How to Make Mexican Tamales

tamales with green chili and pork

[Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

I love a good tamale, but ever since a friend of mine described what a big project it can be—his family only makes them for special occasions, and everyone is expected to lend a hand—I've been reluctant to make my own at home. But after making some insanely delicious puffy tacos using masa—the dough made from dried field corn that's used for everything from tamales to tortillas—I was much more excited to work with it again, and so my tamale journey was born.

Lucky for me, Daniel had already done a lot of the legwork figuring out a light and airy masa dough for his tamale pie, so I had a solid starting point for my own recipe. The dough for tamales, in short, starts with the masa, which is then enriched with fat (usually lard), additional moisture in the form of water or stock, and baking powder as leavening.

How to Make Tamales

whipped lard for tamales

I started my recipe tests with six ounces of back lard (from the ample fat that runs along a pig's back next to the loin), which I loved the flavor of in my flour tortillas and figured it would serve me just as well here. I beat the lard in a stand mixer with two teaspoons each of baking powder and kosher salt, letting it go until it was light and creamy.

combining lard with masa

Then I began adding my two pounds of masa. If you're lucky enough to live near a tortilleria that sells fresh masa, you can buy it there, though the easiest for most of us is to use masa harina, a dehydrated masa product that can be quickly reconstituted with water or stock. For tamales, it's best to buy masa harina para tamales, which has a coarser grind than the kind for tortillas. I added mine to the fat a quarter at a time, thoroughly beating it into the fat after each addition.

mixing the tamale dough

The next step was to add more liquid. For more flavor, I used chicken stock instead of water (though water works well too), adding it until the dough reached a spreadable consistency similar to humus—it took me one cup of stock to get there.

I've read in one tamale recipe after another that a good test to see if your dough has enough fat, liquid, and air is to drop a dollop in a glass of cold water. If it floats, you're pretty assured to have a great light tamale, if it sinks, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

testing tamale dough in water

So I did just that, and as I watched that first small spoonful of dough quickly sink to the bottom of the glass. To try to remedy my dough, I upped the fat a couple ounces, added a little more stock, and let the masa run in the mixer for a few minutes more at medium-high speed.

I spooned out another piece of dough and again watched it go under, although this time it tauntingly sank very slowly. I turned the mixer back one and let run a few more minutes, not sure if any additional beating would make a difference at this point, but low and behold, my third try remained afloat and my spirits lifted.

In Daniel's tests, resting the dough for an hour in the refrigerator produced even lighter tamales thanks to increased hydration, so I let mine sit while I got the rest of my tamale ingredients in order.

tamale prep station

I already had my corn-husk wrappers ready, which entailed soaking them in water for a couple hours to make them pliable enough to wrap around the masa. I also got my fillings ready—green chili with shredded pork carnitas, red chili with pulled chicken thighs, and roasted poblanos with Oaxacan cheese.

With all that stuff et, I pulled my dough from the fridge and gave it another spin in the stand mixer to make sure it had the same light, creamy consistency. Then it was production time.

For assembly, I first set a corn husk on a work surface with the tapered end towards me. I tried to determine which was the smoother, shinier side of the husk, since that's the ideal interior surface for the tamales, but on a lot of the husks I couldn't tell which was which, so I decided not to worry about it in those cases. I'm not sure it made that big of a difference—all of the tamales easily came out of their husks and i couldn't really differentiate between those with that were shiny-side in and those that were shiny-side out.

making tamales

I laid a heaping spoonful of the dough—which was between two and three tablespoons worth, depending on the size of the husk—on the top end of the husk.

making tamales

Then I used the back of the spoon to spread the dough out into a fairly even rectangle about a quarter inch thick, leaving a border around the edges of the husk so the dough wouldn't overflow.

forming and filling tamales

Next I placed a line of filling down the middle of the masa and folded both sides of the husk over to completely surround the filling.

tying tamales

To secure the tamale closed, I folded the tapered end up and tied it a thin strip of husk (pulled from another husk) around the entire thing.

plate of tamales

Fearing the time it would take me to make all of the tamales myself, I asked my wife for help, preparing her for what I thought was going to be a lengthy task. In reality though, it wasn't so bad—I had two full batches of dough (enough for about 60 tamales), and we managed to assemble them all in under half an hour. It would have been even faster if I didn't have to stop and take photos.

steaming tamales

Now all that was left was steaming, which I was able to do in two batches using my large stock pot filled with an inch of water and steamer insert place inside. I stacked the tamales upright so the filing wouldn't ooze out, covered the pot, and steamed them until the dough easily separated from the husk, which took about an hour.

After resting the hot tamales to let them cool and firm slightly, my wife and I dug into one insanely delicious lunch.

tamales

I had made two batches of dough, one using fresh masa from a tortilleria and one with reconstituted masa harina for tamales that I had mixed with two cups of chicken stock to rehydrate, and both were perfectly light and airy. The fresh masa had a definite edge in terms of flavor, with its bright, more intense corn flavor, but the masa harina tamales were still plenty tasty.

tamales con rajas

Of the three filings, the quickest one to prepare was my favorite—the fruity roasted poblanos with strands of lightly salty mild Oaxacan cheese. That combo lent a simple, clean flavor to the tamales that didn't overwhelming the dough itself.

red chili tamales

The other two fillings were also delicious, and much more substantial—they made it feel like a more well-rounded meal.

tamales

These tamales are the gift that keeps on giving—they not only made for an excellent lunch, but I then used a dozen as a birthday present for a friend, brought some more in to work for all my colleagues, and still have enough in the freezer for several more meals. All I have to do is defrost and steam them until warm, or zap them in the microwave for a couple minutes and I'll be right back in tamale heaven.