Tired of the same old tamales? Here is a tamale recipe that fuses the rich tradition of Mexican cuisine with a contemporary twist – Chicken Birria Tamales. These delicious handmade tamales capture the spirit of Mexican comfort food, combing shredded chicken in birria sauce with light and fluffy masa, all wrapped in corn husks and steamed to perfection. This pose explores the art of tamale-making with a recipe that combines the spirit of both traditional and modern Mexican flavors.
Birria, made from dried chiles and a hint of cinnamon, and known for its robust and complex taste, is the star in this tamale creation. The slow-cooked birria imparts a depth of flavor that, when paired with the boneless chicken breast and masa, provides a delightful twist, merging tradition with innovation. Each tamale, carefully crafted with masa and filled with the flavorful chicken birria, provides a burst of authentic Mexican taste in every bite.
Let's dive into the steps of making Chicken Birria Tamales, a recipe that respects the tradition of Mexican cuisine while trying new creative flavor combinations.
While tamales are terrific all year round, they are a Christmas Eve tradition in many homes.
- Masa Dough
- Masa harina
- Kosher salt
- Corn husks to wrap tamales
- Chicken Birria Mixture
- Boneless skinless chicken breasts
- Yellow onion
- Garlic cloves
- Guajillo chiles
- Chiles de árbol
- Bay leaves
- Cinnamon stick
- Cumin seeds
- Dried thyme
- Dried marjoram
- Ground ginger
- Allspice berries
- Sesame seeds
- Canned diced tomatoes with juices
- White vinegar
Soak the Cork Husks
Dried corn husks are available at most markets. They typically come in a bag and it will seem like you are buying a lifetime supply of them. That's OK because you will use about 80% of them. The other 20% will be defective and unusable. Some will be way too small to use, others will be stained with something that looks black spray paint. Throw all of those away.
Pick through the corn husks and find the biggest and cleanest ones. Soak them in cold water for 30 minutes to soften. Soaking the husks helps prevent tearing when you roll up the tamales. Be aware that dried corn husks will float. Weigh them down with something heavy like a dinner plate or perhaps a ceramic bowl.
Make the Masa Dough
Let's talk about lard for a moment. Many people are reluctant to cook with lard. In tamales, the lard actually creates little spaces between the ground masa flour when it melts and drains away during the steaming process leaving fluffy masa. There is actually very little lard remaining in the final tamales. This is an authentic way to make the masa dough. Generations of tamale makers can't be wrong. I have tried making tamales with shortening instead of lard and, in my humble opinion, they are not nearly as good as the tamales made with lard. The reason may have something to do with the fact that shortening has a higher melting point than lard. This means more shortening stays in the tamales. Stick with the lard.
In a large bowl, add salt to the masa harina and stir. Then add the water and stir to combine and set aside. Next, add the lard to a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix at medium speed for five minutes. The lard should be light and fluffy. Add the masa flour mixture to the lard and mix at medium speed until well blended, about 5 minutes. You are now ready to make some tamales.
Soak the corn husks in water for 30 minutes.
Whip the lard using a paddle attachment for 5 minutes before adding the masa flour mixture.
Cook the Chicken
Making the chicken is easy with boneless and skinless chicken breasts.
Cut the chicken breast into 2" pieces. Add to a pot of boiling water along with the onion, garlic and bay leaves. Cook until done, about 40 minutes.
Chop or shred the cooked chicken and set aside.
Make the Birria Sauce
Add the dried chiles to a bowl and cover with hot water. Let the chiles soak for 30 minutes. Then, drain the chiles and discard the soaking liquid.
Add all of the dried spices to a cast iron skillet over low heat. Gently toast the spices until they start to develop a little color, about 9 - 10 minutes.
Transfer the soaked chiles and toasted spices to a blender. Add the tomatoes and vinegar and blend until smooth, about 6 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Toast the spices in a cast iron skillet over low heat until they start to develop a little color, about 9 - 10 minutes.
Add the soaked chiles and toasted spices to a blender.
Add the canned tomatoes to the blender.
Blend the birria sauce until smooth.
Add enough sauce to moisten the chicken. Keep remaining sauce to serve with the finished tamales.
