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Tamale pie holds a place in the lexicon of Americanized foods somewhere in the same chapter as American Chop Suey, and like that pseudo-Italian casserole, this one bears some resemblance to its cousin across the border, but it's a superficial one, and it's not even clear if Mexican tamales are actually its origin.
The history is somewhat hazy, though the recipe appears as early as the 1931 edition of the Joy of Cooking. Made by covering up a simple ground beef chili with a corn batter and baking it until crisp, it's one of those all-in-one dishes that sounds so damn appealing on the pages of a cookbook, but generally ends up being more meh, I guess I'll eat this in real life.
The version of tamale pie I grew up on came from a book called California Cooks! by Rowena McLean and Betty McDermott Marks under the heading "Calexico Tamale Pie." I believe it is the only recipe with such a title in existence (a Google search returns exactly four results, all of them identical to the one printed in the book). It was one of those archetypical 1970's cookbooks that tried to capture the American love affair with cosmopolitan, exotic-sounding ingredients and recipes. You know, modern ingredients like corn canned with red and green peppers or canned roasted Mexican chilies.
My mom picked it up when she was living in Palo Alto in the '70s and has kept it ever since. But what was once exotic is now just a meal of convenience and comfort. Chili powder and canned olives are about as fancy as the average tamale pie recipe gets. I've even seen some made with creamed corn and muffin mix!
Now I liked the stuff as a kid to be sure, but it doesn't do you any favors in the "I feel like I just cooked real food" department. I can do better than that, I thought to myself.
Tamale pie is a dish that screams for an update. I mean, it's cornbread and chili all rolled into one. Just imagine how great it could be if we took the time to make a real, deeply flavored, meaty chili from scratch, eschewing the dump-and-stir approach and instead building up layers of spices and aromatics. Now imagine that chili topped with tender, moist, crisp-edged, buttery cornbread with those chili juices seeping up into it as it bakes in the oven. That's the kind of meal I'd love to come home to after a long day out in the cold.
As I often do when working on an upgraded recipe, I started this one by tackling each element on its own: figuring out how to extract the most flavor from the meat, how to make the tastiest cornbread, the exact balance of aromatics and spices. And as I kept going, what was once a quick and easy, stir-it-together and pop-it-in-the-oven recipe became an hours-long beast. Tastier? You bet, but at the same time it ended up losing some of the simple appeal of the original. So I thought, why not do it both ways?
I developed my "ultimate" version, then went back and used some of the tricks I'd learned to create a streamlined version that takes just about 45 minutes from start to finish. Today I present both of those recipes to you, so you have your choice of going all-in and dedicating yourself to a real project or saving time (and having a shot of getting dinner on the table before bedtime).
Let's do a quick review of the basic ingredients, both for the quick version and for my updated all-in version, and then I'll walk you through the process of making each.
Classic tamale pie is made with ground beef, which cooks quickly and is always tender. For my version, I wanted to go with something a little more substantial—something that would become meltingly, fall-apart tender as it cooks with the rich broth you get only from slow-cooking. Chunks of chuck seemed like an obvious choice, but it wasn't quite right. Instead, I decided to take a cue from Cuban-style ropa vieja, a stew made with skirt steak that is cooked until the meat shreds.
The Chili Base
If you're familiar with any of my chili recipes, then you probably know where this is going: Ditch the jarred chili powder, and I mean that for both versions. For the quick and easy version, I'm using a mixture of ground ancho chili, cayenne, cumin, coriander, and oregano. For my updated version, I'm going with a chili paste using my standard chili paste method: a mix of whole dried chilies toasted then rehydrated in chicken stock before being puréed. In addition, I'm using whole cumin seeds and coriander seeds in order to maximize flavor.
For the quick version, I'm keeping it real simple: a diced onion and some thinly sliced garlic are all it really needs. Some folks like to add diced red pepper, and I'm not against that in any way, but the dish doesn't need it, and here we're all about expediency. For the pimped-out pie, I like to build in a little bit more complexity.
I start with the same onion, but thinly slice it instead of dicing (to mimic the texture of the shredded beef at the end). In addition, I add a thinly sliced red pepper, a thinly sliced poblano pepper, garlic, and a minced Serrano chili, which adds some fresh heat to complement the richer heat of the dried chilies.
