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Sounds Like Tamales

From the thwack of the masa to the jingle of pennies in a pot of boiling water, Vicky Thrasher says sounds play an important role in Mexican cooking.

tamales standing in boiling pot

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

After filling the corn husks with masa and filling, stand them up in the steamer. As they cook, the filling will expand out the top of the husk.

Christmas Eve Tradition

For Mexican families, the centerpiece of a traditional Christmas Eve dinner is not turkey or ham. It’s tamales. 

These little packages contain corn-based dough and various fillings — from savory to sweet, meat or vegetarian — all wrapped in a corn husk.

Preparing tamales is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, so multiple sets of hands are practically a necessity.

Kayte Young, the Nutrition Education Coordinator at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, is a self-proclaimed tamale enthusiast. While she’s an avid cook, for some reason she just can’t make tamales.

She’s hoping to get a handle on the process by playing sous chef for Vicky Thrasher, a volunteer at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard who has been making these husked treats since she was a girl. Back then, she mixed the dough by hand — a process that took upwards of an hour. Today her countertop mixer is doing the heavy lifting.

Masa Musts

The basic ingredients of tamale dough are masa harina (corn flour), baking powder, fat and chicken or beef stock. She likes her dough airy, so she uses more baking powder and more fat. The traditional fat is lard, but she’s using coconut oil today.

While it might be tempting to find shortcuts when making tamales, using store-bought, concentrated stock is a definite no-no for Thrasher. Including real, homemade stock makes a world of difference in terms of the taste and consistency. She saved the water used for boiling the chicken to include in the recipe.

The dough has to have a good flavor of course, but the consistency is just as important in determining when it’s ready — it can’t be too sticky or too gritty. Thrasher uses all her senses to test it.

“Mexican cooking has a lot to do with sound,” says Thrasher. “When I’m slapping the masa down, I’m listening for a sound.”

For the untrained ear, it just sounds like a thwack, but Thrasher knows what she’s listening for.

The Jingle Of Pennies

Before they can start assembling the tamales, they must ready the steamer. You can make a tamale steamer with equipment you already have in your kitchen — a vegetable steamer basket inside a large stock pot (over 12 quarts).

“And pennies,” says Thrasher.

She tosses two pennies in the bottom of the pot with only about two inches of water. When the pennies start rattling from the boiling water, she’ll turn down the heat.

Then, she applies a layer of husks to the vegetable steamer. This keeps the steam and the moisture in the pot which will prevent the tamales from drying out.

corn husk and masa

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Vicky Thrasher demonstrates how to lay the corn husk on her hand, smooth side up. She spreads a thin layer of masa on the husk before then applying a small scoop of filling.

Tag Team, Let’s Begin

Young and Thrasher work in tandem to assemble the tamales. They’re making two kinds: chicken and green chiles, and queso fresco and chile and corn relish.

They place the corn husks on the palms of their hands, lengthwise from wrist to fingertip. Thrasher runs her nail across one side of the husk to hear the ridges. This rough side goes palm down.

With spatulas, they apply a thin layer of dough to the smooth side so the tamale will slide out when it’s cooked. She leaves 3-4 inches of clean husk at the bottom. After wrapping the tamale, this portion will be folded over to seal in the filling.

She then stands the wrapped tamales up in the steamer. This way when the filling rises during cooking, she can grab bites above the corn husk.

“That’s my little treat,” she says. “I can taste them and see that they’re good.”

two people making tamales

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Vicky Thrasher (left) and Kayte Young are assembling tamales in anticipation of Mother Hubbard's Cupboard's tamale making workshop. Today they are making two types: chicken and green chiles, and queso fresco and chile corn relish.

two people assembling tamales

Photo: Annie Corrigan/WFIU

Thrasher shows Young that you only need a thin layer of masa and filling on each corn husk. The tamales will expand as they cook.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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