Making Tamales Article -
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Making Tamales

These steamed dumplings of spicy filling wrapped in corn dough and encased by a corn husk take time to make from scratch.

VIDEO: See How to Make Tamales >>

There are three components to a tamale: the wrapper, the dough, and the filling.

Wrapper. Tamales are usually wrapped in dried corn husks that have been soaked in water to make them soft and pliable. Occasionally, people will use fresh corn husks or banana leaves to wrap their tamales.

Dough. Tamale dough is a mixture of masa, lard, and salt. Fresh masa is dried corn that has been cooked in limewater, soaked overnight, and then ground up while still wet. This makes the lightest, fluffiest tamales. If fresh masa isn't available, you can use masa harina, flour made from dried masa. Masa harina just needs to have extra liquid added to it.

Filling. The most well-known tamale recipes have a filling of braised pork or beef in a complex sauce of spices and dried and fresh chiles. Tamales can also be stuffed with chicken, vegetables, cheese, beans, seafood, or even fruit and nuts.

Building a Better Tamale

For light and fluffy tamale dough, whip the lard and salt with electric beaters for a few minutes before adding the masa. Once you add the masa, continue to whip, adding water or meat broth until the mixture is the consistency of soft cookie dough. Test it by dropping a small ball of dough into a glass of water. If the dough sinks, it needs more liquid whipped into it; if it floats, it's ready to use. If you prefer not to cook with lard, substitute an equal amount of vegetable shortening, although the dough will not have the same fullness of flavor.

To assemble:

  • Spread a softened corn husk with an even layer of dough
  • Spoon a small amount of filling down the middle--too much, and the tamale will be hard to roll.
  • Carefully roll up the husk so that the masa completely surrounds the filling and the parcel stays intact. Use a strip of husk to tie the package closed.
  • Layer the tamales in a steamer basket--a colander set over simmering water, covered with a kitchen towel and the pot lid, will work.

Have fun!

Making tamales can easily turn into an all-day affair, which is why Mexican families reserve them as a treat for very special occasions. When you get the urge to try your hand at a batch of tamales, roll up your sleeves, call up a few of your favorite people, and get ready for a fiesta!

VIDEO: See How to Make Tamales >>

    Try a Quick Tamale Casserole

    If you're looking for something a little easier and much faster to prepare, try a tamale casserole.

