On the surface, it might seem like you could use any ol' type of cornmeal to make tamales, but the corn product used to make this Latin American celebration menu item is quite different. Masa harina, a special type of corn flour, is made from corn kernels cooked in lime water, sun-dried and finely ground, which give tamales their signature texture and distinctive taste.
This May Fall Apart
Consider the porous, crumbly texture of cornbread when weighing whether to use standard cornmeal or masa harina to make tamales. A well-made tamale "shell" has a soft and smooth texture. Steaming tightly binds the tamale dough made from masa harina together, so it holds the filling -- spicy pork, beans, chicken or beef -- in place. Given the time and effort it takes to make a batch of tamales, using the right ingredients, which includes masa harina, will yield more satisfactory results.