My first attempt at tamales salvadoreños de gallina (pollo) was a delicious success! (For that I am very thankful, because it would have been a huge disappointment after all that work to have them not turn out.) I kept detailed notes during the entire process and documented everything I did so that I could share it here with you. I hope this recipe and the instructions below help you make perfect tamales this holiday season. You’ll need an entire day to make these from start to finish, so plan accordingly. Buena suerte!
Salvadoran Tamales de Gallina
5 lbs. chicken pieces (I used 12 chicken thighs)
2 small tomatoes, quartered
1 small onion, quartered
1/2 small green pepper
1 large carrot, peeled
1 stalk celery
1 handful cilantro
4 cloves garlic, slightly crushed
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon salt, plus salt to taste
1 tablespoon achiote (ground annatto)
1 tablespoon dry oregano
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 large Russet potatoes, cut into sticks, raw
2 cups garbanzo beans, already cooked
1. Simmer the chicken with all ingredients listed (besides the potatoes and garbanzo beans) with enough water to cover well. All of these vegetables and herbs are to flavor the broth which you’ll later use in the recaudo and the masa. This broth/chicken stock needs to be really flavorful. Some people use chicken bouillon to achieve this, and you can feel free to add some, but I avoid using bouillon.
2. Simmer the chicken until it is cooked through. Remove the chicken to a large dish to cool.
3. Remove the vegetables from the chicken stock and discard them. When cool enough, taste the chicken stock and determine whether you’d like to add a little additional salt. (I added a little more at this point.) Set this aside. You will be using it soon for the racaudo and masa!
4. When the chicken is cool, discard the skin and bone. Shred the meat into large pieces by hand and season with a little more salt if needed. (I added a little salt at this point.) Set aside.
5. If you haven’t already, wash and peel 3 large potatoes. Cut each potato into french fry-sized “sticks.”
6. If cooking your own garbanzo beans, you should have done this a day before. If using canned, just have them ready to open and drain when you assemble the tamales. I like the tamales with minimal filling ingredients but other people may put any of the following in their tamales: slices of hard-boiled egg, capers, green olives, green beans, sliced green and red bell pepper. Use any of these if you wish!
7. Set all these ingredients aside. These will be used, along with the recaudo, as the filling for your tamales. Next, we make the racaudo.
The recaudo (sauce)
8 small tomatoes
1 small green pepper
1/2 medium white onion
3 cloves garlic
1 dried guajillo chile, stem removed
1/8 cup pumpkin seeds, roasted
4 bay leaves
1/4 cup sesame seeds, roasted
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon dry oregano
1 teaspoon achiote (ground annatto)
2 pieces French bread, each about the size of a small fist
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1. Roast the tomatoes, green pepper, onion, garlic and guajillo chile on a comal/griddle (or large frying pan) over medium heat. (Be careful not to burn the guajillo chile – it doesn’t need much time on there.) Once slightly roasted on each side, put everything into a blender. You can use a large wooden spoon to smash the tomatoes inside the blender to make room if it gets too full. Don’t run the blender just yet.
2. Some use a pre-made “relajo” spice packet for the recaudo, but I wanted to create my own homemade “relajo” spice mixture with measurements of each spice for those who don’t have these packets locally available. (This also gives you greater control over the flavor and gives the recipe better accuracy since relajo spice mixtures vary by brand.) The spices you need to make your own relajo are: pumpkin seeds, bay leaves, sesame seeds, whole cloves, whole cumin seeds, black peppercorns, dry oregano and achoite (ground annatto.) If your pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds aren’t already roasted, slightly dry roast them (no oil) in a small pan or on the comal, stirring and being careful not to burn them.
3. Add all the “relajo” spices on top of the vegetables in the blender. Add the chicken stock, french bread and salt. If your blender is a standard size, it’s a very tight fit! Be careful and make sure your lid is secure! Blend until smooth. (Your blender might not blend all the spices perfectly smooth – that’s okay!)
4. Pour the recaudo into a medium pot and heat to simmering, stirring occasionally for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
8 cups instant corn masa flour (I used MASECA. There’s no need to buy the one that is especially for tamales.)
