Recipe: Tamales

IMG_5798A couple times a year, I get out the steamer and the cornhusks, and make a batch of tamales. I’d like to say I do it at the same time, but no…it’s pretty much whenever I get a hankering for home. There’s nothing like a good, fresh, homemade tamale. They’re a labor of love, really— you can’t throw tamales together on a whim, but they’re also not rocket science— anyone can make them with the right ingredients and a bit of time.

There are some ingredients that might be unfamiliar to some cooks. You will need cornhusks, chiles, and masa flour. While you might find the ingredients at a well-stocked supermarket, you’ll probably find fresher things at your local international market. I do almost half our shopping now at the international market- I can get Latin ingredients, kimchee and bibimbap, the fixings for Phò and Indian paneer all in one place. And, the meat and produce are *always* fresh and much cheaper than at the mega-mart. Don’t be intimidated if you cant read all the labels- ask.

(Pro-tip: If you need gluten-free flour, buy the ingredients to make your own mix at the Asian market! I can make almost 20 pounds of gluten-free flour mix for less than $20 by buying the ingredients from the Japanese and east Indian aisles.)

Recipe: Tamales


  • 2-2 1/2 pounds pork roast, cooked until very tender. A crock pot works great.
  • 3 dried pasilla chiles
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds
  • anchiote paste (a reddish-orange spice without much flavor, used as color in latin foods- and in cheddar cheese, actually!)

In a sauce pan, break up the dried pasilla chiles in the oil, discarding the stems. Sauté until chiles are soft and fragrant, about five minutes. In a blender, puree the sautéd chiles and chicken broth. Set aside.

In a bowl, break apart and shred the pork roast. Add the pureed chilie/broth mixture, salt, pepper and sesame seeds. Combine well. If you want the color to be the more traditional red-orange, add a teaspoon of anchiote paste. Set aside.

Before you make the masa, get the cornhusks soaking. They’re brittle when dry, but after a soak in very hot water, they will be soft and pliable. You can use a large pot, bowl, or do what I do, and just fill the clean sink with hot water. Let them soak until soft, usually about the time it takes to make the masa.

Masa flour is made for tamales. It’s finely ground cornflour which has been treated with lime- regular cornmeal or corn flour will not work. 

  • 4 cups masa flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 2/3 cups chicken broth or water
  • 1 1/3 cups lard or solid shortening (yes, you have to)

In a large bowl, mix masa, baking powder and salt. Add broth or water and mix throughly to make a soft, moist dough (hands work well for this). In your mixer with the whip attachment, beat lard until light and fluffy. Add the masa mixture and continue to beat until well incorporated and the mixture is uniform and slightly sticky.


Gather your prepared ingredients- masa, filling and soaked, drained cornhusks.

Spread the masa evenly over 2/3 of each cornhusk. You can do this with a spatula, your hands, or using a tortilla press. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but an even layer will help in steaming better finished tamales.

Add about a tablespoon of the meat mixture to the center of the masa. Close the husk, bringing the sides together, rolling, and then folding up the bottom. It’s okay for the top to remain open, but squeeze the masa to enclose the meat, even if left open.

Continue using all husks, masa and filling.

Arrange tamales in a steamer over simmering water, open ends up. Don’t squish them- it may take more than one batch to steam them all. Cover with a damp cotton dishcloth and then with a lid. Steam about one hour. They’re ready when you can peel the husk away and the masa is firm and holds it’s shape.


Enjoy them right from the steamer. We love them fresh and plain, but they’re great as part of a meal with your favorite sauce and some cheese sprinkled on top, too.

4 thoughts on “Recipe: Tamales

  1. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to try. It’s on my list now. I like the idea of getting my gal pals together to spend some hang out time and reaping some yummy take home rewards, the idea is very similar to our (Filipino) lumpia (making) get togethers. I have ingredients except the cornhusk. So it won’t be long 😉

  2. My late mother was Mexican and tamales were a big deal over the holidays. We’d start making them on Christmas Eve and go through the next day and then do it all again on New Year’s Eve. I’ve continued the tradition ever since. I should probably write down a recipe one day. My mom always said you’ve done it right if the tamale slides out of the husk!

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