So you want to understand how to make Mexican tamales, yes? Well, you came to the right place. Not only have I been helping my mom make tamales practically since I could walk, but also; I happen to be someone who LOVES tamales. I’ve spent quite some time taste-testing thousands upon thousands of tamales and you know what?…
They all are uniquely delicious! So instead of trying to convince you of which recipe is the best, I’m going to give you a guide so that you can make your best tamales, any way you like them.
What Are Tamales?
Tamales are a Mexican dish made with masa dough, salsa, and a meat or vegetable filling.
Tamales de Elote is corn tamales made with ground fresh corn, roasted green chile strips, and a slice of cheese.
Dulce Tamales, or sweet tamales, are made using masa dough, sugar, fruit, and/ or nuts.
All Tamales are wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed in a vaporera ( Steam pot ). Then removed from the husk before eating. For tamales sakes! Please do not eat the husk!😂
Tools For Making Tamales
In this section I will talk about the different tools that are used to make tamales. Some of these tools are essential, while others are more for convenience. I suggest using what you have unless you are an avid tamale maker and want to invest in these tools.
You will need at least one large mixing bowl. If you have two, use one for the masa and the other for soaking the corn husks. Otherwise you could use a large pitcher or stock pot to soak the husks.
Gone are the days when everybody had the same blender model. For making the chile sauce, I recommend a large capacity blender. If you use a smoothie style blender such as the NutriBullet® you may have to make the sauce in batches, which is totally fine.
For convenience purposes, a stand mixer may be used for preparing the masa dough. The same goes for a handheld mixer. These tools are not necessary, but they make the job easier and less messy. Originally the masa was mixed by hand. Many people stick to this technique and some have started using electric mixers. Use what you are most comfortable with.
Spreading masa in one even layer on dozens of corn husks is no easy task. Not to mention it’s pretty time-consuming. This step could easily be sped up by using a Masa spreader. This tool is great to have, but also not necessary.
Quite honestly, I prefer using the back of a spoon. Trust me, this is a great way to spend time together with family. 😄 Everybody grab a spoon and assemble tamales!
What are corn husks, and why are they used? Corn husks are the protective outer leaves of corn cobs. They are removed, cleaned and dried, then packaged up for sale. You can find corn husks at Mexican markets. Most grocery stores also carry them and are located in the Hispanic food aisle.
Corn husks need to be soaked in warm water to soften them up before use. This is also a good time to rinse off any remaining silk hairs from the corn.
These husks are used to keep the tamales intact during the steaming process. Corn leaves give the tamales a distinct flavor, so although you could use parchment paper instead, I don’t suggest it…yeah just no! Use the husks.😆
Tamale Steam Pot
What kind of pot do you use for tamales? A tamalero or vaporera ( large steam pot ). These pots can be purchased at Mexican markets and grocery stores.
Some Walmart and Target stores have them in-store and online. Amazon, of course, has a wide variety of steam pots to choose from.
A large vaporera is great to have if you will be making tamales in large quantities, otherwise, a regular steam pot will work just fine.
This section covers the common ingredients used for making the 3 varieties of tamales mentioned above.
Masa is a maize dough made from nixtamalized maize. A process in which they soak and cook the maize in an alkaline solution ( lime water ). It is then ground up until smooth, packaged, and sold by weight.
Masa harina ( also known as Maseca® ) is basically the powdered form of masa. This is the best option to use if fresh masa is not sold in stores near you.
To prepare a masa dough for tamales, the masa or masa harina is mixed with baking powder, salt, lard, and broth or water. For tamales de chile Rojo, some chile sauce is also added to give it a red-ish color and more flavor.
Side Note* For tamales de elote, fresh corn is ground up and used instead of masa dough.
Two main salsas are used to make Mexican tamales. Chile Verde and Chile Rojo.
Chile Verde: This salsa is prepared using green ingredients to give it that green color. Tomatillos are the perfect tomatoes for this salsa. These small green tomatoes are covered in a greenish-brown husk and have a sour taste. They are usually boiled or roasted to soften them for the salsa.
The chiles commonly used in this salsa are green chiles, jalapeños, and/or poblano peppers. One, or a combination of all three may be used. These peppers need to be blistered to remove the skin.
