Red Chile Elk Tamales

By Laura Reese                   

Makes approximately 5 doz tamales 

Even though I grew up in the borderlands of Tucson, it was only a few years ago that I was invited to my first tamalada (tamale-making-party) at the home of a friend’s mom. After learning the art of rolling tamales from Lourdes herself, I knew I had to try this with wild game. It was on the long walk back to camp packing out my elk the following October when I started dreaming about making tamales with the shoulder roasts on my back. 

Tamales are traditionally made between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which makes them perfect for fall-harvested game. Gather a few friends, a couple cases of beer (or bottle of tequila), and enjoy the afternoon up to your elbows in masa. Traditionally, everyone at the tamalada gets sent home with a dozen (or two) tamales for the freezer—it’s a great way to introduce friends to game!

*Around Christmas in Tucson, all the ingredients listed below can be found in the supermarket, but I’ve linked to Amazon in case your local store doesn’t have these sourced.)

Make the Red Chile Elk

  • 4 lbs elk chuck/shank/shoulder roast (this recipe is for 4 lbs of de-boned meat. Adjust accordingly if cooking bone-in.)
  • 1 Onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 Carrot, roughly chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 whole garlic head, sliced in half
  • 4 (19oz) cans red chile sauce (Do NOT use enchilada sauce. Must be chili sauce. Direct orders from Lourdes.)
  • 4 cups flavorful liquid of choice (stock, beer, leftover wine, etc)
  • 1/4 c neutral oil
  • 2 tablespoon flour
  • 1/2 tablespoon oregano
  1. Season the shoulder roast with salt and pepper. Place in the crockpot with the onion, carrot, bay leaf, garlic, 2 cans of red chile sauce, and flavorful liquid of choice. Cook overnight on low until fork-tender. Remove the meat from the pot and shred the entire thing. Remove any pieces of fat or hard inedible bits of connective tissue. Set aside.
  1. Be sure to save a couple cups of crockpot broth for the masa dough later on!
  1. Heat 1/4 c oil in large sauté pan, and add the flour. Brown lightly. Add 1 can of red chili sauce. Add oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and heat, tasting it as you go.
  1. Add the shredded meat to the sauce and simmer on low. Open the 4th can of red chili sauce and add as needed. You want to coat the meat well, but avoid making it too liquidly. You don’t want it too soupy when you spread it on the masa to assemble your tamales.
  1. Remove from the heat and cool to room temp. (You can also make this up to 3 days in advance and keep in the fridge. You don’t need to reheat when you assemble your tamales.) 

Make the Masa

*In Tucson I buy ‘masa preparada’, which is the prepared dough from freshly ground lime-soaked corn. If you can’t find ‘masa preparada’, you can still make your own dough by hydrating masa harina flour

  • 5 lbs masa preparada
  • 1.5 lbs of manteca lard
  • Reserved broth from your elk roast, or extra red chili sauce
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 4 tablespoons kosher salt
  1. Place the lard in a mixer and whip for at least 5 minutes. It’s kind of like creaming butter. You want it to be as light and fluffy as possible. 
  1. Add the masa preparada, baking powder, salt, 1 cup of broth, and mix to combine well. Our goal is the consistency of soft peanut butter or thick frosting, so gradually add more broth or red chili sauce to the masa to get your mixture to a spreadable consistency. Add more masa if you need to thicken it back up. 

Assemble (or ‘roll’) the tamales

  • 16 oz hojas (corn husks)
  • Prepared masa dough
  • Prepared red chile elk
  • Picked jalapeños
  • Green olives 

1. Soak the corn husks overnight in water.

2. Slightly overlap 2 corn husks, length-wise like a shingle, in the palm of your hand. The widest end should be at the top of your palm, with the narrowest end at your wrist-end.

3. Spread a thick layer of masa on the top half of the shingled corn husks, edge to edge (approx 1/4c or so, but it really depends on the size of the husk). This should feel like buttering bread. ‘Butter’ the corn husk with the masa dough.

4. Put 1 tablespoons of filling in the middle of the ‘buttered’ corn husk. (It will feel like a small amount, but if you put too much, your tamale will overflow in the steaming process.)

5. Add a a green olive and jalapeño slice on top of the filling.

6. Wrap the sides up around the filling to encase the tamale, and fold the clean, narrow, bottom half of the husk up to the top the tamale to create a secure folded bottom with the top exposed.

7. Repeat until all filling is used up.

8. Arrange tamales upright in a steam pot, tightly packed in next to one another. Arrange them with the folded edge at the bottom, with the exposed end at the top. Cover and steam on medium heat for about 30-40 minutes, or until the masa separates easily from the husks.

9. Carefully remove the steam tamales and enjoy on their own, or with a little bit of tomatillo salsa verde.

10. If freezing for later, place the steamed tamales on a sheet pan to cool before placing in a ziplock bag and freeze for later use.