Mexican Tamale Pie (Tamal de Cazuela) With Black Bean Filling Recipe

All the hearty warmth and flavor of tamales with none of the forming and wrapping.

Tamale pie in a cast-iron skillet with a slice of it on a ceramic plate.
Skip tedious individual tamales, and make a pie instead.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

Why It Works

  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder per pound of masa flour makes a dough that's light, without any noticeable baking-soda flavor.
  • Resting the masa for 1 hour helps hydrate the starch, creating a more tender dough.

There's a woman who sells corn-husk-wrapped tamales out of a shopping cart on a street corner near my apartment in Queens every morning. I'm so glad she's there, because I'm rarely inclined to make my own. Individually filling, forming, and wrapping tamales is, to be frank, a pain in the culo. There's a reason it's often a group activity in Mexico, with family members gathering to make tamales for special occasions together: Even proverbial grandmas, toiling away in the kitchen, have their limits.

But there's a solution to this little tamale conundrum, and it's called a tamale pie. Actually, it's called a tamal de cazuela. Not to be confused with the American dish of cornbread baked on top of chili, this one is a real-deal Mexican thing. In short, it's a giant, pie-sized tamale that's baked in a casserole or skillet, then sliced into serving-size portions. I first learned about it from the chef Alex Stupak, and I've been loving it ever since.

The concept is incredibly simple—stuff a skillet-sized corn masa crust with a savory filling, cover it with more masa, then bake it—and the ease of making one of these means it's an excellent idea for entertaining or potlucks. Here's how to do it.

Finding the Perfect Masa Dough

There were a few things I wanted to explore with the masa (nixtamalized corn dough) for this recipe. Note that in all cases, I was working with masa harina para tamales, a dried flour version sold in the Latin or international section of most well-stocked markets, and not with fresh masa, which is much harder to come by in the United States.

A package of masa harina para tamales.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

First, I wanted to see if it was possible to mix the dough by hand and still get good results. Most masa recipes these days call for beating the mixture with an electric mixer. An electric mixer is ultimately what my version calls for, but I am happy to report that if you don't have an electric mixer you can still get good results mixing by hand.

Author mixing masa dough in a bowl by hand.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

The masa can end up slightly denser that way, but not so much that you wouldn't want to still make this recipe.

Next, I wanted to test amounts of baking powder in the masa. Not all masa recipes call for baking powder, but a lot do. It acts as leavening, forming tiny air bubbles in the dough. I've noticed a pretty big range of baking powder quantities in my research, so I quickly whipped up a few batches to test the difference.

I made four different samples: no baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking powder per pound of dried masa harina, 2 teaspoons per pound, and 1 tablespoon per pound.

4 slices of tamale cooked with different amounts of baking powder.
From left, no baking powder, 1 teaspoon per pound of masa harina, 2 teaspoons per pound, and 1 tablespoon per pound.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

As you can see in the photo above, the masa with no baking powder (at left) was the most dense, with each sample getting progressively more airy and crumbly as the baking powder went up (it's worth pointing out that I was still tweaking the recipe ratio and this batch had more lard in it than I ended up with in the final version, hence the oily look). As you get to the higher end of the spectrum, the masa can start to take on a sulfurous baking-soda smell. I found the best balance to be 2 teaspoons per pound of masa flour, which had the most lightness with the least odor.

I had also read in one Rick Bayless recipe that resting the masa before cooking it can improve its texture. To explore this, I made two batches of masa, one that rested for an hour and one that was freshly mixed, and cooked them side-by-side.

Two slices of tamale. The one on the left looks moister and less crumbly than the one on the right.
Rested masa dough, left, and no rest at right.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

As you can see, the masa that rested (on the left) is better hydrated than the masa that was cooked immediately after being mixed (notice the little white spots of still-dry corn flour in the sample on the right). Bayless says to re-whip the masa after the rest, adding more liquid if necessary, which sounds like a good tip to me: no reason not to give it one more spin in the mixer, and correct the consistency if necessary (it should be like soft and spreadable, like a thick hummus).

Making the Pie

To make the pie, I start by mixing the dry masa harina with an equal volume of chicken stock. Water works just as well, but chicken stock helps boost the flavor. Once fully mixed, the masa should be just soft enough to push a spatula through it.

Then I put cold lard in a stand mixer with salt and baking powder, and beat them at medium-high speed for about one minute, until slightly whipped. It's very important the lard is cold, since it begins to soften and melt at room temperature, which makes whipping it difficult. If you don't want to use lard, an equal amount of Crisco works just as well.

Once the lard is whipped, I start beating in the rehydrated masa until it's fully incorporated and has a hummus-like texture.

I cover the masa with plastic to prevent drying and refrigerate it for one hour, then re-whip it one more time when the hour is up, adding a touch more water to soften it if it's firmed up during the rest.

While the masa is resting, I make the filling. In the recipe we're focusing on today, the filling is more or less refried black beans with some ancho chili added for flavor. The truth is, though, that you can use just about anything, from stewed vegetables (squash or mushroom would be great) to Mexican braises and even chili; just make sure with meat dishes that the meat is either shredded or ground, since big chunks won't make an even layer inside the pie. Obviously, some other fillings will take more time to make and should be prepared in advance of the masa, so you'll have to adjust accordingly.

