How To Make Tamales

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

Photo by pelicangal.

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.

  • VIDEO: See How to Make Tamales
  • Tamale Recipes

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.
Beef Tamales
Photo by MrsHappyHomemaker.

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!

Try a Quick Tamale Casserole

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

Hot Tamale Pie
Photo by lutzflcat.
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