9 cups chicken stock
8 cups warm water
1 lb. lard
1 cup recaudo
1. In a very large bowl or large stock pot, mix the chicken stock little by little into the corn masa flour by hand. (If you run out of the homemade chicken stock, you can use store bought in its place, but I had enough.) Make sure there isn’t any dry flour in the bowl and that it’s all been worked in.
2. Add the lard and work into the masa by hand. Make sure it’s completely distributed throughout – this will take a few minutes and you will notice the masa get fluffier.
3. Add the recaudo and work in by hand.
4. If you’re working with the masa in a bowl, transfer it now to the stock pot. Add the water, little by little, and work it in by hand. Make sure there are no lumps.
5. This is the most difficult part of this process. Make sure you have at least one other person with you in the kitchen who is willing to switch off with you. You’re going to cook the masa in the pot over medium heat, but YOU MUST STIR CONTINUOUSLY! Do not stop stirring for more than a second or two or the masa will stick/cook to the bottom of the pot and it will be ruined. Before you start, make sure you’re using a very strong, sturdy wooden spoon. Make sure you have oven mitts (especially if the handles of your pot are metal and get hot.) Make sure you have a timer you can set to keep track of the time. You will need to cook and stir the masa for at least 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, remove from heat and stir for another minute before allowing to cool.
One thing to note: I prefer my tamales on the firmer side so I’m really happy with how they turned out, but Salvadoran tamales are famously gelatinous. I think that if you wanted to achieve that “squishier” texture, you could add more chicken stock before cooking the masa, and possibly sub cooking oil for lard.
2 packs plantain/banana leaves
Aluminum foil (1 roll of 75 feet is plenty)
1. Plantain/banana leaves come frozen in the United States. About 1 hour before you’re ready to assemble tamales, disinfect your kitchen sink then fill it with warm water. Submerge the packets of plantain/banana leaves in the water, (placing a pot on top if they float too much.) This will defrost them and make them more pliable. Some people later warm the plantain/banana leaves over heat but I didn’t find it necessary at all.
2. After 1 hour, remove the packets from the water, cut open and drain. Rinse the leaves in warm, clean running water and shake dry before transferring to a large clean counter surface.
3. Cut the plantain leaves to about 12 inches x 7 inches, (rectangles.) They won’t be exactly the same measurements – that’s okay. Set aside any pieces that are too small or ripped or oddly shaped, (don’t discard them – you will use them later.)
4. Cut pieces of aluminum foil to about 18 inches x 12 inches.
5. Put down a piece of foil, and on top, a plantain/banana leaf, (lighter side of the leaf facing up.) Repeat the process so you have an alternating stack of foil and plantain/banana leaves. (This makes the tamal-making process easier later.)
6. Assemble all your ingredients. You’re ready to start making the tamales!
7. Place a large spoonful of the masa as shown in the video, in the middle of the plantain/banana leaf. In the middle of the massa place a spoonful of the racuado. Add chicken, a few pieces of potato, a few garbanzos and/or whichever other fillings you prefer.
8. Fold closed as shown in the video, rolling and folding tightly to seal. Repeat process for each tamal.
9. Put the tamales in a steamer pot with slightly salted water in the bottom. (Some people cover the tamales with water but I always make sure the water doesn’t touch the tamales so they can properly steam.)
10. Cover the tamales with the leftover plantain/banana leaf scraps and then the lid. Simmer on low heat, adding salted water if necessary to the bottom of the pot until cooked through, making sure you don’t allow the pot to cook dry/burn.
11. It can be difficult to tell when the tamal is ready because while hot, the masa will be very soft. You must remove a tamal and allow it to cool a little while the other tamales continue to cook. Once it’s cooled, you can open it and check for doneness. It’s a good sign if the potato inside is cooked. Mine took about 2 hours.
12. Allow tamales to cool before refrigerating. They will taste better re-heated the next day. Whatever isn’t eaten within a few days should be frozen.
Makes 30 to 40 large tamales.