How to Make Tamales

by Ann Marie Michaels on December 21, 2010

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Tamales

It’s Christmas time, and to me that means tamales. It is traditional to eat tamales on Christmas Eve in Mexico. Tamales are also traditional in Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, and many other Latin countries.

Unfortunately, almost all the tamales that can be found in the United States today are made from genetically modified corn and they typically use modern industrial oils — either Crisco, soybean oil or margarine. These oils are not traditional and are very bad for you. (If you want to know why, read The Oiling of America.)

Lard is the traditional fat used in tamales. If you don’t have a good source for lard (I recommend buying pig fat directly from the farmer, and rendering it yourself), you can use refined expeller pressed coconut oil. Although it doesn’t have the delicious flavor of lard, coconut oil is very healthy and it works great in tamales (I don’t recommend unrefined coconut oil, however — the coconut flavor is too strong).

My housekeeper, Carla, is from Honduras. She taught me how to make tamales. In Honduras, they make a slightly larger tamale and they wrap them in plantain leaves. We’re doing the Mexican version, which uses corn husks.

We soaked the corn first and made masa, which is a cornmeal dough used for tamales and tortillas, I following Sally Fallon-Morell’s instructions in Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats for soaking corn in lime water.

Click the links below to read my recipes for making masa from scratch:

Part One: How to Soak Corn for Masa

Part Two: How to Make Masa

And how to render lard:

How to Render Lard

Recipe Notes
This recipe for tamales comes from Chef Rick Bayless, who is an expert on Mexican food. I revised it to use fresh organic corn or cornmeal instead of the GMO masa harina that you buy at the store.

If you don’t have time to soak your own corn, you can use cornmeal (instructions for both methods are included). The advantages of soaking your own corn instead of using cornmeal are: (1) it’s cheaper and (2) it’s much fresher, which means it tastes better and it’s much more nutritious. But not everyone will have the time or inclination to find and soak field corn so I offer both methods. If you do buy cornmeal instead of making masa from scratch, make sure it’s organic.

This recipe produces about a pound and a half of fresh masa. It will be enough to make a lot of tamales (you need one pound), plus a little extra. I recommend freezing the extra masa dough. You can use it later for tortillas (click here for my corn tortillas recipe). Or you can make extra tamales and freeze them. They make a delicious, easy-to-prepare dinner any night of the week. Just pop them in the oven or toaster oven!

You do need to find corn husks. If you can’t find them locally, I have found them online on Amazon.com — here’s a link: EL GUAPO Shelled Corn Husks 24 Oz

Lastly, this filling is made from ground beef or pork. This is the classic beef or pork tamale. You can also stuff the tamales with cheese or vegetables. Dessert tamales stuffed with chocolate or fruit would also be delicious. Be creative and have fun!

How to Make Tamales

Ingredients

Masa
Pickling Lime (1 TBS)
Organic field or dent corn (1 1/2 pounds) — available online — Yellow Dent Corn – Certified Organic Gluten-Free – 2LB ; or organic cornmeal (1 1/2 pounds)
Filtered water
Optional: A little extra dry cornmeal just in case you need it for the correct consistency of dough

Filling
Butter or lard (2 TBS) — where to buy grass fed butter or how to render lard
Large yellow or white onion (1/2)
Ground pastured pork or grass-fed beef, or a combination (1 pound) — where to buy meat
Sea salt to taste — where to buy sea salt

Tamales
A few packages dried corn husks (get a few packs because you will want to make this again & they don’t go bad; available at Hispanic markets or online)
Fresh masa (1 1/2 pounds)
Lard (home-rendered or from a trusted source; not partially hydrogenated) or refined expeller-pressed coconut oil (3/4 cup or 6 ounces) — where to buy coconut oil
Sea salt (1/2 tsp) — where to buy sea salt
Baking powder (1 1/2 tsp)
Sour cream , from grass-fed cows if possible (1 container) — where to buy starters
Salsa, lacto-fermented if possible (1 container) — click here for recipe