Normally I'd advocate for only getting corn that's been recently picked from the farm and cooking it on the same day in order to maximize its flavor, but who are we kidding? There's no such thing as really great sweet corn in the winter and this is a decidedly winter dish. In past experiments, I've found that at least for cooked applications like this one, frozen corn can actually fare quite well. It's been blanched before freezing so its sweetness is locked in, whereas fresh corn undergoes enzymatic breakdown that converts its sugars into starches.
That said, in this particular dish, it's okay for the corn not to be too sweet as long as it has some nice corn flavor. I'm using frozen thawed corn for the quick version and fresh kernels cut from the cob for the hardcore. Why the fresh corn? We'll get to that in a minute...
Classic tamale pie wouldn't be tamale pie without tomato sauce. I don't really dig on the canned stuff—it never tastes like fresh tomatoes to me—so instead, I'm using whole peeled canned tomatoes that I crush by hand between my fingers. Some canned black beans also go in to bulk it up.
We used to have a running joke when I was working at Cook's Illustrated that in order to make something "Southwest," all you needed to do was add corn, black beans, and cumin. Ta-da! It's kinda like those restaurants that add peanuts and coconut milk to second-rate Chinese food and call it Thai.
But as much of an aversion as I have to that particular combo, in this case it's a classic, so I'll let it slide.
I made a couple batches of the hardcore version with various additional elements and in the end found that the tomatoes and beans are superfluous, the former dulling the flavor of the chilies and the latter making the beef blander. Instead, I decided to go with an ingredient that's not common, but not unheard of in tamale pie: sliced olives. The version that appears in the Joy of Cooking actually calls for pimento-stuffed green olives, but I prefer to use the fancy unstuffed green ones from the olive bar instead. (Forget about those insipid canned black olives, please. They belong nowhere except on hangover pizza.)
The cornmeal crust is a bit of an oddball here. The dish is distinctly Southern/Southwestern in origin, but the topping is made with a sweetened, yellow corn, Northern-style cornbread in nearly every single recipe I've seen, with the exception of the California Cooks! version my mom used to make. There, a thin, unleavened batter is made from corn meal and it's baked with olives and cheese on top. Sounds okay, but I actually prefer the cornbread version—I love that juxtaposition of savory filling and sweet, moist, buttery crust.
I started out by using this superlative recipe for Sweet and Moist Northern-Style Cornbread from Josh Bousel (and as it turns out, one batch is precisely what you need to cover up a 12-inch skillet's worth of tamale pie), but as I was melting the butter for it, I remembered our Nila Jones's recent post on browned butter. One part of my brain immediately said to another part are you pondering what I'm pondering?
I think so, brain, but it makes sense, given we're both parts of the same organ and all.
I let the butter continue cooking until a nutty golden brown, then I incorporated it into the cornbread batter, using just a touch less sugar than Josh's original recipe called for—I figured with browned butter, a slightly more savory bread would work well.
I stuck my finger into the mixture and tasted it and hot damn! It was so damn good that I ended up baking a batch in the same skillet I'd just browned the butter in right then and there, requiring me to mix up some more for the actual task at hand.
After cleaning up the spilled honey that I'd just slathered over the cornbread, I turned my attention back to the pies. First up, we'll go over how to make the quick version.
How to Make Classic Tamale Pie in 45 Minutes or Less
In an episode of America's Test Kitchen (warning: pay wall), Chris Kimball and Bridgett Lancaster make the bold claim that their skillet tamale pie can be made start to finish in half an hour. Which is true. If you've got every single one of your ingredients pulled together and prepped, your butter melted and cooled, and your running shoes on. I'm not going to make quite so bold a claim, but I do think that you'll be able to make this version start to finish in just about 45 minutes—maybe an hour tops if you're in a more casual mood or get distracted by dogs or beer (I don't blame you).
We start by preheating the oven and browning the butter for the cornbread crust. As soon as the butter is out of the pan, I add my ground beef to the same pan without wiping it out (no reason to throw away any flavor here).
I like to use my potato masher to break up the ground beef. It's faster and easier than trying to do it 100% with a spoon.
We're looking for meat cooked enough that it's just starting to brown (you should hear a definite sizzle instead of a steaming sound), but not so browned that the meat gets pebbly or tough. Once it's there. I add the diced onion and sliced garlic, cooking just until it's softened.
Next up, the spices. Ancho chili powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, and a pinch of cayenne, which I cook in the hot beef fat and browned butter to help bloom and develop their flavors. Remember: This is a quick-cooking dish, so you won't get much flavor development after you throw it in the oven. Every little layering step is important.
