Updated: Feb 28
With a delicious sweet potato masa and several great preparation methods to choose from, you can take or leave the corn husk--it's what's on the inside that counts!
Read on for tips and pics. Click here to skip to printable recipe.
Tamales are one of my family’s favorite Christmastime traditions. We like to get the kids involved and make some to eat right away, some to freeze, and some to share with friends and family.
Over the years we’ve perfected our masa game and experimented with numerous fillings.
BUT. . .masa for traditional tamales is corn-based, and corn (a grain) is no bueno on paleo. Typically we consider tamales part of the 15% of our diet that allows for culinary off-roading, but last year I wanted to see if we could bring our tamales to the 85.
My initial concept when it came to dough ingredients was simply replacing the masa with mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes with egg? Or maybe mashed green plantains? Brainstorming continued.
After much deliberation and a few trials, we landed on a combo of sweet potato and almond flour as the stand-in for the masa. The sweet potato lends color and just a tiny bit of sweetness (similar to corn), while the almond flour lends that cornmeal-like texture. While many paleo recipes require a long list of alternative starches like coconut flour and tapioca flour, this recipe creates the perfect paleo masa with a relatively short ingredient list--we'll call that a win!
Flavorful homemade chicken stock and a combination of bacon grease and coconut oil round out the tamale dough. You can substitute chicken broth or bone broth from the grocery store for homemade chicken stock if you prefer. As far as the fats go, you could use all bacon grease, but we don't advise using all coconut oil, as the flavor tends to be too strong. Palm shortening makes a good substitution. Olive oil could work in a pinch, but the texture will be impacted a little. You could add a little garlic powder to the masa for extra flavor of desired, but I prefer to keep that lane open for the fillings.
The best way to prepare the sweet potato for use in this recipe is to bake a whole sweet potato, skin-on, until very tender. This can be done a few days in advance and stashed in the fridge till ready to use if desired. The cooked sweet potato can then be scooped right out of the skin into a measuring cup. Leftover sweet potato is a great addition to chili or paleo pancakes.
The dough is easiest to work with by hand after it sits for 5-10 minutes.
Traditionally, tamales are prepared with either dried corn husks (typical of Tex-Mex tamales) or banana leaves (more common in Southern Mexico and Central America). Parchment paper is also an option, but admittedly less sustainable. I set out on the banana-leaf route when developing this recipe. . .
. . .but about halfway through, I thought of a much simpler (if way less traditional) workaround. These rectangular silicone baking cups are spectacular. Simply scoop masa into cups, press down and up the sides with your hands, fill with something delicious, and press to seal.
I opted for corn husks for the cover shoot because I love the look of them, but if you're going for paleo purity, they might not be the best choice. Then again, it's not like you're eating the husk, and like I always tell the monsters, it's what's on the inside that counts.
Whichever way you choose to form your tamales, the next step is to steam them. You can stack them in a steamer basket in a large pot filled with a few inches of water on the stovetop, or place them in a water bath in a high-sided roasting pan, cover with foil, and steam in the oven. Tamales formed in silicone cups will look slightly baked on top, but when they are inverted onto a plate to serve, they will look more like regular tamales.
Due to the sweet potato, I'm not sure if these qualify as keto tamales, but they are certainly a welcome addition to a paleo diet and definitely low carb compared to traditional tamales.
One of the best things about these paleo tamales is that you can fill them with just about anything! You could go as simple as ground beef seasoned with chili powder, salt, and black pepper cooked in a large skillet over medium high heat; or crank things up with silky, shredded, slow-cooked pork with green chiles. Most fillings can be made at your convenience in a slow cooker or instant pot. If you substituted the bacon grease for palm shortening or more coconut oil, you could even make them vegan with a delicious mushroom-based filling!
Some of our favorite fillings:
*Chicken or Turkey Tinga (dark meat slow-cooked in salsa, our main go-to)
*Chopped smoked brisket
*Nom Nom Paleo's Mexican Braised Beef
*NomNomPaleo's Kahlua Pig
A lot of people love tamales but think they're too much work to make at home. If you love the idea of tamales but want to skip the whole scooping and shaping situation, opt for this easy paleo tamale pie!
You'll follow the exact same recipe for the masa, but instead of portioning it into individual servings, you'll spread half the masa out in a casserole dish and top with your filling of choice. Drop dollops of the remaining masa across the top and spread gently to connect them and stretch them out without dragging and disrupting the filling layer too much. If desired, sprinkle on a little paleo-friendly, dairy-free shredded cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 375 for 60 minutes.
Whether it's your first time making this beloved Mexican dish, or you're a seasoned pro, we hope you'll give this easy paleo version a try!
Here's what you'll need:
1 cup cooked sweet potato, preferably baked in the skin till very soft (about 90 min at 350 degrees F)
½ cup bacon grease, melted
¼ cup coconut oil, melted
½ cup chicken stock
3 cups almond flour
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 ½ cups filling of choice
Here's what you'll do:
Use a potato masher to mash the sweet potato and thoroughly combine with remaining ingredients. Let sit 5 minutes.
Use a 3 T cookie scoop to portion out scoops of masa into each of 20 rectangular silicone baking cups.
Use fingers or a silicone spatula to push the masa down and up the sides of each cup so that it extends a bit over the sides.
Add 2 T filling to the center of the dough in each cup, and press down, using your fingers, a spatula, and/or the sides of the cup to gently encase the filling in the masa.
Transfer the filled cups to a high-walled baking dish, carefully add enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the cups, and cover dish tightly with foil.
Bake at 375 degrees F for 2 hours. Serve immediately or re-steam chilled or frozen tamales for 20 minutes or just till warmed through.
For the printable recipe click here.