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How to Make Tamales: An Easy Recipe and Guide

Do you want to learn how to make tamales at home? They’re easier than you think, especially with my simple recipe and step-by-step guide.

homemade tamales piled on a black plate with easy red chile sauce on the side

You can fill them with whatever you like (chicken, meat, veggies, and/or cheese) and freeze a bunch for later.

I never really thought I would buy prepared food from a stranger on the internet—I mean, not a restaurant, but just a random person from Nextdoor.com—but last year, I found myself PMing with a woman who posted that she was selling homemade tamales for Christmas.

It kind of felt like doing a drug deal (not that I have personal experience with that). We negotiated the price, she asked which types I’d like and how many, and I sent her money via Paypal.

And then I crossed my fingers and hoped that in a few weeks, she’d show up on my doorstep with a few dozen homemade tamales. I planned to serve them to my family for Christmas Eve dinner.

The good news is that she did show up on my doorstep with exactly what I ordered. Actually, there’s even more good news: the tamales were delicious and my family loved them.

I planned to order from her again this year. But…. I lost her contact information. I forgot her name. The old PM conversation was no longer available in my Nextdoor.com history. So sad.

shaping tamale dough on corn husks

I was telling a friend about how there was a lady I was going to buy homemade tamales from, but I didn’t know who she was or how to find her.

And then we thought, hey wait a minute, why don’t we make them ourselves? We can make a giant batch and freeze them for Christmas!

You can learn how to make tamales step-by-step with this easy guide.

filling homemade tamales with pork in red chile sauce

Tips for how to make tamales at home

We spent a weekend making a big batch of tamales with multiple fillings (vegan, vegetarian, and pork) and we learned a few things in the process:

• It’s not hard to make homemade tamales, but it does take time. It’s more fun if you do it with a friend. And wine.
• Make the fillings the day before you plan to make the tamales. So much easier when you start tamale-filling day with a clean kitchen.
• It’s all about the dough. We developed the tamale dough recipe below through much trial and error.
• Position the dough in the right place on the corn husk to make folding and tying easy. See the pictures for visual aid!

 wrapping filled tamales in corn husks

You can fill these homemade tamales with whatever fillings you like. We made a vegan version with chard, mushrooms, and caramelized onions; a vegetarian version with roasted butternut squash, green chilies, and queso fresco; and a pork version with a rich, homemade Red Chile Sauce.

folding corn husk around filled homemade tamales

By the time we finished making our tamales, we decided we were going to launch a cottage industry and make tamales to sell for next Christmas!

What are tamales made of?

Tamales are made of a dough made from finely ground cornmeal (masa harina) that is filled with meats, vegetables, and/or cheese, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, and steamed.

tying the corn husk around a filled tamale

What Ingredients Do You Need to Make Tamales at Home?

There are just a few specialty ingredients you need to make homemade tamales.

  • Masa harina, a finely ground cornmeal. This is available in many supermarkets and in any Mexican grocery. You can also buy it online.
  • Corn husks to wrap the tamales. These are also available in many supermarkets and in any Mexican market or online.
  • Filling of your choice to fill the tamales. This can be cooked chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, beans, cheese, or a combination of things.
  • Sauce is optional, but I love to toss the filling ingredients with some of my homemade Enchilada Sauce. You can also use store-bought enchilada sauce, salsa, or mole.

With a few basic pantry items like vegetable shortening, baking powder, and salt, you are good to go.

homemade tamales filled with pork in red chile sauce

So can you tell me how to make tamales?

  1. Make a filling or fillings of your choice and have them ready to go. I like to use shredded chicken or pork tossed with my homemade red chile sauce.
  2. Soak dried corn husks in water.
  3. Make a masa dough with corn masa (finely ground cornmeal), warm water, vegetable shortening or lard, and salt.
  4. To assemble the tamales, spread some of the dough onto one of the soaked corn husks.
  5. Top each one with some of your filling.
  6. Using the corn husk like a tortilla, roll the filling up in the dough similar to how you would roll a burrito.
  7. Use a strip of corn husk as a ribbon to tie the bundle up and hold it together during cooking.
  8. Once you’ve made a bunch, steam the tamales for 30 to 40 minutes.