Once the spices are bloomed, in goes my corn, my rinsed black beans, my tomatoes (crushed by hand), and about a cup of chicken stock—just enough to keep it moist. The filling may look a little soupy at first, but it's okay—I found that as it bakes, the cornbread sucks up a lot of that moisture, so you have to make the filling much looser than expected if you want it to remain moist and juicy when serving.
The last three ingredients are perhaps the most essential: Cilantro and scallions add a touch of brightness to an otherwise extremely rich and savory dish. Cheddar cheese appears in many, many recipes (though not in California Cooks! or Joy of Cooking), and while some recipes have you add it as a layer between the filling and the crust, or perhaps as a sprinkle on top of the crust during the last few minutes of baking, I like to take the approach they use in the America's Test Kitchen version: stirring the cheese right into the filling. It helps to bind it and add richness and complexity. Use the sharpest cheddar cheese you can find for this.
All that's left now is to throw together the cornbread batter and spread it over the filling.
If you try and just pour the batter out over the top you'll end up with disaster: The filling is moist enough that the batter will end up just sinking in a big pool in the center and become impossible to spread without mixing. Instead, I spoon the batter in small dollops all over the surface...
...before carefully spreading out the dollops until they touch each other and form a solid crust. Into a 425°F oven it goes, and 20 minutes later, you've got dinner.
Pretty, and pretty easy, right?
Sour cream, cilantro, and scallions are my toppings of choice. To be honest, I'm pretty darned pleased with this simple, quick version, but if you want to turn this into a dish that can blow the minds of your guests, it's gonna take a bit more work and time.
Here's how I do it.
How to Make Best Tamale Pie With Braised Skirt Steak, Charred Corn, and Brown Butter Cornbread Crust
To start, we're ditching that ground beef for skirt steak, which I cut into pieces that are about two-inches square. Skirt has a very distinct grain and the most important part is that each strand of muscle fiber should be a maximum of two inches in order to prevent the finished dish from being too stringy.
After browning the butter for my cornbread (this time in a Dutch oven), I add the skirt steak and sear it over high heat on a single side until it's deeply browned. This takes about five minutes, which is just enough time to...
...toast and blend the chilies. I toast them in the microwave and reconstitute them in chicken stock just like in this guide.
When the steak comes out of the pan (no need to sear both sides—you get plenty of flavor browning just the bottoms), you should see a nice browned layer of fond. This'll be the foundation for your braising liquid later on. For now, we're going to add that corn.
This is the reason why I prefer fresh corn here: I want to cook it until it's deeply charred, giving it a smoky, caramelized flavor. Frozen corn is simply too mushy and wet to brown effectively.
Once the corn is browned, the other vegetables go in: onions, bell, and poblano peppers.
While those vegetables soften, I grind up my cumin, coriander, and dried oregano on a mortar and pestle, then add them to the pot to toast along with my sliced garlic and Serrano pepper.
Finally, the puréed chili mixture enters the pot along with just enough extra chicken stock to mostly cover up the meat.
We're almost there. The meat and their juices go back in, along with those sliced green olives, then the stew gets covered and parked in a 300°F oven until the meat is shreddably tender—it takes about two and a half hours. Plenty of time to work up an appetite. (If you've got a pressure cooker, you can cut that time down to about 45 minutes for equally tasty results!)
Once the meat is cooked, I give it a few final flavor boosts. First, a shot of Worcestershire sauce and some Asian fish sauce bump up the umami factor.
Just as with the quick version, some grated cheese, sliced scallions, and cilantro are essential to the flavor.
This stuff is so damn good you may well forget about that cornbread batter waiting to go on top. I wouldn't blame you for digging in with a fork straight away (I know I did).
But patience brings rewards. Step away from the skillet.
The last step of the process is identical to the quick version: top with cornbread batter, bake, and serve.
My favorite bits are the parts where the cornbread is saturated with the juices from the stew. I love it when recipes work out like this. This version is immediately, undeniably tamale pie to anyone who is familiar with the dish, but it's also quite obviously something a little more. I don't want to say more delicious—because I do love the quick version too—but maybe just a bit more serious.
The stew should flow with juices as you spoon it out of the skillet, and thanks to that cornbread crust and the cast iron skillet, the whole thing stays hot for a long, long time. I scooped up a spoonful half an hour after it came out of the oven and it erupted with a cloud of steam!
I think the best way to describe a successful relationship is one in which both parties end up better for having known each other. Tamale pie, I may not know exactly where you came from, but I'm sure glad you found your way into my life.