An Expert Offers A Step-by-Step Guide To Tamale Making

Felipe Hernandez has been making tamales for 25 years, after learning the family recipe from his sister, Leocadia Sanchez: “I needed a job,” he said. What he got was a legion of fans, who frequently ask to pose for photos with him and a reputation that draws fans from Seattle and beyond to his teeny Los Hernandez cafe in Union Gap, near Yakima. Felipe and his daughter, Rachel Wilburn, offered a hands-on tamale making demo at Allrecipes.com’s HQ in downtown Seattle. The process is pretty straightforward, though Felipe said quality ingredients are key, which is why he makes his own masa.

Felipe Hernandez Tamales

Step 1: Procure ingredients

Masa is key, and Felipe mills his own from dried corn. “It should be crumbly. We call it wet at this point.” You can also use masa harina, a flour made from dried masa that’s available in most supermarkets. Masa harina just needs to have extra liquid added to it. Filling options are limitless, from classic carnitas and chicken mole to fresh veggies such as steamed asparagus paired with cubes of Monterey Jack cheese, a signature item that appears on the menu at Los Hernandez every summer.

Step 2: Prepare the husks and the masa

Soak the corn husks in hot water for 20 minutes. For the masa mixture, Felipe recommends using equal parts masa and liquid. “You can use water or stock, you can use shortening or lard, it depends on what flavor you’re going for.” The masa should be the consistency of frosting. Before the liquid is added, he seasons the masa with a secret blend of chili powder. For 12 cups of masa, he adds roughly a tablespoon of spices before mixing with his hands. Alternatively, a hand blender or a standing mixer can be used to whip lard into the masa to create and extra fluffy masa. 

spread masa

Step 3: Spread the masa and add the filling

Felipe recommends placing a prepared corn husk in the palm of your hand and using a spatula to paint on the masa, covering the bottom edge up to about two-thirds of the surface, leaving the top untouched. Add a line of filling toward the outer edge on the right side of the tamale, tuck the husk over the filling and roll it up. Tuck the unfilled edge under the seam and set aside. The four-person crew rolling tamales at Los Hernandez can create 120 dozen tamales in under four hours.

Step 4: Steam

At the restaurant, frozen tamales are steamed for an hour, standing upright in pots Felipe customized for the process, keeping the tamales above the boiling water with a rack. He prefers cooking them from frozen. “The steam gets in between the frozen tamales because they’re not a uniform shape,” he said. Or, if you just can’t wait to get your hot tamales, layer them in a steamer basket set over simmering water, covering them with a kitchen towel and the pot lid. Simmer for 45 minutes.

steam tamales
Eat tamales!

Step 5: Enjoy!

“You don’t need to add anything to these tamales,” Felipe said. And you don’t really need utensils either, just pull back the husk and eat. Then, you can even recycle: “Some people do save the husks and reuse them,” he said.

To order tamales or the signature masa shipped from Los Hernandez, call 509-457-6003.

For more tamale tips and tricks: