How To Make Tamales
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Learn how to make tamales with this easy recipe and step-by-step tutorial! They’re easy to customize (chicken, beef, pork and vegetarian filling recipes provided), they’re made with zero lard or shortening, they’re easy to freeze, and taste as delicious as ever!
Guys, I finally taught myself how to make tamales! ♡
And — spoiler alert — they are so much easier than I was expecting. Like, so much.
Seriously, I don’t know why I’ve been so intimidated by these little guys over the years! They are actually really simple to make at home, and next-level delicious when served fresh outta the steamer. Granted, they do take about two hours to assemble and steam. But in that amount of time, you can make literally three dozen servings (that also happen to be freezer-friendly, a meal prep dream come true), you can customize them with just about any meat or vegetarian filling and sauce that you prefer (either 100% homemade, or I have some speedy store-bought shortcuts below), you can steam them either on the stovetop or in the Instant Pot, and — in the end — you get to enjoy the most delicious homemade tamales made from scratch.
Seriously, we can’t get enough of them. Which is great, ha, since we now have a freezer full of ’em.
Over the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with various tamale recipes/methods and have finally landed on a base masa recipe that is light and moist (without being greasy) and super-flavorful. And I’m happy to say it is made with zero (yes, zero) lard or shortening. Perfect for filling with chicken, pork, steak, cheese, beans, veggies, or whatever sounds good to you. And perfect for enjoying this Cinco de Mayo, or any day of the year you’re craving a hot tamale.
So pick up some corn husks and masa and your favorite fillings, set aside a few hours, turn up the music in the kitchen and make some margaritas, maybe invite a friend over to help out, and let’s have a tamale-making date!
How To Make Tamales | 1-Minute Video
What Is A Tamale?
First off, what kind of tamales are we talking about exactly? Well, tamales are actually a traditional dish in dozens of countries around Central and South America. But today, we are specifically talking about Mexican tamales, which feature a corn-based masa (dough) wrapped around a filling and steamed in a corn husk. They are traditionally filled with either chicken, pork, beef, cheese and/or beans. But as I said, you can totally fill them with just about anything you’d like.
To make tamales, you will need the following ingredients (affiliate links included):
- Dried Corn Husks: These may be available in the Mexican or produce section of your grocery store, or if not, you can order them on Amazon. In general, you want to look for tamale husks that are wide enough to wrap around the entire tamale filling. But if you happen to get a bag of husks that are fairly narrow, hakuna matata, you can just overlap two on top of each other. We will also shred a few husks into lots of long skinny pieces to tie the tamales together.
- Masa (Dough) Ingredients: For the masa dough itself, you will need:
- Masa Harina: Finely-ground nixtamalized corn flour. (“Maseca” is the most popular brand.)
- Corn Oil or Avocado Oil: I prefer these two, but any mild-flavored oil will do.
- Stock: Chicken, beef or vegetable stock will work — yoou pick!
- Baking Powder, Salt and Ground Cumin: To season the masa.
- Filling: As I said, you can literally fill these tamales with just about anything! They are a fantastic way to use up leftover taco fillings, meat, veggies, cheese, you name it. Or, you can totally cook up a new batch of filling from scratch to go in these. You will need about 2-3 cups of filling this recipe, so feel free to mix and match whatever sounds good. Ideas could include:
- Chicken: Any kind of cooked, shredded chicken will do. Shredding a large rotisserie chicken would be the quick and easiest route here. Or, you could make (and shred) my recipe for Baked Chicken Breasts, or make this delicious 3-Ingredient Mexican Shredded Chicken in the slow cooker or Instant Pot.
- Beef: Any kind of cooked and shredded (or ground) beef will do. You could brown some ground beef, or use some leftover steak or roast beef. Or I would highly recommend making a batch of this Barbacoa Beef in the Instant Pot or slow cooker.
- Pork: Any kind of cooked and shredded/pulled pork will do. I’m a big fan of using this Carnitas recipe, either made in the Instant Pot or slow cooker.
- Refried Beans: Refried pinto or black beans are a delicious (and super-easy!) vegetarian option, which you can either use on their own, or mix with cheese and/or roasted veggies.
- Cheese: Cheese is another delicious vegetarian option that you can use on its own, or pair with any other fillings. I would highly recommend Oaxaca cheese (sort of a Mexican mozzarella), but any cheese will do.
- Veggies: And of course, you can always use any kind of veggies, either on their own as a vegetarian option or paired with any other fillings. The veggies will need to be cooked ahead of time however you prefer (<- I highly recommend roasting them up), and finely-chopped. Some tasty options could include peppers (poblano, bell, or jalapeño peppers), potatoes (Yukon gold or sweet), cauliflower, mushrooms, squash, onions, carrots…you name it.
- Sauce: If your filling recipe includes quite a bit of sauce (such as if you make the barbacoa or carnitas recipes), you may not need to add any extra. But in general, I highly recommend adding some extra sauce to your meat or vegetarian fillings. Store-bought salsa will definitely save you a big step, but feel free to go the extra mile and make homemade salsa if you’d like! You will need about 1-ish cups of sauce for this recipe — enough to add a light coating to the filling, without making it too juicy/watery. And then I would also recommend having lots of extra salsa on hand for serving once the tamales have cooked. You can choose just about any kind you love. I would recommend either:
- Red Salsa: Either homemade or store-bought, and as mild or spicy as you prefer.
- Green Salsa (Salsa Verde): Either homemade or store-bought, and as mild or spicy as you prefer
- Enchilada Sauce: This enchilada sauce recipe is my all-time fave.
- Mole: I still don’t have a recipe for mole here on the blog, but mole tamales would be incredible.
- Toppings: Once the tamales are cooked, I’m a big fan of loading them up with lots of toppings. They are totally optional, but I would recommend any combination of:
- Salsa: Red, green, or pico de gallo
- Chopped Cilantro: always a winner
- Avocado: always always a winner
- Sour Cream (or Crema) or Crumbled Cotija Cheese: Delicious!
How To Assemble Tamales:
It’s much easier than you might think! Simply:
- Soak your corn husks. Find a large stockpot or pan big enough to fit the corn husks, then fill it with very warm water and a lid. The corn husks will float to the top, so you may need to add something to weigh them down a bit so that they are submerged. They will need to soak for about 30 minutes, or until softened.
- Mix up your masa (dough). Meanwhile, mix up your masa. You can either do this in a stand mixer (the easiest) or with a hand mixer (a bit more messy) or by hand (lots of work). Mix it up according to the recipe below, and then cover with a damp towel and refrigerate until ready to use.
- Prepare your fillings and salsa. See options above for ideas! Whatever sounds good to you, prepare both your fillings and salsa, them toss them together in a bowl until combined.
- Then…assemble the tamales! As I said, this is the part that will take a little while. But I find it totally relaxing and repetitive. So prepare an assembly line of your ingredients, and get in your groove. Simple:
- Lay the soaked corn husk on a flat surface. A simple plate or cutting board will do.
- Spread your masa on the corn husk. About 1/4 cup (or a little more) will do. I highly recommend using a large cookie scoop to measure out the masa. Use a spoon or your fingers to spread it out into a rectangle large enough to enclose your filling. (I keep a little bowl of water nearby to dip my fingers regularly, which helps the masa from sticking to them.)
- Add your filling/sauce to the center of the masa. Tamales use surprisingly little filling — just a tablespoon or two will do. Add it to the center of your masa.
- Fold the corn husk in half vertically. Then very carefully, fold the corn husk in half so that the masa wraps completely around the filling, maybe using your fingers to pinch it together just a little bit.
- Wrap the corn husk into a little burrito. Continue folding the corn husk completely over to one side so that it is a burrito/cylinder shape.
- Fold the top (skinny) end down to enclose one end of the tamale. The image above explains this best. One end of the tamale will be exposed, and the other will be folded over. (I like to fold my tamales to cover the side with the seam.
- Tie the tamale together. I like to shred a few corn husks into long skinny strips to tie the tamales together (this is a perfect use for the husks that are too skinny!). But you can also use baking string.
- Then…STEAM! See below for stovetop or Instant Pot options.
How To Make Tamales On The Stovetop:
To make the tamales on the stovetop, you will need a large stockpot with a strainer. I used a strainer pot that came with my stockpot. But you can also purchase various kinds of strainer baskets separately.
To make tamales on the stovetop, simply add the tamales to the strainer, add 2 cups of water to the base of the pot, cover and steam on medium heat for about 30-40 minutes, or until the masa separates easily from the husks.
How To Make Tamales In The Instant Pot:
Yep — turns out that tamales are also easy to make in the Instant Pot (or your brand of pressure cooker) too! Simply add 1 cup of water to the bottom of your Instant Pot, insert the strainer basket, add the tamales, cover and cook on high pressure for 20 minutes (using quick release afterwards) until the masa separates easily from the husks.
How To Serve Tamales:
Once your tamales are all cooked and ready to go, please — please — stop right there and serve a batch fresh outta the steamer. There is nothing like the warmth, texture, and flavor of freshly-cooked tamales. They’re amazing!!!
Just carefully unwrap your tamale (you will not eat the corn husk), top the tamale with your favorite toppings (see ideas above), and dig in! 🙂
If you would like some ideas for side dishes to go with your homemade tamales, I would recommend:
- Mexican Caesar Salad
- Drunken Beans
- Margaritas or Aguas Frescas
How To Store (And Freeze) Tamales:
That said, half of the fun of making tamales is that this recipe makes a BIG batch for leftovers! So unless you are having a big tamale party the day you are baking, you will likely have plenty to store for later. Which is lucky for you. 😉
In general, tamales will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
To store them, you want to try to have as little air in your storage container as possible. So adding a handful to a ziplock bag (pressing out any extra air) works well. Or if you really want them to be as fresh as possible, you can wrap them individually in plastic wrap.
How To Reheat Tamales:
My three favorite methods use either a:
- Steamer: Simply re-steam your tamales for 15 minutes or so (or a bit longer if they were frozen).
- Oven: Wrap your tamales in foil and bake at 350 for about 15-20 minutes until warmed through.
- Microwave: Admittedly my favorite, and the easiest. Just place 1-3 tamales on a plate, cover with a damp paper towel, and microwave for a minute so until warmed through.
Happy Homemade Tamale-Making!
And that’s it! Truly, these are totally do-able. If you have any additional questions, just let me know in the comments below. But otherwise, hope you give these a try and enjoy!!
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