Roasting is my favorite method for blistering them. Plus it brings out a delicious flavor in the chiles. You can roast them in a 425º oven for 20- 30 minutes turning occasionally. Under the broiler for 5 minutes, turning them once over.
*Keep an eye on them if you choose to use the broiler.
Other ingredients to add are onions, garlic, and cilantro. Many people leave the cilantro out. Honestly, I wouldn’t skip on this herb. When used in a small amount, you avoid it overpowering the salsa, but rather tying all the flavors together.
Chile Rojo: This is the most popular salsa to use in tamales. It can be smoky, spicy, and sweet depending on the peppers you choose to use. The traditional chiles used are Ancho/Pasilla and Guajillo.
Other common chiles used are Anaheim, New Mexico, and California. Chile de Arbol can also be added for spiciness. To get the best flavor, toast them over an open flame, but be careful not to charr them, as this will give you a bitter flavor.
Remove the bitter seeds, then soak them in boiling water to soften them up. Purée together with red tomatoes, onion, garlic, and a mix of spices such as peppercorns, cumin, and clove.
The filling and salsa combinations are pretty much endless. You can use a variety of meats, vegetables, cheeses for savory tamales. Try different fruits or nuts if making sweet tamales.
Meats: Commonly used meats are chicken beef and pork, but some people like to use turkey or shrimp.
Vegetables and Legumes: Tamales can be made using veggies or legumes. I have had tamales made with carrots and potatoes, and I recently made some green chile tamales using shredded king oyster mushrooms. Both were delicious! You could try using black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, or any other bean you like.
Cheese: Cheese is used in making fresh corn tamales. A thin strip of green chile and a slice of cheese is added to the center of the tamal. Olives are sometimes used in combination with cheese. Cream cheese and dulce de leche are a combination made for sweet tamales.
Fruit and Nuts: Fruits such as bananas, apples, and pineapple are used in making sweet tamales. Dried fruit like raisins or cranberries may also be used. Pecans, walnuts, and almonds are typically added along with the fruit.
Assembling The Tamales
How do you assemble tamales? It is easier than a lot of people may think. Just make sure to place the masa dough on the correct side of the husk. The husk has a smooth side and a rough side. Spread the masa dough on the smooth side.
Steep 1: Spread a thin layer of masa dough on the husk.
Step 2: Place the filling in the middle ( going vertically ) on the masa dough.
Step 3: Fold the sides up to meet each other, pinch them together so that the masa dough sticks to each other. Then fold to one side.
Step 4: Fold the top flap down on the same side as the previous fold.
Step 5: Secure with strips torn from the corn husk, or cooking twine.
Step 6: Make a tight knot and repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
How To Cook Tamales
Yess! You made it to the end.😀 Steaming the tamales is easy, but even this task can go wrong. These tips will help ensure a perfect steam every time.
~ Arrange the tamales facing down. The bottom is the open part and should be facing up. Try to arrange for them to go in a circle around the vaporera.
~ Cover them using a kitchen towel so that heat won’t escape through the sides of the lid. This also helps catch those water drips so they don’t land inside of the tamales.
~ Cook tamales according to the recipe, but if you are unsure, it usually takes 45 minutes to 1½ hrs to cook tamales depending on the type and quantity.
~ Make sure to add enough water to the steam pot, but stay close by, in case you hear the water drying out. Add some more hot water if needed.
How To Serve Tamales
Tamales are similar to sandwiches and burritos in the sense that they are pretty much a meal on their own. You can serve them along with sides or as a complete meal. It’s up to you.
Some traditional sides include:
Pico de Gallo
Ensalada de Nopales ( cactus salad )
For the holiday season, they are served with hot drinks such as Atole ( masa drink ), Champurrado ( Mexican chocolate & masa drink ), or Ponche ( hot Mexican fruit punch )
Serve them with one or all of these, or create any side you like!
Now that you know the basics, I hope you feel confident enough to make some delicious tamales that you can enjoy with your loved ones this holiday season or any time!
If I left anything out, comment below what I missed, and stay tuned for my upcoming tamale recipes.😉
Till the next one,