When it comes to making masa dough, you have two choices: use dried masa harina flour or buy fresh masa. Both methods will produce a great tamale and it's really a matter of personal taste which you like better (as well as what ingredients are available in your area). I find tamales made with fresh masa to be slightly lighter in texture and stronger in flavor than those made with dried, but as previously stated, both make a fine tamale. I was surprised to learn when reading the book Tamales by three of America's top tamale chefs (Mark Miller, Stephan Pyles and John Sedlar) that all three recommended using dried masa harina for their tamale doughs.
Masa Harina (also called masa seca) is specially made from a large kernel corn which is dried and put through a process called nixtimalization (meaning it is treated with lime) and is used in making tamales and corn tortillas. Do not confuse masa flour with cornmeal -- they are made from different types of corn and you will not achieve the same results in your tamales if you use cornmeal. You can find dried masa in Latin food markets and in the Latin food aisle or sometimes the flour aisle of most well stocked supermarkets.
You'll need a large Latin population and good Latin markets in your area to find fresh masa -- which is fresh stone ground lime-treated corn. Fresh masa is usually sold by the pound and it must be kept refrigerated until used. The fresher the masa is when you assemble the tamales, the lighter, fluffier and better they will be.
When buying fresh masa, be sure to check the label as sometimes the dough is already mixed for you (usually with lard). I like to mix my own dough, so when buying fresh masa I avoid the "prepared masa" which is already a mixed dough. If you want to mix your own, read the ingredients on the bag. You want only masa and lime -- no lard, shortening or other ingredients, as you'll mix your own dough at home.
While fat-free tamales exist, most need some sort of oil or fat. Traditionally lard was used, but in today's more health conscious world, this is becoming rarer. Butter or margarine work well. Donna Eichhorn, owner of Fairfax, California's Donna's Tamales, uses all olive oil in her healthy vegetarian and vegan tamales, and she manages to keep the fat content low and the taste great.
Don't be afraid to experiment with your masa recipes until you find a flavor and texture you like. I personally like using a butter/olive oil mixture, but then tamales for me are a special occasion food. Make them like Donna and they're healthy enough to eat everyday.
How Much Masa Do I Need?
In order to make enough dough for about a dozen tamales you will need:
- 6 cups masa harina flour
- 1 pound of fresh unprepared masa
Masa and Tamale Recipes and Techniques
See the related recipes section for a wide variety of masa and tamale recipes. The related features section will take you to tamale making photo tutorial links, and tamale making tips and trouble shooting information.