How to Make Tamales

If there's one Mexican meal that gets a bad rap for taking hours in the kitchen to prepare, it's the tamale. Homemade tamales are considered 1000 times better than frozen, but it's always hard to justify spending an entire afternoon to devote to tamale-making. However, I'm here to share that with a little bit of preparation, it totally possible to make a tamale recipe from scratch and have it on the table in under three hours. Okay, it seems a little intimidating, but just realize that most of the time the tamales are cooking, which means hands-off!

How to Make Authentic Mexican Tamales

Tamales are a traditional meal from Mexico, with its origin coming all the way back from 8000 to 5000 BC in Mesoamerica. In the pre-Colombian era, the Aztecs filled their tamales with ingredients such as flamingo, honey, fish, turkeys, and gophers. Today in Modern Mexico tamale fillings include everything from chicken and pork to beef and even iguana. 

While a tamales recipe does take a little bit longer to make than say, a batch of tacos, it does make a lot to go around, which means you can make a big batch and freeze these Mexican tamales to enjoy another night of the week.

To make things easier on yourself make the filling the day before if you want to cook it from scratch. You could also buy a rotisserie chicken and some red chile sauce, cumin, cilantro, and jalapeno to make a quick and flavorful filling.


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Step-By-Step Instructions on How to Make Masa Dough

When you have your fillings sorted out, you must make the corn dough. You can either make this by hand in a large bowl or in a stand mixer. We highly suggest the stand mixer because it is easier to combine the masa harina, baking powder, chili powder, and lard. Masa harina is very fine corn flour and can be found in the international foods aisle quite readily at the grocery store. This dough uses warmed chicken broth instead of the usual warm water.

Whether you are making chicken tamales or shredded pork tamales, you'll be needing corn masa to make the dough. Unlike tortillas which are fried, tamales are made in a steamer basket either in a large pot on the stovetop or in a pressure cooker.

  1. Mix the dough
  2. Add in the seasoning
  3. Spread the dough on the corn husk
  4. Add the filling and fold.
  5. Steam bundles

Once the tamale dough feels like mashed potatoes or peanut butter and floats when added to water, it's time to fill the dough. Grab a family member and start an assembly line of tamale making. Fold the corn husk over the filling and place either in the instant pot or a large stockpot fitted with a steamer attachment. Place all the tamales in there and you are practically there! Simply steam the bundles until the filling comes away easily from the sides of the husk.

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How to Make Tamales

Get crafty in the kitchen with a step-by-step guide for delicious homemade tamales.
Prep Time 40 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Total Time 2 hours 40 minutes
Servings 24 tamales


  • 24 dried corn husks
  • 4 cups broth
  • 1 3/4 lbs boneless chicken meat (We like a mix of breast and thighs)
  • 2 cups loosely packed cilantro
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 cup salsa verde
  • 4 cups masa harina
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 1/3 cup lard


  • Submerge and soak the corn husks in hot water until pliable, 1 hour. Let them continue to soak while working on the following steps.
  • Bring broth to a simmer in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the chicken and let simmer until cooked, 12-15 minutes. Remove from heat and separate chicken and broth, keeping both. Shred the chicken once it has cooled enough to handle.
  • Purée the cilantro and 1 1/4 cups of the reserved broth in a food processor or blender until smooth.
  • In a medium pot, cook the cilantro broth with the garlic, cumin, and salsa. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until slightly reduced, about 10 minutes. Stir in the chicken, add salt if desired, then remove from heat and let cool.
  • In a mixing bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder, chili powder, lard, and 2 2/3 cups reserved broth. Mix with hands until it feels like mashed potatoes and a marble-sized ball of dough floats in water, about 10-15 minutes.
  • Drain the husks, and pat to dry. Spread about 2 tbs of the masa dough on the husks, leaving at least 1/2 inch empty space around the edges.
  • Spoon on about 2 tbs of the meat mixture in a line down the center of the masa dough.
  • Roll the husk to surround the meat with masa, then fold in the edges. Tie the tamales closed with kitchen twine if they don't stay closed on their own.
  • Place steamer basket in the bottom of a stock pot and pour in as much water in the bottom as you can without filling past the bottom of the basket.
  • Stand the tamales in, folded side down, leaned towards the center.
  • Over medium, bring the water to a boil, then cover and reduce enough to maintain a simmer.
  • Steam the tamales until the dough is firm and pulls away from the husk easily, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. While cooking, check on the water level every 15-20 minutes. If more water is needed, boil water in a separate pot, then pour it in down the side of the stockpot.


Throw a party and make a big batch with friends, then freeze the leftovers. Tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, cooked frozen tamales can keep for up to a month. Simply steam to reheat and enjoy.