When making tamales, the masa dough is a key component that provides the distinctive texture and flavor. While you can purchase prepared masa dough, many cooks prefer to customize it by adding extra ingredients before assembling and cooking the tamales.
Yes, it is common to add additional ingredients to prepared masa dough when making tamales. Some common additions include:
- Fat – Lard, vegetable shortening, or butter
- Broth or stock
- Baking powder
- Spices and herbs
- Chile peppers
These extra ingredients help enrich the masa, making it more moist, tender, and flavorful.
The Role of Masa in Tamales
Masa is the dough made from specially treated corn (maize) that gives tamales their distinctive texture. When dried corn kernels are soaked and cooked in limewater, the hulls are removed, leaving behind softened corn masa.
Fresh masa has a unique sweet and grainy corn flavor. It also has a soft and lightly moist texture that allows it to be spread around the tamale fillings. When steamed, the masa becomes firm but still tender, helping to hold the tamales together.
Using a good quality masa is important for getting the right consistency, taste, and mouthfeel in the finished tamales. While convenient, prepared masa may result in a drier dough. Many cooks prefer to customize commercial masa mixes with extra ingredients to improve moisture and flavor.
Reasons to Enhance Prepared Masa
There are several reasons why it can be beneficial to add other ingredients to prepared masa dough when making tamales:
- Moisture – Adding a liquid like broth or even just water can help hydrate the dough, making it easier to spread and giving it a softer texture.
- Fat – Incorporating fat from lard, butter, or oils makes the masa more tender and rich.
- Flavor – Spices, peppers, herbs, cheese, etc can all add more taste to the masa.
- Leavening – A pinch of baking powder can give it a slightly lighter, fluffier texture.
- Smoothness – Extra liquid and fat helps make the dough more malleable and smooth for spreading.
The added ingredients also balance out any dryness from commercial masa mixes. This gives you more control over getting the ideal masa texture for your tamales.
Common Additions to Masa Dough
There are many tasty ingredients that can supplement prepared masa dough for tamales:
Adding some form of fat is one of the most common ways to improve masa’s moisture, flavor, and tenderness:
- Lard – The traditional choice, providing rich, savory flavor.
- Vegetable shortening – A vegetarian alternative to lard that also gives flakiness.
- Butter – Provides great moisture and a creamy, mellow taste.
- Oils – Olive, coconut, and nut oils can also be used in small amounts.
The fat should be worked thoroughly into the dough until well incorporated. 1-4 tablespoons per cup of masa is usually sufficient for noticeable results.
Broths and Stocks
In place of or in addition to fats, liquid brohs and stocks can add great moisture and extra flavor complexity to masa:
- Chicken broth – Use as a flavorful substitute for some added fat.
- Beef broth – Provides an extra meaty, savory taste.
- Vegetable broth – Enhances flavor for vegetarian tamales.
- Mushroom broth – Adds an earthy, richUmami taste.
Substitute about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of added fat with an equal amount of liquid broth or stock for enhanced masa.
A pinch of baking powder can give masa a bit more lift, resulting in a lighter, fluffier texture. Too much can make the dough bubble, so just 1/2 to 1 teaspoon per cup of masa is all you need. The baking powder reacts to the steam when cooking the tamales.
Spices, herbs, chiles, and other seasonings are easy ways to integrate more flavor into tamale masa:
- Cumin – Earthy and warming spice perfect for pork or chicken tamales.
- Chile powder – Add mild or spicy heat and chili flavor.
- Garlic powder – Provides a subtle garlic kick.
- Onion powder – Mix in for a bit of oniony aroma.
- Dried oregano – Brings lovely herbal notes.
- Smoked paprika – For added smoky flavor.
Use about 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of dried spices or herbs per cup of masa and adjust amounts as desired.
Chopped fresh herbs are a great way to make masa extra vibrant. Consider herbs like:
- Cilantro – Bright, citrusy flavor perfect for green and red chile tamales.
- Oregano – Earthy Greek and Mexican oregano varieties work well.
- Epazote – This herb has a lovely anise-like taste.
Add around 1-2 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs per cup of masa dough for a fresh flavor infusion.
