Hello cooks and consumers of food, and welcome back to another fun-filled episode of Will It Sous Vide?, the column where I make whatever I want to with my immersion circulator.
Photos by Claire Lower.
This week I landed on tamales, which was exciting for two reasons:
- Tamales are freaking delicious.
- I’ve never actually made tamales, and I do love a new culinary learning experience (and this was very much that).
Luckily, I have a good friend named Amanda who has made tamales, and she just got back from a trip to Arizona, bringing with her delicious chillies, which she had roasted. Amanda was kind enough to bring her chillies, masa and husks over to my apartment and impart her delicious tamale-making knowledge to my brain. (Disclaimer: Based on what I know about tamales and the people that make them, there are many different styles, recipes and wrapping methods. Being from Mississippi, I am used to cornmeal tamales, though I’ve never made them, and they are a very different situation. Sadly, it was impossible to test every different type in a couple of days, so I tried them Amanda’s way, because she always seems very confident.)
First, we soaked some husks in clean water for 20 minutes, then dried them thoroughly. Next, we melted one cup of shortening (you can also use lard) and whipped it using the whisk attachment of my stand mixer until it was cloudy.
This is what melted Crisco looks like.
In a separate bowl, we combined three cups of instant masa harina, a teaspoon of garlic powder, a pinch of cayenne, a pinch of cumin and a teaspoon of baking powder. This mixture was then gradually added to the melted shortening while being stirred with the paddle attachment.
Next, we gradually ladled in hot stock, still beating with the stand mixer, until we had a smooth mixture we could draw a pattern in with a spoon. We then performed the “float test” to see if our masa was fluffy enough.
Not floaty enough.
It wasn’t fluffy enough, so we added a bit more Crisco.
Next, we assembled the filling. Though I would have loved to sous vide a tasty pork filling, I thought that would introduce too many variables at once, and I wanted to narrow the focus to the masa. (Also, I would have hated to have spent hours perfecting the meaty filling, only to have it all fall apart at the end.) As such, I decided to go with a simple filling of chillis (twelve roasted Anaheim chillies and one dried hatch chilli), cheese (280g each of queso fresco, Cotija and sharp cheddar, all shredded and crumbled) and one large tomatillo.
We then spread the masa into the husks, going about two thirds up. Amanda had a little masa scraper especially for this purpose, but you could also use a spoon.
Next we added our chilli mixture.
Then the cheese.
Then we wrapped ’em up all pretty like.
What pretty little packages.
Those babies got vacuum sealed, then submerged in a water bath set to 85C.
Tamales usually steam for a couple of hours, but I’m a curious cat, and decided to pull one out at the one-hour mark. It felt mushy to the touch, and I didn’t even have to open the husk to tell that it was still pretty liquidy in there, so I re-sealed the bag and put them back in for another hour.
After two hours of sous-viding, I cautiously unwrapped a husk to find this hot mess (full disclosure: I ate it, and it tasted very good):
Obviously two hours wasn’t enough, so the remaining two tamales went back into the bath and I went to the bar. One hour and three cocktails later — I’m a professional — I headed back to my apartment, excited to eat a (hopefully) firm tamale.
It turns out that three-hour sous-vide tamales look just like two-hour sous-vide tamales. (See pic above if you have forgotten what that looks like). This was disappointing to drunk Claire, but not so disappointing that she didn’t eat the hot mess of a tamale, plus a frozen chocolate bar. Drunk Claire then went to sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, I decided to try again, and chucked another bag of vacuum-sealed tamales in the water bath. I was barely hopeful, but at the four-hour mark, I was greeted with this little lady:
There were still some issues, but things were looking up. I ate the almost-tamale, resealed the bag and submerged the corn-husked beauties for another hour. Then, finally, after five freaking hours, I unwrapped this:
I put salsa on it.
I ate it. It was cheesy and spicy and tender and oh-so-good. I was happy. I unwrapped a second one.
This was devastating. I unwrapped a third, and it was fine. I unwrapped a fourth, and it was not fine. So it was 50/50, success-wise. This, of course, sets us up very nicely for “that question”: Will tamales sous vide?
The answer? Um, sort of? Though there wasn’t a bad tasting tamale in the bunch, only half of them held their form after five long hours of cooking. This is a pretty dismal yield. Though sous-vide cooking provides a nice, moist cooking environment, I think it might be a little too moist. Even though tamales are usually steamed, there’s still a way for some oil and moisture to escape from the masa, which is not the case with a vacuum-sealed bag. Of course, there are other variables, such as the thickness of the masa layer and the type of fat and fillings used, and I wouldn’t be opposed to revisiting this topic in the future. I’m willing to eat a lot of tamales, even those of the hot mess variety; I am just that selfless.