How to Make Tamales

Hi, I’m Emily! I’ve been inspired by Foodwhirl’s recipes so far, and am excited to contribute to it! My husband and I made tamales for Memorial Day, so I thought it would be a great recipe to share.

We make tamales about once a year. They’re certainly time consuming, but making 6 dozen is as easy as making 12, so it’s a great meal to make and then freeze. Tamales are also a great project to make with a large group, since assembling them can be labor intensive.


Assembled tamales before cooking

This time, we made chicken & pork tamales for my husband and green chili & cheddar for me. The possibilities are endless for filling variations! In the past, I have made artichoke & goat cheese, pumpkin & caramelized onion, and black bean.

There are three main steps to making tamales: preparing the fillings, preparing the masa, and assembling/cooking the tamales.


  • Corn husks
  • 1 lb chicken breast
  • 1 lb pork
  • Vegetable oil
  • Chili powder
  • Ground cumin
  • Paprika
  • Black pepper
  • Salt
  • 2 large green peppers
  • White cheddar, monterey jack, or other cheese
  • Masa Harina (available in Mexican grocery stores, specialty markets, or from Bob’s Red Mill)
  • Oil
  • Vegetable broth (for vegetarian tamales)

Prepare the fillings:

  1. Place corn husks in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Soak until ready to use (You may need to place a bowl or glass on top to prevent them from floating to the top of the bowl).
  2. Place chicken in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and cook until tender. Remove chicken from water, shred with a fork. Skim fat from water, but save the broth.
  3. Repeat with the pork. Save broth.
  4. Place 2 tbsp oil in a small saucepan, and add the following spices: 1 tbsp chili powder, 1 tbsp ground cumin, 2 tsp salt, and 1 tsp black pepper. Heat over medium low until mixture is warm but not cooked.
  5. Place ground chicken and pork in a large bowl, and pour oil and spice mixture over the meat. Mix thoroughly.
  6. Heat oven to 400F. Place green peppers on a baking sheet covered in foil or parchment paper. Cook, rotating peppers, until the skin is blistered on all sides. Immediately remove peppers and place in paper bag. When cool enough to touch, remove from bag and peel off skin. Slice peppers into 1/2″ x 2″ pieces.
  7. Slice white cheddar cheese into pieces approximately the same size as pepper slices.

    Green pepper

    Peeling skin from the green pepper after cooking

Prepare the masa:

Note: We made two batches of masa; one using the chicken and pork broth and one vegetarian. Make both, or just one or the other, depending on the type of tamales you want.

  1. Measure 3 c of masa into a mixing bowl.
  2. Add 1 tbsp each of paprika, chili powder, ground cumin, and salt. Mix thoroughly. Add 1/2 c oil to the mixture and mix thoroughly, using a handheld mixer for best results. Add broth (leftover chicken or pork broth from preparing the meat, or vegetable broth), 1/2 cup at a time, until the mixture has the consistency of thick peanut butter. I ended up adding approximately 3 cups broth.

Assemble and steam tamales:

Assembling vegetarian tamale

After spreading masa on tamale, place desired fillings in the middle.

  1. Using a spatula, spoon, or your fingers, spread a small amount of masa on a corn husk, covering approximately 2/3 of the width of the husk.
  2. Place desired fillings on the masa.
  3. Roll husk like a burrito, and then fold one end over to prevent fillings from falling out. Seal with another corn husk if necessary.
  4. Heat water in a large pan for steaming. We have used a pan with a steamer insert, but we once used a rice cooker – all you need is something in the pan to prevent the tamales from directly touching the water.
  5. Line steamer with extra corn husks and insert tamales vertically into pan.
  6. Cook for 2-3 hours, until the masa is cooked and no longer doughy. To test, remove one tamale, unwrap, and taste some of the masa from its center.Folding tamale

Tamales can be frozen before or after steaming. To reheat, steam briefly or microwave tamales covered in a damp paper towel. Serve with salsa and/or sour cream.


Originally published: June 2010

[fbcomments countmsg="tasteful comments!"]