It does take time to make tamales from scratch, but it’s not particularly difficult to make them yourself at home, and the results are so delicious you’ll find they’re definitely worth the work. Get your family or friends together and make it a group activity- the work of shaping, filling, and wrapping the tamales will go faster, and it’s a great way to get everyone together for a fun and tasty dinner.
This recipe includes complete directions for wrapping the tamales, but you can use your own method if you like. The ratio of filling to dough (and the coarseness of the filling) is a matter of preference, but try not to make your tamales bigger than the wrappers, and resist the temptation to over-fill the tamales, or they may burst open when you steam them. If you need to, you can prepare the dough and filling the night before, just cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate (you may need to rehydrate the dough the next day though in order to return it to its original consistency- just follow the directions below). Wrapped, uncooked tamales can also be kept overnight in the refrigerator and prepared the following day as well. I’m told you can even freeze them to keep them even longer- simply thaw in the refrigerator overnight and steam as usual (you may want to wrap them a second time in aluminum foil though to keep them from getting freezer burn).
You can use either fresh masa (the nixtamalized corn dough used to make tamales and tortillas) from a tortilleria or masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour that’s been reconstituted with water or stock). Just be sure to buy masa for tamales (such as Maseca para Tamales) and not masa for tortillas.
Tamales are traditionally steamed in a tamalera, which is a specialized steamer consisting of a pot, a tight-fitting lid and a perforated steamer insert that allows you to steam the tamales stacked upright. Some tamaleras even come with dividers to help keep the tamales vertical as they’re stacked — and to help identify different tamales if you’re cooking more than one type at once. Tamaleras are available at Mexican and other Latin American markets, as well as well-stocked cooking stores and online. Prices vary depending on the material and size, but a decent tamalera should set you back no more than $20. No tamalera? No problem-you can improvise one using a pot, a tight-fitting lid and a perforated steamer insert (large seafood steamers work well), or you can use a stacking bamboo steamer basket like I do.
To round out the meal, serve with refried pintos or black beans, arroz rojo, and salsa (I like salsa verde with these tamales, but salsa de molcajete is good too). You can easily reheat any leftover tamales the next day by gently steaming them to warm them back up.
This recipe yields around 24-36 tamales.
- 1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked and rinsed (10-12 medium)
- fresh hot green chili peppers, stemmed (roughly 2 – 6 serranos or jalapeños)
- 4 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 1⁄2 tablespoons vegetable oil or 1 1⁄2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 4 cups cooked chicken, preferably grilled, roasted (about 1 lb.) or 4 cups rotisserie chicken, coarsely shredded (about 1 lb.)
- 2⁄3 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
- 10 ounces rich-tasting pork fat, slightly softened but not at all runny (or vegetable shortening if you wish)
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 lbs fresh coarse-ground corn masa flour 3 1⁄2 cups dried masa harina (reconstituted with 2 1/4 cups hot water)
- 1 -1 1⁄2 cup chicken broth
- 1 (8 ounce) package dried corn husks
Preparing the cornhusks: Cover the husks with very hot water, weight with a plate to keep them submerged, and let stand for a couple of hours until the husks are pliable.
Preparing the filling: On a baking sheet, roast the tomatillos about 4 inches below a very hot broiler until soft (they’ll blacken in spots), about 5 minutes; flip them over and roast the other side. Cool and transfer to a food processor or blender, along with all the delicious juice that has run onto the baking sheet. Add the chiles and garlic and process to a smooth puree. Heat the oil in a medium-size saucepan over medium high. When quite hot, add the puree all at once and stir until noticeably thicker and darker, about 5 minutes.(I cover the pot with a splatter screen) Add 2 cups of the broth and simmer over medium heat (I use high heat) until thick enough to coat a spoon quite heavily, at least 10 minutes. I keep it simmering while I shred the chicken. (If you are making a double batch of the recipe, make sure to cook the filling for a longer amount of time.) Taste and season highly with salt, usually about 2 teaspoons. Stir in the chicken and cilantro; cool completely.
Preparing the dough: With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the lard or shortening with 2 teaspoons salt and the baking powder until light in texture, about 1 minute. Continue beating as you add the masa (fresh or reconstituted) in three additions. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add 1 cup of the remaining broth. Beat in enough of the remaining ½ cup of broth to give the mixture the consistency of soft cake batter or a thick hummus; it should be light and hold its shape in a spoon. Taste the dough and season with additional salt if you think it needs some. For the lightest textured tamales, refrigerate the dough for an hour or so, then rebeat, adding a little more broth or water to bring the mixture to the soft consistency it had before.
Forming the tamales: Separate out 24 of the largest and most pliable husks—ones that are at least 6 inches across on the wider end and 6 or 7 inches long. If you can’t find enough good ones, overlap some of the large ones to give wide, sturdy surfaces to spread the dough on. Pat the husks dry with a towel. Cut twenty-four 8- to 10-inch pieces of string or thin strips of cornhusks. One at a time, form the tamales: Lay out one of your chosen cornhusks with the tapering end toward you. Spread about ¼ cup of the dough into about a 4-inch square, leaving at least a 1 ½-inch border on the side toward you and a ¾-inch border along the other sides (with large husks, the borders will be much bigger). Spoon about 1 ½ tablespoons of the filling down the center of the dough. Pick up the two long sides of the cornhusk and bring them together so the dough surrounds the filling. If the uncovered borders of the two long sides you’re holding are narrow, tuck one side under the other; if wide, roll both sides in the same direction around the tamal. (If the husk is small, you may feel more comfortable wrapping the tamal in a second husk.) Finally, fold up the empty 1 ½-inch section of the husk (to form a tightly closed “bottom” leaving the top open), and secure it in place by loosely tying one of the strings or strips of husk around the tamal. As they’re made, stand the tamales on their folded bottoms in the prepared steamer. Don’t tie the tamales too tightly or pack them too closely in the steamer- they need room to expand.
Setting up the steamer: Steaming 24 husk-wrapped tamales can be done in batches in a collapsible vegetable steamer set into a large, deep saucepan. To steam them all at once, you need something like the kettle-size tamal steamers used in Mexico or Asian stack steamers, or you can improvise by setting a wire rack on 4 coffee or custard cups in a large kettle. It is best to line the rack or upper part of the steamer with leftover cornhusks to protect the tamales from direct contact with the steam and to add more flavor. Make sure to leave tiny spaces between the husks so condensing steam can drain off.
Steaming and serving the tamales: When all the tamales are in the steamer, cover them with a layer of leftover cornhusks; if your husk-wrapped tamales don’t take up the entire steamer, fill in the open spaces with loosely wadded aluminum foil (to keep the tamales from falling over). Set the lid in place and steam over a constant medium heat for about 1 ¼ hours. (depending on the size of the tamales you make, it can take up to 4 hours). Watch carefully that all the water doesn’t boil away and, to keep the steam steady, pour boiling water into the pot when more is necessary. Tamales are done when the husk peels away from the masa easily. Let tamales stand in the steamer off the heat for a few minutes to firm up. For the best textured tamales, let them cool completely, then re-steam about 15 minutes to heat through.
last updated August 17, 2023