Stir the birria sauce and chicken until combined.
Make the Tamales
This step is a ton of fun for kids. They love to get their hands dirty. You did put a drain in the middle of your kitchen floor, didn't you?
Overlap two corn husks. Spread ⅓ cup of masa on the corn husks into a rectangle, about 4" by 6". Just get it close, making tamales are not about being exact.
Place a small ball of masa mixture on two overlapping soaked corn husks.
Spread the masa to the edge of the wide end but only to within about 2" of the narrow end.
Add a scoop of chicken and birria sauce.
Gently fold both long sides of husk together. Fold the narrow end, without masa, up and roll the tamale to finish.
Set Up the Steamer
Add about an inch of warm water to the bottom of a large pot over medium heat. Place tamales upright in the steamer basket, with the folded end down. Cover and steam the tamales for 35 minutes. Make sure that you have a good seal. IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: Place a dime in the bottom of the steamer. It will rattle as the water boils. Add water if the rattle stops because it means you are about to burn the tamales.
Be adventurous and experiment with different fillings like pork, beef, potatoes and cheese. You really can't go wrong when you are making tamales.
The tamales in this recipe were cooked on end in a steamer insert that fits inside a large pot. I use the same basket for making pasta. It fits inside the pot and comes to within an inch or two of the bottom of the pot.
Tamales need to be cooked on end with the wrapped side down. This position helps the lard drain out while they steam.
Leftover tamales can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Whip the lard in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment at medium speed for 5 full minutes. This makes the lard light and fluffy, and that's perfect for tamales.
As you unwrap the steamed Chicken Birria Tamales, take a moment to appreciate how simple this dish is. Some chicken, a few spices and dried chiles, masa flour and canned tomatoes is all it took to make wonderful tamales.
So, gather your ingredients, roll up your sleeves, and make some tamales. Here's to the joy of creating a wonderful handmade dish that honors the simplicity and flavor of Mexican cuisine.
Looking for other recipes like this? Try these:
These are my favorite dishes to serve with this recipe.
Chicken Birria Tamales
- 3 cups masa flour for tamales
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup lard
- 1 tbs kosher salt
- 36 corn husks
Chicken Birria Mixture
- 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
- ½ yellow onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 8 guajillo chiles dried, stemmed and seeded
- 12 chiles de árbol dried, stemmed and seeded
- 3 bay leaves
- ¼ cinnamon stick
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- 4 cloves whole
- 4 allspice berries whole
- 2 teaspoon sesame seeds
- 28 oz canned diced tomatoes with juices
- ¼ cup white vinegar
- In a large bowl, add salt to the masa flour and stir. Add the water and stir to combine. Add the lard to a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix at medium speed for 5 minutes. The lard should be light and fluffy. Add the masa flour mixture to the lard and mix at medium speed until well blended, about 5 minutes.
- Soak corn husks in water for 30 minutes to soften. Cut the chicken breast into 2 inch pieces. Add to a pot of boiling water along with the onion, garlic and bay leaves. Cook until done, about 40 minutes.
- Add the dried chiles to a bowl and cover with hot water. Let the chiles soak for 30 minutes. Drain the chiles and discard the soaking liquid. Add all dried spices to a cast iron skillet. Gently toast the spices over low heat until they start to develop a little color, about 9 - 10 minutes.
- Transfer the soaked chiles and toasted spices to a blender. Add the tomatoes and vinegar and blend until smooth, about 6 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a small sauce pot and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Shred the chicken into small pieces. Add enough sauce to moisten the chicken. Keep remaining sauce to serve with the finished tamales.
- Overlap two corn husks. Spread ⅓ cup of masa on the corn husks into a rectangle, about 4" by 6". Spread to the edge of the wide end but only to within about 2" of the narrow end.
- Add ¼ cup of the chicken mixture to the center of the masa. Gently fold both long edges together. Fold the narrow end without masa up and roll the tamale to finish.
- Place the tamales in a steamer basket on end, with the folded end down. Cover and steam for 35 minutes. Hint: Place a dime in the bottom of the steamer. It will rattle as the water boils. Add water if the rattle stops.