    VIDEO: How to Make Tamale Pie >>

    Oct. 7, 2009 5:09 pm
    Sounds good, the only part missing for me is the detailed ingredient list for the filling ...
    Oct. 10, 2009 8:16 am
    how do you keep husks from crinkling?
    Dec. 2, 2009 8:03 pm
    Winni4u, the detailed ingredients for the Tamales is listed under "Real Homemade Tamales". It has everything for you there...I'm going to tackle this on myself soon. 8-)
    Dec. 11, 2009 10:36 pm
    Thank You Marilyn, i'll check that out now :-)
    Dec. 19, 2009 11:58 am
    I am getting prepared to make tamales. It's a little nerve wracking trying to do it for the first time, but that's why I have my mom to help!
    Dec. 22, 2009 10:08 am
    We are fortunate that we live in the Southwest and can get fresh masa,it makes it a lot easier to make the tamales because I think the masa is the hardest to make.Tamales are well worth the time
    Jan. 1, 2010 6:49 pm
    I know how to make the tamales, although this recipe is hightly appreciated, but my mom used to make a sauce to put on them when they were served. Sort of like an enchilada sauce, but lighter. Does anyone know how to make that sauce?
    Feb. 5, 2010 1:24 pm
    You left out the part about how to eat them. Never tried tamales b/c I don't know how and no one has shown me.
    Zuzu Petals 
    Feb. 16, 2010 5:03 pm
    Personally, I use a fork. Seriously, though, you just unwrap one or two on your plate (remove the cornhusk) and dig in. Traditional tamales are eaten plain. Some people dress them up with a little sauce (green chili sauce / red chili sauce / enchilada sauce). I like them plain.
    Feb. 23, 2010 11:29 am
    When you get ready to spread the masa on your husk, be sure you spread it on the smooth side of the husk. Place the roughest side on the table with the narrow end of the husk away from you. Hold the narrow end of the husk with your fingers and begin spreading the masa about 1/3 to 1/4 of the way down the husk toward you. The narrow end of the husk does not need to have masa, as it will be folded up onto the tamale once you roll it. When folding your tamales, be sure to overlap the two sides well, or they will open up when cooking. Also, give yourself several days to make these and incorporate the help of several friends if possible. Prepare the filling(s) one day and do the actual assembly the next. Be sure to have large Ziploc bags ready to place your tamales in. Package, label and freeze some for another day.
    Apr. 2, 2010 8:24 am
    Really enjoyed this article. Used to make tamales with my grandmother - lost her two yrs ago but will make these in her honor. Can't beat a homemade tamale!!!
    Apr. 29, 2010 10:48 am
    so excited to try actually making them myself instead of buying them from someone in a walmart parking lot!
    jeaneen lopez 
    Jun. 13, 2010 5:07 pm
    will have to try to make these i have never made any. hope this come out good.
    Jun. 23, 2010 11:54 am
    In Belize they don't use shredded meat they simply put a piece of chicken (bone and all) in the middle of a banana leaf and wrap it. Then they wrap it again in tinfoil to keep it together and then steam it.
    Jun. 23, 2010 11:55 am
    Opps of course there is dough on the banana leaf as well.
    Jun. 24, 2010 5:43 pm
    The way you eat tamales is to peel the corn husk off the actual tamal. You can just eat them dry or put some green salsa. I make my green salsa from boiled tomatillos and serrano chiles. Blend them with raw onion,raw garlic and raw cilantro. Then add some salt to taste.
    Aug. 21, 2010 4:51 pm
    A friend and I made the filling of simply green chiles and cheddar cheese. We added a can or 2 of cream corn to the masa to sweeten it and they were awesome.........
    Sep. 21, 2010 2:28 pm
    From my experience it takes time to master the process of making tamales, and then you can get creative with it, by adding sauces to your meat mixture or even to your masa mixture....Tamales are very time consuming but very worth it!! (Especially since you can make tons and freeze them for the kids to pop in the microwave) :)
    Oct. 16, 2010 8:04 am
    To avoid the lard you can use pureed fresh corn cut from the cob or frozen corn to make the tamale masa.
    Nov. 15, 2010 2:07 pm
    WOW! I just love tamales, but I'm not in the position to be making that kind of mess right now (but I've always wanted to try...someday I will!) Fortunately, it's the time of year the Mexican ladies start making the rounds of the offices where my husband works...$2 each, and they are still warm when he brings them home! I'm saving this for future reference, though, thanks for the detailed instructions! Ole!!!
    Nov. 15, 2010 2:57 pm
    As a little girl, we made them every Christmas Eve. When I was 27 my mother passed away unexpectedly. All the years I made them with her, I knew exactly how to make them. Now I am passing the tradition on to my children. One thing my mother would do on Christmas morning was pan fry the tamales in bacon fat...I know it's bad...but it was oohhh so good.
    Nov. 20, 2010 4:37 pm
    use vegetable oil (or your favorite frying oil) and fry your left-over tamales the next day. Mmmm! served with a side of fresh pinto beans. Nothing like tamales with fresh pinto beans. (tamales fried or not).
    Nov. 21, 2010 9:37 am
    I have been making Tamales for years for Christmas only because they are alot of work. Basically you can precook the meat, pre soak the husk and get your masa ready. That is what I do so on the "spread the masa day" That is when I have my family over for a fiesta. It is just as much fun as it is work.
    Nov. 26, 2010 4:02 pm
    I had a friend years ago who made these but she added potatoes in the mix. I was wondering if the potatoes were pre-cooked or not. I would like to attempt these for my Christmas dinner with Spanish rice. The rice recipe is next to search. I am going to try the lard because it is best for taste and I only would eat it once a year and I can think of worse things to do...
    Dec. 5, 2010 3:48 pm
    I can pretty much make the masa and the filling but I have problems with how long you cook them can't seem to master that yet. a little help if possible.
    Dec. 6, 2010 9:06 am
    My grandmother used to make a special batch of sweet tamales for the kids. Sometimes that would mean rainbow sprinkles (the little balls) and when they cooked, the color would bleed a bit which made for an awesome looking tamale.
    Dec. 16, 2010 11:01 pm
    Olivia, most recommendations are an average of 2 hours of steaming. I messed up on my last batch, in that some of my masa melted out. Someone told me I was keeping my water boiling too rapidly, that I should start the water boiling first, then let is just let the water simmer from there. I will try again. GOOD LUCK!
    Dec. 18, 2010 2:52 pm
    Filling ideas: 1. Simmer chicken, until it falls apart, with canned green enchilada sauce. Use sauce to thin maza or in the steaming water. 2. Simmer pork or beef in canned red enchilada sauce or Adobo spices with beef broth 3. Vegetarian: roasted green chili (or canned jalapeno or Ortega) & cheese (mix maza with vegetable oil, not animal lard) 4. Sweet: dried chopped fruit, chopped walnuts, cinnamon 5. Sweet: chopped pineapple, chopped red bell peppers, finely minced ginger 6. Other additions: black olives, stuffed olives, matchstick carrots, 7. Your tastes & immagination are the limit. Have fun. Some other ideas: 1. Season the maza with spices compatible with the filling, such as, chili powder, cumin, corriander, oregano 2. Season the maza with broth from the filling 3. If possible have someone experienced at your tamale fiesta Put on the music, provide festive liquids, have fun!
    Dec. 29, 2010 6:40 am
    I found this to be rather interesting. My husband is hispanic and my family found out that they like tamales so I am going to give it a shot and see what happens. First I need to get the tamale pan. I found the comments to be helpful. Happy New Year everyone!
    Jan. 19, 2011 8:36 am
    Tamales are so vary hard to make! My mother-in-law makes them all the time and sells them. Other people and myself have said that we cannot eat any other tamales because they are just not the same. I have tried them from other people and EWWWW they were gross! I suggest just finding someone that can make the masa and the red chile and beef flawlessly!
    Terry K 
    Jan. 22, 2011 4:28 pm
    A low fat recipe for masa works great! 3 cups masa 2 cups water 1/2 t salt 1/2 cup greek yogurt 2 T olive oil Whip, adding more water to reach correct cookie-dough texture. I expected the process to take much lonnger than it did! I used leftover pot roast, cooked with more spices then shredded, for beef tamales. I soaked the husks ahead of time, too. So, when it came time to assemble, they went quickly. The results were far better than those I'd purchased at the local markets.
    Feb. 22, 2011 8:28 am
    It is great to find a tamale recipe. I can adapt this to the receipe I remember my mother making wherer she used green spanish peanuts, chicken and tomatoes and baking the mixture in corn husks
    Mar. 8, 2011 2:13 pm
    Instead of putting them down into the let them steam. I put mine in a roaster with a little water in the bottom with a cookie cooling rack in the bottom then add the tamales on top let the steam for about 90 min then check to see if they are jelled. Meaning not runny. Hope this helps.
    Apr. 6, 2011 12:50 pm
    I want to try to make tamales like those big round ones in the frozen section at the store.What would I use to put the masa in so all the filling doesn't run out?
    Laura Thomas 
    Apr. 12, 2011 1:28 pm
    Thank you everyone for your tips and questions. I am cooking up the filling right now. I am glad I started a pork broth with the bones and trimmings of the roast (used shoulder roast) and I'll use the broth for the masa. I have and upright steamer for my 12 qt. soup pan, and plan to steam them in that. THank you all for the hints, & Donna on the filling page (for the suggestion of extra spices, I raided the garden for fresh garlic and oregeno.) I hope I have a chance to note how they turn out!
    Apr. 25, 2011 10:26 am
    This sounds so good is it easy to make?
    May 1, 2011 6:05 pm
    Use a tortilla press for the masa.Press the masa between wax paper,to the thigness you like.
    May 16, 2011 7:30 am
    I can't find fresh masa in Missouri so I use the instant masa. I'm also a vegetarian too. So I use soy based Choriza I find at Wal-Mart as the meat base to my tamales. I use olive oil instead of lard or butter. My in-laws at Easter couldn't believe they were vegetarian tamales. I add sauted and raw chopped onions, garlic and any type of cheese I have on hand. They are addictived.
    May 16, 2011 7:32 am
    Typo "additive" oops.
    May 20, 2011 6:50 am
    Even we vegans can enjoy homemade tamales :)I'm with you RVBH62 with the olive oil and soy chorizo. I also find the freshest veggies at the farmers market. I use serrano chiles, onions, garlic, shredded carrots and grilled corn. Fresh spices make a huge difference too. Spend the extra time to find fresh oregano, cilantro and cumin. You'll be happy that you did! We do also make a few dozen shredded chicken tamales for my carnivores in the family, haha! The first time I made tamales was when we had a 'tamale fiesta' at church many years ago. We had thirteen ladies, lots of music, laughter and wonderful tamales! We use a large steam basket and stock pot over a wood fire to cook our tamales. I find they taste the best and it makes for wonderful family time.
    Aug. 8, 2011 11:40 am
    i cook my meats in the morning and then let it cool and then I make my tamales. I enjoy eating them warm on the same day with salsa verde on top. if you like these tamales then u need to try the sweet ones.
    Jan. 10, 2012 11:08 pm
    Try adding chili powder to the masa. It gives it color, so that you don't have just plain white masa. Our family has been making them for years and we always add the chili powder to the masa after the lard and salt.
    Jan. 15, 2012 5:55 am
    The filling does not have to be to detailed, in a nutshell think of cooking an oily chili without beans. My mother thought that Hormel chili w/o beans was a good base, then added some ground pork and or a number of ingredients. It's actually a concoction and each family has its own secret recipe. Try adding some chocolate, cinnamon, cummin, oregano. Make it your own, good luck!
    May 19, 2012 6:08 am
    Can these be steamed in the pressure cooker? If so, for how long?
    Jul. 25, 2012 8:06 am
    i happy today that i find this recipes,is good for sunday menu thanks
    Sep. 13, 2012 9:50 am
    If I layer them in my big steamer pot, will they all get cooked the same amount? The bottom, middle and top all the same doneness? ANd how long do I steam them until they're done?
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