mom cooked them for years in Texas that way......but not in a D O .......also go to your local mexican tortilla factory and buy their tamale
    "masa" you will notice the difference!!!!!!!!!!!

    omar / tex-mex

  2. He now cooks mostly with stainless steel cookware and loves to research different types of cookware products to enhance the meal preparation experience anodized cookware



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