A tamale is a traditional Latin American dish made of masa or dough, which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, vegetables, chilies or other ingredients. They are often eaten during celebrations and holidays.
Tamales are an ancient food that dates back thousands of years to Pre-Columbian times. They originated in Mesoamerica among the Aztecs, Mayans and other indigenous cultures. The oldest record of tamales comes from 15,000 year old caves in Tehuacán, Mexico. Over the centuries, tamales spread throughout Latin America with each region developing its own flavors and variations. They remain a cherished tradition and important cultural symbol.
The main component of a tamale is masa. Masa is a dough made from nixtamalized corn. To make masa, dried corn kernels are cooked and soaked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater or calcium hydroxide. This loosens the hull and softens the kernel. The softened corn is then ground into a wet dough or masa.
So is there flour in a tamale? Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients and find out.
What is Masa?
As mentioned above, the main ingredient in tamale dough is masa harina or masa de maíz. Masa harina is dried masa flour made from nixtamalized corn. It originated with the Aztecs and Mayans who figured out that soaking corn in alkaline solutions made the nutrients more available and resulted in a tastier dough.
To make masa harina, field corn or maize is soaked and cooked in limewater. The corn kernels absorb the minerals from the limewater solution which helps release the hull and soften the kernel. The softened kernels are then drained and ground into a wet dough or masa. The masa is pressed to remove excess water and then dried into a fine flour called masa harina.
Masa harina is different from regular corn flour in that it has been nixtamalized. The nixtamalization process gelatinizes the starch and releases the corn’s nutrients. It gives masa harina a unique flavor and texture that works perfectly for making tamale dough.
So while corn is the main ingredient, masa harina is not the same as plain corn flour. It goes through a special process to create that distinctive masa texture.
Tamale Dough Recipe
Now that we know what masa harina is, let’s look at a traditional tamale dough recipe:
– 2 cups masa harina
– 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– 1 3/4 cups warm broth, chicken or beef
– 1/4 cup melted lard or vegetable shortening
1. Whisk together the dry ingredients (masa harina, baking powder and salt).
2. Add the warm broth and melted shortening.
3. Mix together until a soft, pliable dough forms. The texture should be like Play-Doh.
4. Knead the dough for a few minutes until smooth.
This simple tamale dough recipe contains just a few ingredients – masa harina, broth, salt, baking powder and lard or shortening. No extra flour is added.
The masa harina provides the structure and that distinctive corn masa flavor. The lard or shortening adds moisture and flakiness. The broth hydrates the dough while the baking powder gives it a slight rise as it steams.
Do You Need Flour for Tamales?
Plain flour is not an essential ingredient for making tamale dough. As seen in the recipe above, all you need is masa harina and a few other ingredients to create the masa. Masa harina is the special nixtamalized corn flour that gives tamales their unique taste and texture.
Adding extra flour or using just plain corn flour would alter the flavor and texture of the masa. It would not give you that traditional masa consistency needed for tamales.
Here are some reasons why plain flour is not used in tamales:
The texture of the dough is very important for tamales. Too much flour can make the dough dry and crumbly. Tamale dough should be moist and spreadable, while still thick enough to wrap around the filling. Masa harina has the right moisture content and viscosity to achieve this ideal texture.
Masa harina has a sweet, nutty corn flavor from the nixtamalization process. Plain flour would dilute and alter this iconic tamale taste.
Using masa harina to make the dough is traditional for tamales. It is the ingredient used originally by indigenous Mesoamerican cultures. Replacing it with flour would not be authentic.
Masa does contain some gluten from the corn kernels. But it has less gluten than wheat flour. Too much gluten development can make the tamale dough tough. Masa harina has the right balance for the tender crumb tamales should have.
So in summary, the answer is no – plain flour is not used when making tamale dough. Masa harina or masa de maíz provides the essential flavor, texture and traditional roots of an authentic tamale.
When is Flour Used in Tamales?
Now there are some instances when baking flour may be incorporated into tamales:
As a Thickener
A small amount of flour could be used to thicken up fillings. For example, a teaspoon or two blended into a chile or bean filling could help bind the moisture and prevent the filling from making the masa soggy.
