Tamales are a traditional dish made during Christmas in Mexico. The labor-intensive preparation is a social event for family and friends. Preparing the masa and cooking the fillings is done mostly by women, gathering together in the kitchen to preserve Latin traditions. To ensure the tamales do not come out dry and crumbly, be sure to use the right ingredients and techniques.
Purchase fresh masa "fino" for tamale making at your local Latin market. Fresh masa, which is made from treated ground corn and water, gives you the best results. Masa harina is a dried meal that can also be used for tamales, but it is not the best choice. Do not confuse masa with cornmeal. Using cornmeal instead of masa produces a dry tamale that would be crumby and not properly stick together. Also be sure not to use prepared masa, which is premixed with lard and typically gives poor results.
Moist tamales need lots of sauce or salsa. You ideally want a ratio of two parts sauce to one part filling. An ample amount of sauce ensures the tamales will be moist and not dry and crumbly. Popular sauces for tamales include mole, tomatillo and cilantro.
Completely enclose the filling and sauce with the masa dough before completely wrapping the tamale with the corn husk. If the filling is not enclosed, the tamale may leak, causing a dry and crumbly tamale. The best way to avoid leakage is not overstuffing the tamale.
Tamale dough usually contains masa, stock, lard or vegetable oil, and spices. The dough needs to be mixed together well. Dough that is not mixed enough will fall apart later. To avoid a crumbly, dry result, use an electric mixer to mix the masa dough until one teaspoon of it will float in a bowl of cold water.
Once your tamales are prepared in their corn husks, you will steam them. Place the tamales into a steaming vessel. The best way to cook them is turning the steamer vessel on its side and putting each tamale on its side, horizontal, starting at the bottom. Then, place more tamales on top. When you are finished, turn the steaming vessel right side up so all the tamales will be vertical. Be sure to use enough water in the pot. If the pot dries out, add more water. If you do not add more water, you will have dried out and crumbly tamales.