Making Tamales

In some Hispanic families tamale-making is a Christmas tradition.  My mother-in-law has been talking about us making tamales at Christmas time since even before Kevin and I were married (15 years in 2012).  This year, we decided to do so.  This was my first experience making tamales, and there are some things that I would probably do a little different next time, but we did them the way it was traditional for my mother-in-law to make them, and I learned a lot.

****2014 UPDATE:  Please read this through all the way, but then go visit THIS post, as I have updated my tamale-making process to one that takes much less time and effort! ****

First, let me say that next time, this will be a two-day affair.  Even with Lucia preparing the meat the night before, the process still took 8 hours.  So, if you do a little prep work the day before to make the meat and the chile ancho sauce, then I think things would be a little more managable.

Also, I need to add that there are as many ways to make tamales as there are Abuelitas who make them.  This is just the way we did it.

As I said, the meat was prepared ahead of time.  We used 6 lbs. of pork (Boston butt steak) cooked with a spice packet, but if you don’t use a spice packet, you can just cook it with onion, garlic and a bay leaf.  Save the broth, as you will use it in preparing the masa.

The first thing we worked on was seeding the chile anchos.  We used 1 lb. 5 oz. of chiles.

Explanation:  1.  We pulled apart the chile anchos and 2. Removed the seeds.  3.  Here is the pile of seeded chiles with “stuff” that we discarded.  4.  We then poured boiling water over the chiles to cover them and 5.  let them soak a good 30 minutes or more.  6.  When they have changed color and are soft & playable, puree them in a blender or food processor, mixing with them some of the water from anchos.  I think with the whole batch we used between 5-6 cups of the ancho water.  7.  We then pushed the puree through a strainer to get rid of the bitter casing from the peppers and any leftover seeds.  8.  We got a nice sauce, which we heated and mixed in 1 Tbs. garlic powder, 2 tsp. cumin, 2 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. melted lard mixed with 2 tsp. flour, 1.5 tsp. chili powder, and 1 tsp. onion powder.  It was a little bitter to the taste, so we ended up also adding 4 tsp. sugar total.  Once we were happy with the sauce, we mixed in the meat.

Next, we focused on the masa (dough).

This is what we used… 1.  10 lbs. of Masa with water and lime already mixed in, 2.  2.5 lbs. LARD.  The bad kind.  (We actually didn’t use quite the amount, but that is the amount the recipe calls for).  3.  Because 10 lbs. of masa is so large, we split it into two bowls to work in the rest of the ingredients, which are 3 Tbs. salt, 2 tsp. baking powder.  Work these in with your hands before adding the manteca (lard) and the broth.  3.  Melt the manteca and pour it into your masa mixture as well as 2 cups of broth from your meat (we ended up using 3 cups).  If you don’t have any broth from your meat you can also use chicken broth or water.  5.  After the masa is mixed well by hand and your hands are nice and messy, go ahead and put it in the blender in batches to whip it up a little.  6.  You want it the consistency of butter as you spread it.

*Whew*  By this time several hours have passed and it’s FINALLY time to make the tamales!

1.  We cleaned any remaining silk off the hojas (corn husks) and soaked them in boiling water.   2.  It is best to pat the water off the hojas so that they are not still wet when you spread on the masa.  3.  Starting about 1/3 of the way down the husk, spread the masa on evenly – not too thick, not too thin – going all the way to the end.  4.  Put a strip of your meat mixture down the center third of the masa.  5.  Fold both sides over, one then the other, and then 6.  Fold the top of the husk down.  Place the tamale face down in a pan.

We had lots of help for this part, although for 2 of the 3 it was a bit short-lived…

Next we stacked them in the pot.  You need an extra large pot with a steaming tray in the bottom.

First, 1.  Place some unused hojas around the bottom of the pan so the tamales won’t actually touch the bottom and stick to it.  (I got 2. and 3. backwards in the above picture, but you can see that you just start placing the tamales around the outside of the pot leaving a little space around the hole for the steam to rise.  Once you’re up a little ways, you can just pile them on.  4.  Cover the top of the tamales with a wet dish towel or some more wet hojas and put the lid on.  5.  Bring the water to a boil over low-to-medium heat.

You can start checking the tamales after an hour and 15 minutes or so.  You know if the ones on top are done, they are done the whole way through.  listen every now and then to make sure the water is still boiling inside.  If you run out of water, the tortillas will burn.  Our large pot took 2 hours to cook.  We also had a smaller pot going, and it took an hour and 15 minutes.  You know they are done when you lift the hojas off, and the masa separates from the husk like so:

And here is a pan of our finished product!

We didn’t actually count, but I believe we had around 6 dozen tamales.  We ate some tonight, I froze some, and we will eat some more for Christmas dinner along with other kinds of amazing Mexican food from my mother-in-law’s kitchen!