Some tamale recipes may call for a flour-thickened red or green chile sauce. The flour helps give body to the sauce and allows it to evenly coat the tamale.
In Baked Tamales
There are recipes for baked tamales where the masa dough is made a bit drier and firmer to hold its shape without a corn husk. A little flour may provide structure in these types of recipes.
In Sweet Tamales
Sweet tamales filled with fruits, nuts, raisins or flavored with cinnamon may use a small amount of flour. This can lighten up the texture and enhance the sweetness.
For gluten-free tamales, sometimes a gluten-free flour like rice flour or tapioca starch is mixed with the masa harina. This gives the gluten-free dough more stability.
So in limited quantities, wheat flour may find its way into certain tamale recipes. But it is not a necessary ingredient for making the traditional masa dough.
Masa Harina vs. Cornmeal vs. Corn Flour
There seems to be some confusion between the various types of corn-based flours and their suitability for tamales:
This is the traditional dough used for tamales. It is dried masa flour made from corn nixtamalized with limewater or lye. It has a sweet, nutty corn taste. The texture is finer than cornmeal with a bit more moisture content. Tamale dough requires masa harina.
Cornmeal is more coarsely ground dried corn kernels. It can be yellow, white or blue depending on the corn variety. Cornmeal is not nixtamalized. It does not have the same flavor or moisture as masa harina. Using just cornmeal would not produce an ideal tamale dough.
Corn flour is finely ground cornmeal. It has a very fine, powdery texture. Corn flour is sometimes confused with masa harina but they are different. Corn flour is not treated with limewater so it does not have the masa flavor. It would need to be nixtamalized to make tamales.
The terms masa harina, cornmeal and corn flour are sometimes used interchangeably when they actually refer to distinct corn-based flours. For tamales, you want the special masa harina which has gone through the nixtamalization process. This imparts the right taste and qualities to the dough.
Substitutes for Masa Harina
Masa harina gives tamales their distinctive texture and flavor. It would be difficult to duplicate this exactly with other flours. However, here are some possible substitutes:
Instant Masa Flour
Some brands sell “instant” masa flour which is coarsely ground and hydrated. It can work in a pinch but lacks the complex masa flavor.
Maseca Tamale Flour
Maseca makes a quick tamale flour by blending masa harina with wheat flour and dried powdered egg whites. This approximation can be used to make tamale dough.
Cornmeal and Limewater
Soaking cornmeal in limewater mimics the nixtamalization process. Allow the cornmeal to soak for at least 12 hours to sufficiently soften and release the hulls.
Very finely ground cornmeal approaches the texture of masa harina. Sift the cornmeal to remove any chunks. The taste will not be exact but can work.
Masa Prepared from Dry Hominy
Cook dry hominy until soft, then grind it into fresh masa. Takes more time but can provide authentic masa.
Maseca for Cornbread
This special blend from Maseca combines corn flour with wheat flour, baking powder, salt and dry milk. It can be used to fashion a cornbread-style tamale dough.
No substitute will exactly replicate the unique masa harina flavor and texture. But in a pinch, these options can create a reasonable facsimile for tamale dough.
Troubleshooting Tamale Dough
Tamale dough or masa has a delicate balance of moisture and structure. Here are some common issues and how to fix them:
Too Dry and Crumbly
– Add more liquid – Use additional broth, water or even milk to moisten the dry masa
– Increase fat content – Extra lard, shortening or butter will make it more pliable
– Don’t overmix – Stir just until combined to avoid over-developing the gluten
Too Wet and Thin
– Let it rest – 30 minutes for the masa to fully hydrate allows excess moisture to absorb
– Add more masa harina – Extra masa harina will thicken up the dough
– Cook it longer – When steaming, cook 5 to 10 minutes longer to firm it up
– Switch mixing method – Hand kneading instead of a mixer can make it smoother
– Strain the masa – For lump-free dough, pass it through a fine mesh strainer
– Check for spoilage – Old or rancid masa harina can inhibit texture
Falls Apart When Wrapped
– Insufficient kneading – Spend 5+ minutes kneading until cohesive and plyable
– Too much water – Reduce the amount of liquid so it holds together better
– Overfilling – Use less filling so dough fully encases it when wrapped
Dense and Heavy Texture
– Over-kneaded – Gentle mixing prevents over-development of gluten
– Insufficient steaming – Make sure tamales steam at least 40 minutes
– Too much masa – Reduce the ratio of masa to filling for a less dense bite
It can take some trial and error to achieve the perfect tamale dough consistency. Adjusting moisture, fat, kneading time and other factors will help resolve common issues.
