In many Hispanic communities in the U.S., Mexican-style tamales or Latin American pasteles are the go-to food for large parties, including religious celebrations like Three Kings Day, observed January 6th. Both cultural dishes are delicious, yet require careful consideration of food safety steps.
Why is food safety so important for preparing tamales and pasteles?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne illness sickens about 48 million people in the U.S. each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Since tamale and pastel prep often includes many people helping out and large quantities of meat products, there is a higher risk for foodborne illness compared to the preparation of a regular dinner.
Knowing where to get answers to food safety questions will help home cooks when preparing tamales and pasteles, which are traditionally prepared in bulk leading up to Three Kings Day. In lieu of a specific recipe, we recommend two key resources: our food safety publications and our food safety experts.
Food safety resources
In preparation for any big meal, it is a good idea to review Cooking for Groups . The pamphlet, also available in Spanish , features guidelines for preparing large quantities of food. For quick answers to questions, you can also call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov . Both services are available in English or Spanish from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday.
Hosting a Tamalada
Tradition dictates that during the observance of Three Kings Day, the celebration of the three wise men’s visit to welcome the baby Jesus, Latino families share in a tradition of cutting a ‘Rosca de Reyes’ or King Cake.
King Cake is baked with a tiny bean or plastic figurine of a baby meant to symbolize the baby Jesus. Whoever gets the baby Jesus in their serving of cake is recognized as the king or queen for the day and they have the honor of hosting the next party.
If chosen as the lucky host of the next fiesta, usually held a month after Three Kings Day, you better get some help, because the best way to get the job done is to invite friends. You should then create a party atmosphere for your pop-up mini tamale factory, called a Tamalada.
Keep meat out of the danger zone
Anytime you’re dealing with labor-intensive food prep, perishable ingredients, like tamale meat filling, can be exposed to the Danger Zone. The Danger Zone is the range of temperatures, between 40 °F and 140 °F, where bacteria multiply rapidly.
Once the tamale meat filling is cooked it should be held hot at or above 140 °F (60 °C). Since tamales can take a while to prepare, it’s best to hold the cooked meat in a pot on the stove set to low or in a slow cooker set to low. Allowing cooked meats to sit in the Danger Zone is not recommended, because bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes in these temperatures.
Make food safety part of your family’s tradition
Follow the “Cooking for Groups pamphlet and when in doubt, call the Meat and Poultry Hotline. When prepared safely, cultural dishes help bring families closer together.