Why do Mexicans eat tamales on Christmas?

There are a lot of different theories about this.

One is that Mesoamericans worshipped corn since it was such an important crop for their survival. They even belived that people were created from corn. Tamales wrapped in corn husks became incorporated into the rituals of the day.

The modern tradition of serving tamales on special occasions may be a holdover from those ancient rituals. Today they are served at weddings, baptisms, on Dia Del Los Muertos, and on Christmas.

Another theory holds that tamales represent the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, which is another reason tamales have become a traditional Christmas food. Sometimes a single olive is included in the filling of each tamale, which further represents the baby Jesus.

More great Mexican recipes you’ll love

Yield: 18 tamales

Homemade Tamales

homemade tamales piled on a black plate with easy red chile sauce on the side

Tamales are surprisingly easy to make, but they do take time. Have all of your fillings and sauces ready ahead of time, crank up the tunes, and crack open a refreshing beverage of your choice and you'll be able to crank out a batch in about 45 minutes (plus steaming time).

Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 3 ½ cups corn masa
  • 1 6-ounce package corn husks
  • 3 ½ cups warm water
  • 1 1/2 cups solid vegetable shortening or lard
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • About 3 cups filling of choice (about 1 pound of meat with sauce will fill one batch of tamales)

Instructions

  1. Submerge the corn husks in water and let soak. This will make them more pliable and less likely to tear.
  2. In a medium bowl, stir together the corn masa and the warm water. Set aside to cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, beat together the shortening, salt, and baking powder until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 1 minute.
  4. Add the cooled masa and water mixture and beat at medium-low speed until well combined. Increase the speed to medium and beat for another 2 to 3 minutes. If the mixture seems dry, add up to ½ cup additional (cold) water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the desired texture is achieved.
  5. To make the tamales, spread about 1/3 of a cup of the dough on a corn husk, making a rectangle near the flat edge (opposite the pointed end). Leave a bit of space, ½ inch or so, at the top so that the dough doesn’t spill out when it expands during steaming. Press the dough into an even layer about 1/8-inch thick.
  6. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of your filling mixture onto the dough in a line down the center. Fold in the sides of the tamale, enclosing the filling with the dough and the dough with the corn husk. Fold the pointed end up toward the top. Tear off a long strip of corn husk (I tear these off of very wide husks and/or tear up husks that are too small to use for tamales) and use it to tie up the tamale packet.
  7. Stovetop: Place a steamer basket in a large pot filled to just below the basket with water. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. Put the filled tamales in the steamer baskes with the open ends pointing up. Cover the pot again and steam for 30 to 40 minutes.
    Instant Pot: Put about 2 cups of water in the bottom of the pot. Place a steamer basket in the pot and then place the tamales in the steamer basket, standing on end (open ends up). Cover the pot, turn the valve to the sealing position, and pressure cook for 20 minutes. Quick-release the pressure and remove the tamales.
  8. Serve hot with extra sauce if desired.

Notes

  • Tamales freeze really well. I find it easiest to make a giant batch and freeze 4-up in quart-sized freezer bags after steaming and cooling them. To serve, steam the frozen tamales as above for about 40 minutes or microwave for a couple of minutes.

Nutrition Information

Yield

18

Serving Size

1

Amount Per Serving Calories 211Total Fat 18gSaturated Fat 7gTrans Fat 0gUnsaturated Fat 10gCholesterol 10mgSodium 278mgCarbohydrates 11gFiber 1gSugar 1gProtein 2g

Nutrient values are estimates only. Variations may occur due to product availability and manner of food preparation. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin, freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

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Last Updated: December 12, 2019

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