Fillings That Pair Well with Tamales
While the masa dough itself contains no flour, flour can find its way into many delicious tamale fillings. Here are some excellent fillings that pair wonderfully with tamales:
Chili con Carne
– Ground beef or shredded pork slow-cooked in a rich, tomatoey chili sauce with onions, garlic and spices. Flour helps thicken the chili gravy.
– Perfect protein pairing with a bit of flour added to bind the beans and keep them from getting runny.
– Shredded chicken in a bright green salsa made with tomatillos and cilantro. A little flour thickens it up nicely.
– Oozy, melted cheese fillings work great. Flour can help bind shredded cheese or thicken up queso.
– Roasted veggies like potatoes, spinach or squash. Flour aids in locking in moisture.
– Fruit fillings may use flour to thicken up blueberry, pineapple or pumpkin purees.
When making fillings, just remember to use flour minimally as the moisture can make the masa soggy. But flour certainly complements and enhances many classic tamale fillings.
History of Tamales
To better understand traditional tamale ingredients, let’s delve into their origins and evolution over time:
– Tamales date back at least 5000 years to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.
– The Maya and Aztec steam cooked masa dough in maize husks.
– The name comes from the Nahuatl word “tamalli” meaning wrapped.
– They were an important part of religious festivals, weddings, birthdays and political events.
– The Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in 1521, introducing new ingredients.
– Wheat flour, rice, lard, garlic, onions, peppers, spices arrived.
– Pork and chicken became more prevalent tamale fillings.
– Cheese and chili pepper tamales emerged as popular variations.
– Tamales spread through Texas and the American Southwest as migration increased.
– Beef tamales became more common with the expansion of cattle ranching.
– Flour was sometimes used to bind or thicken fillings.
– New tamale recipes emerged while traditional masa remained.
– Tamales are now a quintessential Mexican and Latin American food.
– Authentic masa harina can be found in most grocery stores.
– Fillings have expanded to fusion flavors but masa dough is still central.
– They are sold from street vendors, restaurants and enjoyed at home.
So while tamale fillings have evolved over time, the beloved masa dough endures as the soul of this iconic dish.
Regional Tamale Variations
Across Mexico and Latin America, tamales take on diverse local flavors and styles:
– Banana leaf wrapped green tomatillo and chicken tamales
– Thicker masa seasoned with hoja santa herb
– Achiote seasoning gives the masa a rich red color
– Often stuffed with cochinita pibil (pit-barbecued pork)
– Olives and capers feature in the masa and fillings
– Plantain leaves used instead of corn husks
– Banana leaf tamales filled with guava, pineapple or strawberry
– Sweet milk-based masa flavored with cinnamon
– Large tamales up to 6-8 inches long
– Filled with mole negro and chicken or pork
– Tamales de elote – sweet corn tamales made without masa
– Often wrapped in banana leaves or plantain fronds
From Mexico to Cuba to Chile, tamales have adapted to highlight local cultures. But the masa remains a tasty constant tying together their shared roots.
– Tamales are a cherished Latin American dish with ancient indigenous origins.
– The main component is masa dough made from nixtamalized corn flour or masa harina.
– Plain wheat flour is not traditional or essential to make authentic tamale dough.
– Extra flour may be used minimally to bind certain savory or sweet fillings.
– Masa harina has a unique flavor and texture impossible to truly replicate.
– Proper technique and moisture levels are key to achieve an ideal tamale dough consistency.
– Regional variations exist but the masa endures as the essence of tamales.
So in summary, no – there is no flour in traditional tamale dough itself. The distinctive masa harina provides the foundation for these lovingly-crafted classics. Tamales connect us to history, tradition and the simple joy of sweet corn.