As a precursor to this recipe, I will warn that making great tamales is a labor of love. Your end result will be rated by the effort you put into this recipe, and there’s no cutting corners when it comes to creating quality tamales. Like our grandmothers use to remind us, we must begin every cooking experience with absolute patience and unconditional love.

Front shoulders on any wild game can be tricky to cook depending on how the animal was hunted. This meat on most wild game species lines the animal’s scapula, which is a natural armor covering vital organs and muscle tissue. Sometimes when hunting with an arrow, we cannot avoid shooting through, or making contact with it. This can lower our overall yield of meat harvested from an animal – which in turn can make cooking a little more difficult.

I’ve always thought of front shoulders as burger meat, or a shank dinner, but I’ve now become sold on the idea of turning the shoulder and entire leg (usually from my deer or antelope harvests) into a Latin cuisine staple: tamales.

This recipe is broken into three major parts: the barbacoa, the filling, and the masa. All are dependent on each other, so every ingredient and step is crucial to the final product.

This recipe is a modified version of Hank Shaw’s original recipe created a few years ago. Check out the original recipe for the barbacoa and tamales here.


The Barbacoa
  • We prefer to use the front shoulder of our harvests because of the size and ease of space in the kitchen. In this recipe, I used the front shoulders of my first Coues buck that I was fortunate to harvest this winter.
  • It starts with a very clean front shoulder with as much grey skin removed as possible. A sharp 8” filet knife works wonders in the process. We use a braising method on the shoulder to break down and tenderize the meat. We only used the shoulder because I have a recipe that’s great for solo shanks, and if you omit them here, you’ll have more room in the braising pot for more shoulder.
  • The longer you braise the meat, the more tender it will be. We cooked ours at 300°F for 5-6 hours. You’ll know it’s ready when the meat falls off the bone.
  • When you strain the braising liquid from the meat, save it all. You’ll need the braise for the filling and for the masa, so don’t throw any out! If you don’t have enough for the masa and filling (even after saving it) you can use beef broth or stock.


The Filling
  • Rehydrating the peppers can take longer than the recipe stipulates, so give yourself plenty of time to make sure they’re completely soft so they puree well. If your chilis aren’t soft enough, you’ll end up with big chunks of pepper when you stir the puree into the barbacoa.
  • We’d recommend adding a good 20-30 minutes onto the prescribed 10 minutes of soaking (under “Make the filling” in the recipe instructions). If you need to add more water or broth to keep the chilis covered in liquid, go ahead!


The Masa
  • Rehydrate your peppers completely. See note on peppers above.
  • Make sure to read Mr. Shaw’s “Notes” section, especially the section about the masa harina, if you can’t find fresh masa. (we usually can’t) You need 5 cups of braising liquid (or warm broth/water) for every 6 cups of masa, this is why it’s crucial to save all of that braise!
  • Don’t use too much masa! Too much is the kiss of death in the judgement of a fine tamale and we don’t recommend the masa to be more than ⅓ of the entire tamale. This is how you keep that dryness of the steamed cornmeal from turning into what feels like a mouthful of sawdust, and you need a solid base of meat filling that can keep the tamales honest!  Start with the “less is more” concept, than adjust accordingly.


Side Notes:
  • We love cheese. All are welcome in these tamales, so shoot for the moon! Blend up an assortment, and finish with a small handful of cheese on top of the meat filling before the wrap process. The cheese is going to steam itself into the cracks and crevices of the meat and filling.
  • We love to lay some Hatch Green Chiles over the top of the filling just before laying out the shredded cheese, it’s fantastic!
  • This recipe makes about 35-40 tamales, depending on how much masa/filling you can fit in each corn husk. We like to at least double the recipe, but have gone as far as quadrupling it.
  • Your typical tamale is usually ⅓ meat to ⅔ masa, but we believe the best tamale has the opposite ratio of ⅓ masa to ⅔ meat filling, in addition to the perfect amount of moisture and flavor in the masa itself.