Equipment

Large glass bowl or enamelware Dutch oven (for soaking)
Food processor (or better yet, a grain grinder — one that can handle grinding corn)
Large stockpot with steamer insert
Tongs

Directions

Soaking Dent Corn (Longer But Fresher)
1. Rinse 1 1/2 pounds corn in a colander.
2. Add 2 quarts of filtered water to a stock pot or saucepan.
3. Mix in 1 tablespoon pickling lime and turn heat on high.
4. Pour the rinsed corn in. Remove any kernels that float to the surface.
5. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Let it cook for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and let cool.
6. At this point, you can transfer it to a glass mixing bowl and cover it with a dish cloth to let it soak (I used an enamelware Dutch oven with a lid). It’s best to soak in glass or enamelware — or stoneware. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ferment in stainless steel.
7. Mix well, cover, and let the corn soak for a minimum of 12 hours. Preferably longer, up to 2 weeks. The longer you soak, the more digestible and more nutritious the corn will be.

Soaking Cornmeal (Quicker, Not As Fresh or Nutritious)
1. Add 1 tablespoon pickling lime to one quart of filtered water. Stir well.
2. Add 1 1/2 pounds of cornmeal to a large glass bowl or enamelware Dutch oven (do not use stainless steel or other metal). Thoroughly mix in 3/4 cup lime water.
3. Cover and let sit in a warm place for 12-24 hours.
4. Rinse thoroughly with water and drain.

Making Masa from Dent Corn
1. Rinse the soaked corn thoroughly in a colander.
2. Add the corn to the bowl of your food processor, 1 cup at a time.
3. Pulse a few times, then let it run.
4. Add anywhere from 1-4 tablespoons of water per cup of corn. You just have to feel it out. Keep adding water 1 tablespoon at a time and blending until the dough is very soft and is no longer crumbly.
5. Keep pulsing and scraping down until the dough is done. You will know when it’s done when the dough is very smooth and it forms a ball on one side of your food processor. Note: you’re never going to get the corn as finely ground as it needs to be with a food processor. If you have a good quality grain grinder (make sure it can handle corn — not all grain grinders can), that’s your best bet.
6. Be very conservative about adding water. If you add too much water, the dough will be overly sticky. That’s OK though. Just add more corn and make it a little dryer, then mix it with the wetter one. If you need to, add a little dry cornmeal flour to get the right consistency (yes, it’s unsoaked but a little won’t hurt).
7. Form the dough into a few large balls and wrap in plastic and store in the fridge until you are ready to make your tamales.

Making the Filling
1. Chop up the onion.
2. Add the butter or lard to a skillet and turn the heat on medium.
3. Add the onions and cook until soft.
4. Add the ground meat and cook until done.
5. Add sea salt to taste.
6. Set aside until ready to fill tamales.

Making the Tamales
1. Soften (not melt) the lard or coconut oil. A good way to do this is to put it in the dehydrator on very low heat.
2. In a food processor or by hand with a wooden spoon, mix together the masa dough, lard or coconut oil, sea salt and baking powder.
3. Tear one dried corn husk of into small strips to use as ties for the tamales. Set aside.
4. With the tapering end of the husk facing you, place a scant one-eighth cup of dough onto the husk, leaving at least a one and one- half-inch border of husk at the tapered end.
5. Make a divet with your fingers and add a small scoop of the meat filling.
6. Press the masa around the meat to cover it.
7. Fold the two long sides of the corn husk in over the corn mixture.
8. Fold the tapered end up, leaving the top open.
9. Secure the tamale by tying with a strip of the husk.
10. Do all the tamales in this manner and set aside. It’s good to have a friend or family member helping.
11. Measure 1-2 inches of water in a large stockpot. Set steamer insert into pot. Set on low to medium heat.
12. Stand tamales in prepared steamer. Cover and steam for 1-2 hours, checking water level occasionally and replenishing with boiling water as needed. Tamales are done when they pull away from the husk easily.
13. Serve with sour cream and/or salsa (ideally lacto-fermented salsa).

