Tamales are all about celebration. Prep for the best tamale-making party ever by making homemade tamales the traditional way.
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In Mexico, tamales (tuh-MAH-lees) are a staple at weddings, festivals, and everyday meals. Tamales are usually served in cornhusks without any sauce. To dig in, unwrap the warm tamales and cut into the masa-covered filling with a fork. You can serve them as a main dish or make mini tamales to serve as appetizers. The way tamales are made varies by region and by cook; here we show you how to make a traditional tamale. Our basic tamale recipe will teach you everything you need to know, including how to make masa for tamales, and we'll offer up a few of our favorite suggestions for tamale fillings too. Once you've mastered the basic recipe, you can try other variations such as mini tamales and tamale pie.

ingredients for tamales
Credit: Blaine Moats
Get the Basic Tamale Recipe

How to Make Tamales: The Basic Ingredients

The traditional Mexican dish has a flavorful filling enveloped by masa dough and tied up in softened cornhusks (or banana leaves). To keep the process smooth, do all your prep work ahead of time, such as making the masa mixture and meat filling and softening the cornhusks. Before you start making tamales, double-check that you have all the ingredients you need (if you already have a stocked Mexican pantry, you're set). Here's a quick rundown of everything you'll need to make tamales and what each ingredient is for:

  • Dried cornhusks are used as tamale wrappers and can be found at grocery stores and Mexican markets. The husks are softened in water before using.
  • Masa harina is corn tortilla flour. "Masa" is dough made of dried corn; it's treated with slaked lime and ground, then dried and powdered to become masa harina.
  • Lard, which is rendered pork fat, gives tamales flavor and the fat needed for the dough's texture. (You can also use shortening.) Buy it at a Mexican market.
  • Water or broth moistens the masa harina and helps create the right dough texture.
  • Salt is a natural flavor enhancer and boosts the corn flavor of the tamale dough.
  • Baking powder is used in some tamale dough as a leavening agent, which helps the dough rise a bit when baking and gives it a light texture.
soaking corn husks for tamales
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 1: Soak the Cornhusks

Place the dried cornhusks in a pan or dish and cover with hot water, allowing husks to soak until soft (thin, pliable husks require less soaking time than tough, brittle ones). Softening cornhusks can take up to 45 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

masa dough for tamales
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 2: Make the Masa

With an electric mixer, beat the lard or shortening until light and fluffy. Mix in the dry ingredients and liquid as directed in the recipe. The finished dough should resemble a thick, creamy paste that is easy to work with.

filling tamales with meat
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 3: Fill the Tamales

Remove the husks from the water, drain in a colander, and pat dry. Top each husk with 2 tablespoons of the masa dough, spreading dough into a rectangle that runs close to one of the long sides of the husk. Spread about 1 tablespoon of desired filling lengthwise down the center of the dough on each husk. Learn how to make chicken tamales, how to make pork tamales, or how to make beef tamales—there's a filling for whatever you're craving!

rolling tamales
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 4: Wrap the Tamales

For each tamale, fold the long end of the husk so it slightly overlaps the dough. Next, roll the husk into a tube, then fold up the bottom (short edge) of the husk and tie in place. The top of the husk will be open, so you can see the filling inside.

tying the ends of tamales
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 5: Tie the Cornhusks

Tie the ends of each husk with strips of soaked cornhusk or 100% cotton string or kitchen twine. Tying the ends keeps the condensed steam away from the masa (dough) when steaming and keeps the bundles intact. It also gives them the quintessential bundle shape.

Can You Freeze Tamales?

You can absolutely freeze tamales! At this step of the process, layer tamales in an airtight container. Freeze up to 3 months. To serve, steam as directed in step 6, adding 10 minutes to steaming time.

steaming tamales
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 6: Prep the Steamer

Tamales are cooked in a steamer. You can purchase a steamer with a basket or rack inside. Create your own steamer by using a Dutch oven fitted with a vegetable steamer basket or a metal rack inside.

Arrange the tamales in a single layer or stand them upright in the steamer basket, filling the space but not packing them tightly.

Test Kitchen Tip: Place a cone-shaped ball of foil in the center of the steamer basket to help tamales stand up.

Basic Tamales
Credit: Peter Krumhardt

Step 7: Steam the Tamales

Pour at least 1½ inches of water in the bottom of the steamer or Dutch oven. Place the filled steamer basket over the water; bring the water to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Steam the tamales until the dough pulls away from the cornhusks and is spongy and cooked through. Check the water in the pan occasionally, replenishing it as needed. This will ensure the steamer won't boil dry and scorch.

Add more traditional Mexican flavor with our favorite recipes such as Pozole, Huevos con Migas, and more.

Comments (1)

Better Homes & Gardens Member
December 14, 2018
Did I miss the measurements of the ingredients? All I see is "Quick Guide to Tamale Ingredients"...