Homemade tamale on the left, Bueno frozen tamale on the right

I recently reviewed  the cookbook Shinin’ Times at The Fort for cooksandbooksandrecipes.com and was inspired by the experience to try my hand at making another favorite Southwestern food at home:  Tamales!  I have always viewed tamales as something of a quick meal option rather than a day-long cooking experience and was interested to learn from a friend who grew up in Mexico that tamales are a common street food there.  When I was growing up, my family often ate tamales but they were always frozen tamales, or ones that we bought from a restaurant and brought home, so I had never had homemade tamales and was interested to see how difficult they were to make from scratch. I used a recipe that I found on cookinglight.com because it broke down the process into easy-to-follow steps.  Don’t be scared by the fact that this recipe comes from a website with “light” in the title, this recipe is actually not light at all and the ingredients list includes pork and lard.  The only thing I changed was to leave out the cherries and brown from the filling since I didn’t want a sweet filling for my comparison.  As a comparison, I bought Bueno brand frozen pork tamales and steamed them in the microwave right before serving, as the package suggested.

Ingredients for tamales: Shredded Pork, Masa flour, salt, baking powder, lime and ancho chile

As it turns out, making homemade tamales from scratch is a rather long and complicated process.  None of the steps are really difficult, but there are a lot of stages to this recipe and it is quite time consuming.  Overall it took me about 3 1/2 hours to make the tamales from start to finish.  Some of this time was spent in waiting for the pork to marinate and cook or waiting for the corn husks to soak, so it was not all active cooking time, but it was still an all day project.  The frozen tamales, on the other hand, cooked in less than 10 minutes in the microwave and, even if you opt for the longer oven-cooking option, they only take 30 minutes at the most.  The homemade tamales cost about $3.00 less than frozen which may be a consideration if you are trying to spend less on groceries, but in this case, it may be worthwhile to pay for convenience.

Were the homemade tamales worth the effort?  It depends on who you ask!  I had four taste testers for this comparison, one of them being my friend who grew up in Mexico, and three out of four slightly preferred the texture of the homemade tamales.

Masa Dough

However, we all agreed that the frozen tamales were pretty darn tasty as well.  The outer corn dough of the homemade tamales had a softer, less chewy texture than the frozen variety and the homemade filling was a bit meatier tasting, but the differences were slight.  I’m not sure these slight differences in taste and texture really made the 3 1/2 hours of cooking time worthwhile, but it was a fun culinary project and I will probably make homemade tamales again for a special occasion.  Meanwhile, for less special occasions such as weeknight dinners, I think we’ll stick with the frozen tamales and their 10 minute cooking time!

Bottom Line: Although we found the texture of the homemade tamales a little more appealing and they cost slightly less than frozen, the differences were not enough to justify the 3 1/2 hours of preparation time.  However, if you are looking for a fun, rewarding cooking adventure, I suggest trying out this pork tamale recipe  from cookinglight.com as it was simple and easy to follow.

Soaking corn husks

Filling tamales

Tamales ready to be steamed