Photo credit: Mexicanwave on Flickr
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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy (The Local Cook) December 21, 2010 at 10:35 AM

YUM! When I was growing up we would always buy tamales from the Mexican church on the other side of town. They made them as a fundraiser. I love them to this day.

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Carla December 21, 2010 at 11:04 AM

So we made tamales this weekend. We had a blast! Method is a bit different, but I am going to try making my own masa next time. Is the cornmeal fine enough just by itself to resemble the prepared masa or cornflour version? Should I try to grind it finer?

Also, if you roast a pork shoulder, couldn’t you use that fat from that to make the dough? And then shred the meat and season with the traditional red chili/water?

We made a variety of fillings, from chunked/shredded chicken with roasted hatch chiles (too spicy for me!), shredded pork with red chili, and cheese chunk filled as well a creative combinations of the above if people were so inclined. :) We also used a cranberry compote as a filling and a frozen sliced and sweetened/seasoned apple fillling. Both were quite good!

A friend told me that his favorite type, he can’t find anymore, and it was a very plain shredded chicken, flavorful, but not spicy, and with queso fresco in the dough. I may give that a try after I try my hand at the making the queso fresco from raw milk…

Thanks for posting this!

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Carla December 21, 2010 at 11:07 AM

Oh, one thing I wanted to add about method: If you whip the lard/fat with a hand or stand mixer, you will get a lighter, less dense masa once it comes out of the steamer.

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cheeseslave December 21, 2010 at 12:11 PM

@ Carla

It depends on how you like your masa. You don’t need to grind it superfine. It’s up to you though.

I would not use the fat from a pork shoulder to make masa. You could try it I guess, but I’m afraid it would change the color of the tamales. Lard and coconut oil are clear.

Good tip about whipping the lard!

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Orrel December 21, 2010 at 4:27 PM

Oh, all the wonders of true food. HOWEVER, our senators and representatives has PASSED a bill that will limit the freedoms of small farmers and respectively the people. Where were you? I know this is the season, but I must ask the season for whom. Baking good cookies, etc. won’t help. We should have united against an intrusive government that seems to be dedicated only to lining their own pockets at the expense of the health of the American citizens. At the rate they’re going, we will have no freedoms left. Wake Up! Please!

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KR December 21, 2010 at 4:31 PM

Thanks for the directions! I wish I had a picture for how to place the masa and filling in the husk, I’m trying to picture it. It seems like such a small amount!
It’s been on my agenda to try this for some time, just need to make the time.
Wouldn’t beef tallow or butter work okay? I don’t use lard, but I could use coconut oil, I just wonder if tallow or butter might taste better.

Does the sour, “limey” taste of the from scratch masa/tortillas bother you? I’ve made them a few times, and they are good, but that lime aftertaste is pretty apparent. I also wonder if the boiling and simmering with the lime is necessary. I wonder if just adding boiling lime water to the corn would be fine.
I grind the soaked corn kernals in my juicer, it gets it pretty smooth.

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K December 22, 2010 at 7:28 AM

This looks amazing. I made tamales with a distant family member (that I haven’t seen since) several years ago before I had kids and before I knew lard was good for me. We used shortening, I remember because I was pretty grossed out. It was for the wrong reasons of course, that saturated fat was bad. Thank goodness I now know that saturated fat is good, it just has to be from whole, traditional sources. I still shudder whenever I see shortening, but now it’s for the right reasons: trans fat, heart disease, etc.

Anyways, that’s beside the point. It was a lot of fun to make tamales. We took shortcuts like using cornmeal and shortening, so I’m excited to make them the REAL way. Thanks for the recipe! I won’t be trying them before Christmas, but I want to try these soon. I haven’t been able to find a good local source for lard, so that’s my first order of business.