Chopped or pureed fresh chile peppers can provide mild or intense spicy heat along with flavor to masa:
- Jalapeno – Adds crisp green heat.
- Serrano – Brings intense spice and grassy chile notes.
- Hatch green chile – Roasted hatch chiles contribute amazing flavor.
- Chipotle – Smoked dried jalapenos bring intense spicy smokiness.
Mix in 1-4 tablespoons of your chosen chopped/pureed fresh or dried chiles per cup of masa.
Grating in cheese brings added richness along with salty, creamy flavor to masa dough. Good melty cheese choices include:
- Monterey Jack – Mild and versatile, melts smoothly.
- Cheddar – Sharp cheddar gives a delightfully tangy bite.
- Queso fresco – Crumbles add milky, salty notes.
- Pepper jack – Spicy and flavorful melted cheese.
Use 1/4 to 1/2 cup of grated cheese per cup of masa and mix it in thoroughly before assembling tamales.
Tips for Adding Ingredients to Masa
To get the best results when fortifying prepared masa dough:
- Mix in ingredients gradually and taste as you go until desired flavor is reached.
- Focus on 1 or 2 additions so flavors don’t become overly muddled.
- Add liquids slowly to achieve optimal consistency without getting the masa soggy.
- Use butter, broth, or other liquids melted/heated for faster incorporation.
- Make sure any chunky ingredients are finely chopped or well pureed.
- Scoop out a spoonful of masa and cook it to test flavor and texture.
How Much Should You Add?
There are no set rules on exact amounts of ingredients to mix into masa. It depends on elements like:
- How dry or moist the initial dough is.
- What other fillings are being used that may affect overall flavor.
- Personal tastes and the flavor intensity you want to achieve.
Start with smaller amounts of extras listed in recipes and adjust higher if needed. You can always add more but it’s difficult to reduce flavor once ingredients are already incorporated.
- 1-4 Tbsp fat per cup of masa
- 1/4-1/2 cup liquid per cup of masa
- 1/2-1 tsp baking powder per cup of masa
- 1/2-1 Tbsp spices per cup of masa
- 1-2 Tbsp fresh herbs per cup of masa
- 1-4 Tbsp chiles per cup of masa
- 1/4-1/2 cup cheese per cup of masa
Use these guideline amounts and tweak them as needed for your preferred tamale masa consistency and flavors.
To give you an idea of how to incorporate extra ingredients into prepared masa, here are a couple sample recipes:
- 2 cups prepared masa dough
- 2 Tbsp melted butter or oil
- 2 Tbsp lime juice
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/2 tsp salt
Mix melted butter and lime juice into masa until well incorporated. Add cilantro and salt and mix just until distributed evenly. Use for chicken or fish tamales.
- 2 cups prepared masa dough
- 1/4 cup chicken broth
- 2 Tbsp minced jalapeno
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 cup grated pepper jack cheese
Heat broth slightly and pour into masa. Mix in jalapeno, cumin, and cheese until fully combined. Use for spicy beef or bean tamales.
The Importance of Quality Masa
While adding extra ingredients to prepared masa can provide more moisture, tenderness, and taste – the overall quality of the initial masa still matters.
Ideally, look for fresh masa made from treated corn for tamale-making, often sold at Latin markets. This will have the proper grainy, spreadable texture. If using dry masa mixes, check reviews and select ones specifically for tamales, not tortillas or other uses.
Still, even quality masa can benefit from custom enhancement based on the type of tamales and personal preferences. With the right additions, packaged masa can be elevated into something special.
Enhancing ready-made masa dough is an easy way to add more enticing flavor, texture, and moisture to homemade tamales. A little extra fat, herbs, spices, chiles, and other additions can balance out any dryness for a masa that is deliciously pliable and full of taste.
While specialized masa is ideal, Tamale chefs shouldn???t be afraid to doctor up commercial products. With small amounts of supplemental ingredients incorporated properly, packaged masa mixes can still make for finger-licking good tamales.
So try customizing basic masa dough with a few simple additions, and enjoy tamales with homemade texture and flavor – even when starting from prepared mixes.