With my masa and filling ready, I prep my cooking vessel. Here I'm using a 12-inch cast iron skillet, but you can also use a casserole or baking dish (about a 3-quart capacity should work). I start by greasing it lightly.

Then I put about two-thirds of the masa in the skillet, forming an even bottom layer and pushing it up around the edge to make a wall.

The masa is pliable enough to make this a fairly easy task.

Close-up of the masa dough pressed into the corners of the skillet.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

Then I add the filling and spread it evenly over the masa. I take the remaining third of the masa and set it on top of the filling to make a top crust. I've found that flattening portions of it first, then setting them on the surface of the filling and using your fingers to bind them together works well.

Author holding a flattened portion of masa dough.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

Once you've sealed the edge of masa to the top crust, your pie should look like this. A little cleanup around the edges makes sure nothing scorches as the pie bakes.

The assembled tamale pie, ready for the oven.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

I put the pie in the oven at 375°F until cooked through and lightly golden on top, about 45 minutes or so.

Author cutting in to the finished tamale pie.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

Let it cool slightly, then slice and serve.

A slice of tamale pie on a plate.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

A little salsa verde and hot sauce can be spooned on top.

Overhead shot of a slice of the tamale pie.

Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

Couldn't be easier!

January 2015

Recipe Facts

Active: 60 mins
Total: 2 hrs 30 mins
Serves: 6 to 8 servings

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Ingredients

For the Masa:

  • 1 pound (3 cups) masa harina para tamales (see note)

  • 3 cups homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock or water

  • 6 ounces (3/4 cup) cold lard or Crisco

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

For the Filling (see note):

  • 2 ancho chilesstemmed and seeded

  • 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

  • 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

  • 1 medium white onion, chopped

  • 3 medium cloves garlic, chopped

  • 4 cups cooked black beans (from four 15-ounce cans or 2/3 pound dried black beans simmered until tender)

  • Kosher salt

  • Nonstick cooking spray or vegetable oil, for greasing

  • Hot sauce and salsa verde, for serving

Directions

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine masa harina and broth.

    Chicken stock being poured into a mixing bowl containng masa harina para tamales.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  2. Stir until thoroughly incorporated.

    The masa-stock mixture being stirred with a spatula.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  3. Combine lard, salt, and baking powder and, using an electric mixer, beat at medium-high speed until lightly whipped, about 1 minute.

    Lard, salt, and baking powder being combined in a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  4. Add 1/4 of the re-hydrated masa at a time to the lard, beating between additions until thoroughly incorporated. The masa should be soft and spreadable, with a hummus-like texture.

    The masa-stock mixture is progressively added to the bowl of the stand mixer.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  5. Cover masa with plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

    Plastic wrap is pressed against the surface of the masa dough.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  6. Meanwhile, For the Filling: Microwave ancho chilies until fragrant and pliable, 15 to 30 seconds. Transfer to microwave-safe bowl or measuring cup, add broth, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and microwave on high power until barely simmering, about 3 minutes. Let steep for at least 5 minutes. Using a blender or immersion blender, blend until smooth.

  7. In a skillet, heat lard over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and garlic and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add beans and cook until heated through. Using a potato masher, bean masher, or wooden spoon, mash beans to form a chunky puree. Stir in ancho mixture and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 5 minutes.

    Author mashing the bean mixture in a skillet.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  8. Assembly and Baking: Preheat oven to 375°F. Remove masa from refrigerator, discard plastic, and re-whip, adding water 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary, to return it to original hummus-like texture. Lightly grease a 12-inch cast iron skillet or 3-quart casserole dish with cooking spray or oil, wiping up any excess.

    The skillet is coated with cooking spray.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  9. Scrape 2/3 of masa into skillet and press to form an even thin layer on bottom and edge of pan.

    A shot of the skillet, lined with an even layer of masa dough.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  10. Add 2 cups of black bean filling, smoothing to an even layer. Save any remaining filling for another use.

    Author evening out the bean filling in the skillet with a spatula.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  11. Gently form a top crust with remaining 1/3 masa, binding it with edge.

    The filling has been completely covered with a top crust of masa.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

  12. Wipe any masa residue from rim of skillet. Bake tamale pie until cooked through and lightly golden on top, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool slightly, then slice and serve, passing hot sauce and salsa verde at the table.

    Author wiping the rim of the skillet with a kitchen towel, removing stray bits of masa dough.

    Serious Eats / Daniel Gritzer

Special Equipment

Stand mixer, blender, 12-inch cast iron skillet or 3-quart casserole dish

Notes

Masa harina para tamales (dried nixtamalized masa flour for tamales) is available at well-stocked grocers in the international of Latin foods aisle.

Any filling can be used in this pie; just substitute the beans here with 2 cups of a Mexican braise, chili, or stewed vegetables. If using a meat, make sure it is shredded or ground, since large chunks of meat won't make an even layer of filling.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
586 Calories
28g Fat
72g Carbs
15g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6 to 8
Amount per serving
Calories 586
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 28g 36%
Saturated Fat 9g 46%
Cholesterol 20mg 7%
Sodium 896mg 39%
Total Carbohydrate 72g 26%
Dietary Fiber 10g 37%
Total Sugars 3g
Protein 15g
Vitamin C 2mg 12%
Calcium 211mg 16%
Iron 7mg 42%
Potassium 915mg 19%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)