One of the amazing things about researching my latest book, Buck, Buck, Moose, was the discovery that basically every culture around the globe either eats venison, or at least has a history of doing so. Even the Aborigines of Australia hunt kangaroos, and if you’ve ever eaten one, ‘roo tastes a lot like venison.
Mexico is loaded with deer, and there is a rich tradition of Mexican venison recipes dating back to the Maya and Aztecs. This recipe for venison tamales is newer, but it is still an authentic Mexican recipe.
I got this recipe from Patricio and Cinthia Wise, friends of mine from Monterrey, Mexico. These venison tamales are a tradition in their family whenever someone comes home with a deer. They would bring the meat to a lady who specializes in making these tamales, and would often get an entire deer made into them. They are that good.
Keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of tamales in Mexico. These are from Nuevo Leon, so are tamales norteño, thin tamales wrapped in corn husks. You could of course make yours fatter or wrap them in banana leaves, too.
I use shoulder, shank or neck meat for these tamales, but any part will work. The core of this recipe is braised, shredded venison. You’ll need to start with my recipe for venison barbacoa to get the meat for these tamales — don’t forget to save the braising liquid.
For those of you who are averse to spicy foods, know that I use mostly guajillo chiles, which are not even as hot as a jalapeno. Any dried chile will work, and if you are really scared of picante foods, use only anchos, which are very mild.
The sauce on top of the tamales is my tomatillo salsa verde, but this easy Mexican tomato sauce works well, too.
Make quite a lot of these when you do, as they are something of a production. But venison tamales freeze very well, and you can pop them right from the freezer into a steamer for an easy weeknight meal.
Venison Tamales Norteno
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 1/4 pounds masa
- 10 1/2 ounces fresh rendered lard
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 4 guajillo or ancho chiles, seeded and torn up
- 1/4 cup braising liquid from venison
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 pounds braised, shredded venison
- 6 ancho chiles, seeded and torn up
- 6 guajillo chiles, seeded and torn up
- 5 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 cups braising liquid from venison
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican if possible
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 bunch epazote, chopped (optional)
- 30 to 40 corn husks, soaked in hot water
- Make the masa. Cook the chiles and garlic in the braising liquid until limp, then puree into a paste in a blender. Add this to the fresh masa, lard, salt and baking powder and knead until cohesive. (See note below on fresh masa)
- Make the filling. Saute the garlic with the torn up chiles in a little lard until fragrant. Cover with water or braising liquid from the venison and simmer until soft, about 10 minutes. Puree in a blender. Mix this with the spices and herbs and the shredded venison.
- Spread the dough. Place the corn husk wide side away from you. Smear some masa dough in the center of the husk, about 1/4 inch thick or less. Leave 2 to 4 inches room on the top and bottom of the husk, and about an inch or so on the sides.
- Fill the tamales. Add about a tablespoon of the venison filling to the center of the spread-out dough. Leave enough space around the dough so you'll be able to fold the tamal over.
- Fold the tamales. Fold the tamal over sideways, touching the ends of the dough together. Usually the easiest way to do this is to fold the husk itself over. Tuck one end of the husk over the tamal, then roll the husk over to form a cylinder. Fold up the bottom to seal. If you want, tie the tamal with some string or strips of corn husk.
- Steam the tamales. Set up your steamer. This should be a tall, large pot with a vegetable steamer set inside. it. Pour in enough water to just barely touch the base of the steamer. Line the steamer with a few spare corn husks. Set each finished tamal, open side up, into the steamer. When they're all in, cover the pot and steam for at least 1 hour, and up to 80 minutes.
- Serve the tamales. When they're ready, unwrap the tamales and serve with a sauce and some onions that have been soaked in lime juice for an hour or so.
- If you can get fresh masa, do it. Any taqueria will sell it to you. If you don't have a taqueria nearby, use masa harina to make the masa. You'll want 6 cups of masa harina mixed with 5 cups of warm braising liquid from the venison, or warm water.
- Ancho and Guajillo chiles are widely available in Latin markets, and even some regular supermarkets. If you can't find them, you can buy chiles online.
- If you've never folded a tamal before, watch this video on how to do it.
- To reheat prefrozen tamales, set in the steamer and steam for about 30 minutes.
Do you think I could sub the lard in the masa for rendered bear fat?
Hank Shaw says
Lucia: If you mean bear lard, then absolutely!
I’m planning a tamalada and I was wondering how many tamales the 10 servings make. What is the serving size? Thanks in advance.
Hank Shaw says
Michele: Generally one or two tamales are a serving.
John McNamara says
First time making tamales, will not be the last…everyone loved these
Weston Mason says
Was skeptical how they’d turn out, not because of the recipe but because of me executing it. They turned out amazing!
Jeffrey Burghardt says
I just made these for the second time on Christmas eve, and they were excellent again. Last year I nixtamalized and ground my own corn following Hank’s recipe. It was great and satisfying, but a lot of work. This year I found a local tortilleria that sells fresh masa and bought some from them. My daughter’s shot placement didn’t leave much shoulder to work with this year, so I used a top round roast. Normally that would be pretty dry after brazing for so long, but after shredding and adding some lard and home grown chilis, it was great. This has become a new family tradition that my daughter and I look forward to every year. This year we also made some with duck confit in red chili sauce, and some pheasant confit with green chili sauce. Such a fun way to celebrate with whatever while game we have on hand at the time.
Carey Rodriguez says
I’ve been making my husband these tamales for Christmas for several years now-he admits that he longer really misses his ‘uelita’s! 😉 I just had to say they’re so good that I’m now making them in July. In Louisiana. Totally worth the extra heat in the kitchen! Thanks!!
Possum Walker says
Holy heck these are good. I used Hank’s barbacoa recipe with some deer shanks and wild pork shoulders for the filling. It was labor intensive but the final product makes it all worth it.
My daughter and I used moose, great flavour! Thanks from Canada!
Bill F says
Tamales are a labor of love, but it was worth it. Used Hank’s barbacoa recipe with Canada goose legs and then made the tamales.
I was intimidated but it wasn’t terribly difficult. Took some time, but no one who has tried them hasn’t loved them.
Nathan B. says
Made these with venison and they were amazing. Using the braising liquid for the masa made them extraordinarily flavorful — definitely do this if you’re able to. I’ve made these 3 times now and friends and family loved them. They also freeze very well so easy to make a giant batch and enjoy throughout the year!
Kimberly Jensen says
Do you cook them the 60-80 minutes before freezing?
Hank Shaw says
Looks delicious! Are the chilis fresh or dried?
Hank Shaw says
Liz: They are dried.
Tyler P says
I made these the other day- absolutely delicious! The only changes I made to the recipe were searing the venison beforehand and a slightly longer steaming time for the finished tamales. A definite make again (if I can ever find the time!)
Anthony Ligouri says
This is a 2 part question: First, are the chiles you refer to here dried or fresh? I can get dried ones pretty easily but I’ve never seen fresh ones in the stores. Second, for the filling, do you add all the chiles and other spices in addition to everything in the barbacoa recipe, or if you make the barbacoa recipe, just use that for the filling?
Hank Shaw says
Anthony: They are dried. I tend to use just the meat, with some added salt and maybe some fresh herbs, as a tamal filling.
What is the “fresh Masa” referred to in section 1?
Hank Shaw says
Gregg: I explain in the note below the recipe. It’s masa already made, typically bought from Latin markets, or made from scratch starting with dried corn. You can of course use Maseca, the dried stuff, and rehydrate it.
These look amazing. Love the braised venison and that you use guajillo and ancho chiles. I never had venison tamales before and we will be sure to try these and pair them with a great brew.