*** 2014 Update:  I have a “new and improved” tamale making process that is much simpler.  Check it out HERE.***

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About Laura

A Christian wife, mother, daughter, former educator, photographer, amateur chef, pretend gardener, alto 🎶, book nerd, cancer-survivor and laundry-hater.

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30 Responses to Making Tamales

  1. Brenda Ratcliff December 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Laura, this was a great post. However, I am still buying my homemade tamales at the little cafe just outside of Randolph Air Force Base. Thanks for sharing. Tamales and pizza are our “traditional” X-mas dinner.

    • Laura December 22, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

      Yes, I can see how it would definitely be easier!! However, it’s nice to have the knowledge to pull out every once in a while and now I feel accomplished. :)

      • Glora Rodriguez December 27, 2016 at 10:22 am #

        I make tamales for dinner sometime as long as l make the meat. The night before in crock pot I have it down to about 2 hours max, l use an electric steamer my secret which cuts the steaming time in half but everything else pretty much the same l use new mexico chile pods and powder

  2. Catherine December 23, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    I always wondered how those were made – growing up in TN, this wasn’t something I’d ever eaten ’til I moved to TX – been here a while now, I guess it’s time I learned a wee bit about how those are done! Thanks for sharing!! What a great day for you and your girls to spend w/your MIL!

  3. nadine December 23, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    I love tamales so much, but it’s tough to find good ones up here. Yours look fabulous & yummy.

  4. Veronica November 1, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    I was wondering if adding enchilada sauce changes the flavor in any way?

    • Laura November 4, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

      Using the enchilada sauce helped make the sauce less bitter, in my opinion.

  5. Luci December 3, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    How much water do you need to use when steaming the tamales?

    • Laura December 3, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

      I fill the pot to the bottom of the spacer just below the tamales & add more as needed. You can put a penny in the bottom so that when you hear it stop moving you know the water is too low.

  6. Debra December 16, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    I was wanting to try my hand at making some tamales I can eat these things forever and a day , any wayI was wanting to know if the ancho , Arbol, cascabel or guajillo which of these are very mild in heatness ?

    Thank you .

    • Laura December 17, 2015 at 8:57 pm #

      My favorite are the anchos. They are mild. No heat at all.

  7. anita December 18, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

    Hello Laura,
    You said that you had to split your masa into two bowls and then add the remaining ingredients. So does that mean that in one bowl you put 3tbs of salt and two tsp of baking powder and then in the other bowl you added another 3 tbs of salt and 2 tsp of baking soda?

    • Laura December 29, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

      No, when I split the masa I put in 1 Tbs of salt and 1 tsp of baking powder.

  8. Halie December 22, 2015 at 7:59 pm #

    When soaking the corn husk in the boiling water…. how long should they soak? Thanks in advance.

    • Laura December 29, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

      It depends on how dry they are to start with… just until they are pliable.

  9. Anna December 29, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    I bought the masa preparada do I still need to add the lard?

    • Laura December 29, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

      If the ingredients are corn, water and lime, then yes, you still need to add the lard & broth.

      • Anna December 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

        It has corn, lard, water, salt and baking powder. I guess I can go by the texture right?

        • Laura December 31, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

          Yes. I would still “whip” it in the blender until it’s butter consistency and a drop floats in water.

          • L .sue September 15, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

            May I ask how come some tamales come out a little greasy .

          • Laura September 17, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

            Hmm… too much lard, maybe?

  10. Angela M April 2, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

    Tamales are my favorite and make mine pretty much the same way. But I always wondered about freezing them. Any special preparations to freeze them and how long can you freeze them for.

    • Laura April 29, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

      Hi Angela,

      I usually just freeze them in freezer bags. The longest I’ve ever frozen them was a year, and they were still tasty.

  11. BRENDA December 1, 2016 at 1:02 pm #


  12. Maria December 22, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

    If I don’t use all the raw masa. Can masa be frozen for another time?

  13. Gloria Rodriguez December 27, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    I prepare my tamales as usual but l don’t steam them l put them in zip lock bags qt size then freeze when i want fresh tamales l steam them, fresh everytime

  14. Michele January 1, 2017 at 6:25 pm #

    Can I used the El Milagro Masada – already prepared, no mixing/making required? Looking for a short cut anywhere I can get one.

  15. Olga January 10, 2017 at 10:32 pm #

    I usually don’t add the broth from the chilie anchos to the meat. Makes the meat bitter. I use the broth from the meat. I order my masa from a local mexican grocery store. My family and I usually get together a weekend before Christmas to make tamales. We use 40 lbs of masa. We call our tamale making day, “la tamalada”. My sisters, nieces, granddaughters, daughter, and sisterinlaw, have such a great time. This year I had a friend of my sons over. She wanted to learn. She had such a great time and she said my family was so kind and warm. Everyone brings something to munch on and some wine. It’s a great day for us to get together. This past Christmas was our 5th year of la tamalada!


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