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Steam Tamales on a Wire Rack Lined with Dried Corn Husks

Tamales are a common street food in Mexico, and many Mexicans leave their labor-intensive elaborations to the professionals. However, for special occasions like Christmas or Dia de la Candelaria, home cooks will often recruit family and friends for tamale parties to divide the tedious work of tamale-making into a manageable, communal, and entertaining experience. While tamale steamers, or tamaleras, are helpful appliances designed specifically for steaming large quantities of tamales, they aren’t indispensable. You can easily make a DIY tamale steamer from common household appliances with the same successful results. All you need is a large, deep pot and a wire rack to mimic the design of a classic tamalera. 

The wire rack serves the same purpose as a steamer basket, providing a barrier from the simmering water and a porous foundation through which the steam can effectively pass. To prepare this makeshift tamalera, simply place any wire rack into a deep pot, fill the pot up until just below the rack, and place sod corn husks over the rack for a more fortified barrier. You can then pack the tamales vertically before bringing the water to a boil, turning the heat down to a rolling simmer, and placing the top over the pot to steam the tamales until they’re firm yet tender. This hack will work just as well with a metal steamer basket, and even with a metal colander. The most important thing to remember is keeping your tamales out of direct contact with water.

Tips for maintaining moisture while steaming

hand opening a tamale

A makeshift steamer is an accessible and straightforward tool to steam tamales, but there are plenty of other preparation and technical tips to ensure your tamales have the perfect texture and flavor. One of the most common complaints with tamales is the hard, dried-out, or dense texture that results from overcooking them. Even though steaming is technically a wet method of cooking, corn masa dries out very quickly, so maintaining moisture is key to achieving the desired tender and fluffy texture.

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The best way to keep the masa moist is by adding a hearty portion of fat and by ensuring that the masa is fully enveloped in the husk or leaf used to wrap it. Furthermore, you must soak husks or leaves in hot water for at least an hour to ensure they don’t crack when you fold them. Cracked husks will expose the corn masa, increasing the chances of drying out your tamales as they steam. Some recipes call for placing a layer of opened corn husk over the vertically packed tamales before placing the lid on the pot. The top blanket of corn husks will trap the steam and slow its release more than the lid alone. Because steam is essentially water evaporating as it heats, a long steaming process will require you to add more water to the pot intermittently.

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