Homegrown Tamales with Venison and Tallow
Since we started growing corn, I’ve wanted to make tamales. In my family, we eat tamales for dinner on Christmas, a tradition in Mexico that has since spread throughout the Southern United States. I always associated them with holidays and big events and having never made them myself, assumed they were an intimidating and laborious process. But this year, our usual tamale source fell through and Jordan and I decided it was time to throw our hats in the ring. Now with several rounds of tamale-making under our belt, we can safely say that they are a really fun recipe! And actually not difficult at all, though they are one of those dishes (like pierogis) where if you’re going to make some, you might as well make a big batch and freeze some for later or to give away.
And since we rendered out lots of tallow from the deer Jordan hunted this year, we’ve been on a quest to use it in as many things as possible (like french fries!), just waiting for all the insults people have hurled at deer tallow to prove true. And yet once again we are pleasantly surprised to find that the tallow worked beautifully in these tamales. We did use some butter, partly for flavor and partly to add a softer fat to the mix. You could certainly substitute with the traditional lard or go with vegetable shortening if you prefer.
If you don’t have a steamer pot, any large pot will work used in conjunction with a steaming rack (basically anything that elevates the tamales above the bottom of the pot by several inches and has plenty of holes for the steam to pass through). We saved all of the biggest corn husks from our corn harvest this year to use as the wrappers but you can also find them online or at Mexican groceries. Some countries use other materials like banana leaves to wrap their tamales as well. For a visual aid in how to fill and fold your tamales, see the video below the recipe.
Tamales with Venison and Tallow
- 1 pressure cooker or steamer pot
- 4 cups masa harina
- ⅔ cup rendered tallow melted
- ½ cup butter or lard
- 2 cups broth (this can be from cooking the tamale filling or veggie/beef stock)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 30 dried corn husks
- 1 lb venison stew meat
- 1 Tbsp butter or tallow
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 clove garlic diced
- 2-3 small dried chilis, such as chili de arbol
- Soak your dried cornhusks in a bowl of water until soft (this takes a few hours so do this ahead of time). Drain and set aside until ready to assemble the tamales.
- If using venison for your filling, get a pot going on medium-high heat and sear your meat on all sides in the tallow or butter. Then add the garlic, onions, chilis and salt and cover with water or broth. Slow cook for a few hours until the meat can be easily pulled apart with a fork. You can also pressure cook it if you're in a hurry. Once tender, shred the meat apart with a fork and taste for seasoning.
- In a stand mixer, beat the melted tallow, lard and 3 tablespoons of the broth until well-incorporated and fluffy.
- If you are using dried masa harina, mix it with the cumin, chili powder, salt. If you are grinding your own nixtamalized corn to make masa, it will already be wet and you can just add everything to the mixing bowl with the tallow.
- Beat the masa mixture with the tallow until well blended. Add the broth gradually until the mixture is soft and sticky and has a consistency similar to thick peanut butter or putty. If using dry store-bought masa you will need more broth to saturate the dough.
- Now it's time to assemble the tamales: Spread a husk out flat in front of you with the narrow side pointing down. There is also usually a smoother and a rougher side to the husks and ideally the smooth side is on the inside to help prevent the tamales from sticking. Spoon about ¼ cup of dough into the center of the top half of the husk and flatten to about ¼ thick. It should not go all the way to the edges of the corn husk.
- Scoop about 2 Tbsp of your filling on top of the spread out tamale dough, leaving some room on the edges of the dough. Now fold your husk in half lengthwise so the edges of the dough meet. Fold the excess husk back over the tamale (kind of like a brochure). Fold the bottom half or "tail" of the husk over the top and set aside with the tail-side down. You can also use a thin piece of husk or kitchen twine to tie the tamales closed, but it's not necessary.
- Once you have finished filling all of your tamales, arrange them in a steamer pot or the steamer tray of your pressure cooker. We put a couple extra husks at the bottom to make sure the tamales don't fall through and pack them in loosely standing upright with the open side up. Lay a few more extra husks on top of the tamales.
- Add a couple inches of water to your pot, making sure it is not so high that the water will actually touch the tamales. When it is boiling, lower it to a simmer and add the steamer basket with your tamales. Cover with a tight fitting lid and cook for 45 minutes-1 hour. Make sure to check every once in a while that all of the water hasn't evaporated from your pot!
- To test that the tamales are done, take one out after about 45 minutes and open the husk. If it rolls out easily without sticking to the husk, it is ready! Serve warm with beans, sour cream, salsa verde, or whatever toppings you love. These also freeze really well for future delicious, convenient meals.