Tackling Turkey Tamales

by Bryan on October 2, 2009

TT-PlatedI am a bit of an Alton Brown fan. When I saw the episode of Good Eats entitled Tamale Never Dies, I knew I had to try my hand at Tamales. I watched the episode a couple of times, read through the recipe and braced myself for the task.

One issue I quickly faced was the quantity. The recipe says it makes 24 tamales (I actually ended up with a little over 30). That’s a lot of tamales. Fortunately we had our Fourth annual block party come up, so I seized that opportunity and offered to bring tamales.

The next issue I ran into were a couple of the ingredients. The recipe called for corn husks and lard. I had never cooked with lard, so I planned on skipping that. The corn husks actually led me to revisiting La Mexicana in Newport, since they have a little grocery in the back. That ended up as a huge win, and I will post a review of that restaurant shortly.

I went to Findlay to procure the Turkey legs, my go-to meat shop, Eckerlin, did not have them, but they directed me to Lukens, and I was able to get two legs there.

TT-IngredientsMaking Tamales isn’t so much hard, as it is time consuming. The process broke down to the following steps:

  1. Stew the Turkey Legs
  2. Soak the corn husks
  3. Mix up the masa
  4. Shred the turkey and create filling
  5. Stuff husks with masa and filing
  6. Steam husks


First step was to stew the turkey legs. Why turkey? Well Alton explained that Tamales were Aztec dishes, and Aztecs did not have cows, pigs, or chickens. So he used turkey to be more authentic. Of course, then he calls for lard, so he loses points for consistency, but hey, it was a good choice.

In reading the reviews of his recipe, I heard folks complain that they were a little bland. So I broke my usual rule of making the recipe as written the first time, and doubled the toasted and ground cumin. Other than that I followed the recipe for the turkey cooking.


Corn Husks

In order to work with the corn husks you need to soak them in water, They need to soak in hot water for 45 minutes to two hours. I also learned to have extras. Not only because you will ruin some, but also because you may need more.


I already had a package of masa I bought from another great Mexican restaurant, Montoya’s so I used that for dough. I had planned on going the shortening route, but we were out, and when I went to the grocery I was faced with lard again. It was there, it was a reasonably small container, and cheaper than Crisco so I bit. It was not nearly as weird as I thought it would be.

Here is where I made a rookie mistake, though. The recipe calls for using reserved liquid from the turkey in the dough. A very tasty choice. However, it was still quite warm. Alton describe masa creation as being similar to creating biscuits. You do not want to get the fat hot when you make biscuits. Next time, I will prepare the turkey the night before, so that I have chilled liquid to add. I think the masa turned out fine, but suspect it will be a little fluffier next time.


Next step is to shred the turkey. This is not an easy task. I wonder if doing it the next day would help, because I struggled shredding the warm turkey. I was able to use a serano pepper from my garden, so I think that help with the flavor. Next time I will add one or two small cans of green chiles to the filling.


The recipe called for tying them together in bundles of three. I skipped the tying and it worked well for me. I was able to stack them in a pan, then transfer them to the steam pot rather easily. I was able yo use my #40 disher (aka the cookie disher) for the masa and my #70 disher (aka the buckeye disher) for the task. You’ll definitely want to refer to the show for techniques in assembly, though. Go to the 2:28 mark here to see it.

I know this is backwards, but if you want to view the first part of the episode, you can look at this video:


The steaming part worried me. Total time allotted was 1 to 1-1/2 hours. I was worried about knowing when they were done. It is also rather laborious checking the water level every 15 minutes, but it all came together, and the first time I sampled, they were done.


I was very happy with the results. As you could see with the picture at the beginning, they make a nice presentation. They are also an excellent choice for an outdoor party, as they already come individually wrapped. Here is one unwrapped:


And here is a closeup of the first sample:


I have already mentioned a few tweaks I will make the next time (and there will SO be a next time). I’ll be curious to see how it works with the liquid cooled before adding to the dough. I may even try to track down some fresh masa dough sometime.

It is not an easy task, but it was well worth the effort. Leftovers worked great as well. They heated up very nicely in the microwave a the microwave essentially steamed them again.

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