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cheeseslave December 22, 2010 at 7:46 AM

@K I agree — it is fun! Especially if you are making them together as a family or with friends. Put some music on, have a glass of wine or egg nog, and make tamales!

If you can’t find lard (I can’t find it here, have to order it from other states), the refined expeller pressed coconut oil works wonderfully!

Reply

cheeseslave December 22, 2010 at 7:50 AM

@KR

I wish I had a picture for how to place the masa and filling in the husk, I’m trying to picture it. It seems like such a small amount!

It is a small amount. Depends on the size of the husk. Try it and you’ll get the hang of how much to use.

Wouldn’t beef tallow or butter work okay?

Beef tallow would probably work fine. Butter I don’t know about — might be too soft and drip too much. Might work though. The refined expeller coconut oil really works great.

If you can get your hands on lard, it’s really a great fat to use. It’s one of the highest sources of vitamin D (right after cod liver oil).

Does the sour, “limey” taste of the from scratch masa/tortillas bother you? I’ve made them a few times, and they are good, but that lime aftertaste is pretty apparent.

It should not taste like lime. How long are you soaking the corn? Try soaking for less time. And make sure you rinse thoroughly.

I also wonder if the boiling and simmering with the lime is necessary. I wonder if just adding boiling lime water to the corn would be fine.

This is the way I was taught to do it by my housekeeper from Honduras. My former nanny from Guatemala grew up doing it the same way.

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Carla December 22, 2010 at 8:59 AM

The fat from the pork shoulder is white (clear when melted), just like the lard?

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KR December 22, 2010 at 12:08 PM

Thanks! The times I’ve made it I have only soaked about 24 hours, and I do rinse very well, or so it seems. I guess I’ll keep messing with it and figure it out.

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Beth December 22, 2010 at 3:06 PM

It looks wonderful. I grew up in El Salvador and would love it if you (and Carla?) posted sometime how to make the tamales in the plantain leaves. I’m assuming they would be similar to Salvadoran tamales?? The masa I remember using came fresh from the mill and came home already wet. Then it was cooked in a big pot; the tamales were made; and it was cooked again. Of course that’s from my childhood memories when I wasn’t really paying attention :).

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cheeseslave December 22, 2010 at 4:50 PM

@KR Are you soaking the cornmeal or the corn?

If it’s cornmeal, try soaking it for only 8-12 hours.

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soccy January 28, 2012 at 7:25 PM

i am currently soaking the cornmeal. i am wondering how i am going to rinse it without losing it down the drain?

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KR December 22, 2010 at 7:42 PM

It’s the whole organic corn. I’m surprised you don’t taste the lime at all. I’ll try it again soon and be careful about how I do it. and see what happens again.

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Debbie December 31, 2010 at 9:43 AM

Ann Marie,

I love your site! Thank you so much for your willingness to help us cook more traditionally. Between you and Sarah (Healthy Home Economist) I have learn things that were not that clear in Sally’s book (Nourishing Traditions).

I have a few questions:
I was wondering if you soak the corn husks before you fill?

This is a silly questions, but is corn meal just ground corn? I have a grain grinder (Family Grain Mill) that will take corn as long as it is dry. My corn is already soaking, so this time I will use my food processor, next time I will grind first then soak.

Thanks for your help,

Happy New Year,

Debbie

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tessag July 5, 2011 at 5:17 PM

Well, as delightful as this might be…I am not patient enough to follow this recipe! :)

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coconutfreek July 21, 2011 at 4:09 PM

what is the purpose of the corn husks? is it flavor?

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syreeta jayne December 20, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Do you buy organic corn husks? I’m assuming that if most corn is gmo, then the husks would be too…

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Sharon Bohuslav December 15, 2012 at 11:29 AM

I am wondering also about the corn husks. If they are not organic are they GMO?

Reply

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