The Best Tamale Pie With Braised Skirt Steak, Charred Corn, and Brown Butter Cornbread Crust Recipe

Plate with a portion of tamale pie next to the pie in a cast iron skillet

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Why It Works

  • Skirt steak slow-cooked until fall-apart tender is the basis for a rich stew.
  • Whole dried chilies are used in place of chili powder for better flavor and texture.
  • A combination of poblano peppers, red bell peppers, and onions form a flavorful backbone for the sauce.
  • Browning the butter for the cornbread crust gives it a rich, nutty aroma.


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. If simple is what you’re after, you’ll want to check out our quick and easy skillet tamale pie instead.

But if you want to go all-in and dedicate yourself to a real project, keep reading.

Let's do a quick review of the basic ingredients, and then I'll walk you through the cooking process.

The Meat

Large pieces of marbled beef and a pile of ground beef on brown paper

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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

Large dried chilies, spices, and a bowl of chili powder on wooden cutting board

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

If you're familiar with any of my chili recipes, then you probably know where this is going: Ditch the jarred chili powder. 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.

The Vegetables

For the pimped-out pie, I like to build in a little bit more complexity.

Bowl filled with sliced poblano pepper, red pepper, and onion

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

I start with an 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.

The Corn

Two cobs of corn and a sieve filled with fresh corn kernels over a bowl

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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...

Other Flavors

Hand holding a bowl filled with canned roma tomatoes and a bowl filled with black beans

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Classic tamale pie wouldn't be tamale pie without tomato sauce. Some canned black beans also go in to bulk it up.

Hand holding bowl filled with sliced green olives

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

I made a couple batches with various additional elements and in the end found that the tomatoes and beans in the classic recipe are superfluous, the former dulling the flavor of the chiles 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 Crust

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 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.

Butter browning in a cast iron skillet on stove

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.

A table with tamale pie in a skillet, a portion of pie in a bowl, and various toppings

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Sour cream, cilantro, and scallions are my toppings of choice.

How to Make Best Tamale Pie With Braised Skirt Steak, Charred Corn, and Brown Butter Cornbread Crust

Hand resting atop a pile of sliced skirt steak

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.

Stirring fresh corn kernels with spices in bottom of a Dutch oven

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.

Wooden spoon stirring sliced peppers, corn, and spices together in Dutch oven

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

While those vegetables soften, I grind up my cumin, coriander, and dried oregano in a mortar and pestle, then add them to the pot to toast along with my sliced garlic and Serrano pepper.

Pouring dark red chile sauce into Dutch oven with sauteed vegetables

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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!)

Pouring Worcestershire sauce into a pot of braising meat

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.

Hands scraping grated cheddar from a bowl into a pot filled with braising meat

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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 simple: top with cornbread batter, bake, and serve.

Hand lifting spoonful of tamale pie from cast iron skillet

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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!

Portion of tamale pie on white plate topped with sour cream and green onions

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.

Recipe Facts

Active: 30 mins
Total: 4 hrs
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 pounds skirt steak, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 2-inch rectangles
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 whole sweet dried chilies like Costeño, New Mexico, or Choricero, stems and seeds removed
  • 2 whole rich fruity dried chilies like Ancho, Mulatto, Negro, or Pasilla, stems and seeds removed
  • 3 cups homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels from 1 to 2 ears of corn
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and thinly sliced
  • 1 poblano pepper, stemmed, seeded, and thinly sliced
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 Serrano pepper, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin (preferably from whole seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander (preferably from whole seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 cup pitted green olives, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
  • 4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 1 cup)
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves and fine stems, minced
  • For the Brown Butter Cornbread Crust:
  • 1 cup (about 5 ounces) fine yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup (about 5 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 ounces (about 3/4 cup) sour cream
  • 4 ounces (about 1/4 cup) cultured buttermilk
  • Sour cream, for serving

Directions

  1. Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 300°F (see note for pressure cooker instructions). Heat butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until melted. Continue to cook, swirling pan gently until butter is nutty-smelling and solids are a toasty brown. Transfer to a heatproof cup or bowl and reserve for Brown Butter Cornbread Crust.

  2. Return pan to high heat. Season skirt steak generously with salt and pepper. Add to the pan in as close to a single layer as possible. Cook without moving until deeply browned on bottom side, about 6 minutes. When beef is browned (do not brown top side), transfer to a large plate and set aside.

    Chunks of skirt steak browning in bottom of Dutch oven

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  3. Meanwhile, place chilies on a microwave-safe plate and microwave until hot, pliable, and toasted, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a microwave-safe liquid measuring cup and add 1 cup chicken stock. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high power until gently simmering, about 3 minutes. Remove from microwave and transfer to a blender. Add remaining chicken stock. Blend until completely smooth, about 1 minute. Set aside.

    Large dried chiles soaking in liquid in large glass measuring container

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  4. Return Dutch oven to high heat. Add oil to Dutch oven followed by corn. Cook, stirring occasionally, until corn is well charred in spots, about 4 minutes. Add onion, bell pepper, and poblano pepper, and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes.

    Wooden spoon stirring sliced peppers and corn in Dutch oven

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  5. Add garlic, Serrano pepper, cumin, coriander, and oregano and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chili purée and stir to combine. Return beef to the pot along with any drippings. Add olives and stir to combine.

    Wooden spoon stirring sliced green olives into pot with braising meat

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  6. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, cover, and transfer to the oven (see note for pressure cooker instructions). Cook until beef is fall-apart tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Remove from oven.

  7. Set oven temperature to 425°F. Stir Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, and cheese into stew. Return to stovetop and simmer on medium heat, stirring frequently, until thickened to a rich, stew-like consistency, about 5 minutes. Stir in scallions and cilantro and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to a 12-inch cast iron skillet or a 9- by 13-inch casserole dish.

    Wooden spoon in cast iron skillet filled with saucy braised beef

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  8. For the Brown Butter Cornbread Crust: Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl. Combine eggs, sour cream, and buttermilk in a second bowl and whisk until homogenous. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in reserved browned butter. Whisk wet ingredients into dry ingredients until homogenous.

    Whisk stirring cornbread batter in metal bowl

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  9. Using a large spoon, place small dollops of the cornbread batter mixture on top of the beef filling, then use the back of the spoon to spread it into an even layer. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until pale golden brown and a skewer inserted into the cornbread comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

    Smoothing cornbread batter on top of tamale pie in cast iron skillet

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  10. Let cool 15 minutes, then serve with sour cream.

    Hand lifting spoonful of tamale pie from cast iron skillet

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt


Note:
The meat can be braised in a pressure cooker. To use a pressure cooker, follow recipe up to and including Step 5 (do not preheat oven in Step 1), using a stovetop or electric pressure cooker in place of the Dutch oven. Instead of Step 6, cook in the pressure cooker on high pressure for 45 minutes. Allow pressure to release naturally, remove lid, and continue recipe from Step 7.

Special equipment

cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, or an electric or stovetop pressure cooker (get our full review)