My Grandmother's Tamale Recipe, Plus the Tools That Make Them Easy to Make (2024)

Gabriela Garcia

If you grew up in a Latino household, chances are it's not the night before Christmas that gets you excited, it's the night before Christmas Eve. The reason? Tamales! For many Latinos, Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena'and is a big family day. I remember Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house, tamales on the table, and Christmas presents at midnight. My parents can remember back-in-the-day (pre-kids)going to Midnight Mass, then attending the Christmas dance, and afterward heading back home early Christmas morning and eating a breakfast full of tamales.

Tamales are as regional as road maps.

Tamales may be sweet or savory, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. Sweet tamales are filled with fruit. Savory tamales are filled with pork, chicken, turkey, fish, cheese, or any combination of the above. At my grandmother’s house, we had savory somewhat spicy pork tamales wrapped in corn husks. For years I’ve tried to copy her recipe. My grandmother does not make her tamales from any written recipe. She, like most experienced cooks, goes by the touch, feel, and taste as she prepares her culinary masterpiece.

The following is a close version of my grandmother’s recipe for pork tamales. It is time-consuming but well worth it!


Makes approximately 5 dozen tamales


The day before

Prepare the Chili Ancho

Put the ancho pods in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 30 minutes or more until soft, then remove the stems and seeds and coarsely chop. Reserve the soaking liquid.

Let cool and carefully transfer the mixture to a food processor and process adding reserved soaking liquid as needed until smooth. Pour blended mixture through a fine mesh sieve and transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Prepare the Husks

Fill a stock pot with warm water and corn husks and soak overnight. Just before you’re ready to make your tamales, rinse husks and dry well and, if too wide, cut in half. Set aside.

Prepare the Pork

Cut pork shoulder into small (1-2 inch) pieces. Add garlic, pork pieces and spices to a large stock pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook over low heat for about 3 hours or until meat is tender. Remove meat and shred. Let meat cool and refrigerate overnight. Reserve pork broth.

The day of

Prepare the Masa

Beat 1 lb. lard with mixer or by hand until light. Add salt and fresh corn masa. Add in the chili mixture little by little until a dark pinkish color, and to taste. Beat with heavy duty mixer or knead like bread with a little pork broth, until dough is light. The dough is ready when a small amount floats when dropped in a glass of water.

Prepare the Pork Filling

Heat some lard in a heavy saucepan. Add a cup (or more, to your taste) of the blended ancho chili mixture to lard and simmer until sauce slightly thickens. Add some salt to taste. Now add shredded meat and both and cook for about 20 minutes. You may want to add more of the blended chili mixture to your liking.

Fill the Corn Husks

Put some of the masa in the center of the corn husk. With the back of spoon, spread the bottom 2/3 of corn husk evenly to edges. Line plenty of pork meat down center. Fold side of corn husks toward center, overlap. Now fold top (without masa) down and set aside on platter until ready to cook. Continue these steps until all masa and pork filling is used up.

Steam Tamales

Bring 3-4 cups of reserved pork broth to boil in a steamer. Place tamales with folded side down in steamer standing upright. Cover tamales with moist corn husks and a clean moist dish towel. Put lid on steamer and steam for 1 ½ hours or until husk can be easily peeled from the dough. Add more broth as needed to continue steaming being careful not to pour broth on tamales.

Tools for easier tamales:

Recipe courtesy of: Consuelo Najera

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My Grandmother's Tamale Recipe, Plus the Tools That Make Them Easy to Make (2024)


What makes tamales better? ›

14 Tips You Need To Make The Best Tamales
  1. Dry your own corn husks for tamales. ...
  2. Roast your veggies before adding them to the tamales. ...
  3. Always pre-cook your meat for tamales. ...
  4. Add the cooking liquid back to your tamales to keep them moist. ...
  5. Soak your corn husks well before assembling. ...
  6. Season your masa.
Dec 5, 2023

What does baking soda do in tamales? ›

Water or broth moistens the masa harina and helps create the right dough texture. Salt is a natural flavor enhancer and boosts the corn flavor of the tamale dough. Baking powder is used in some tamale dough as a leavening agent, which helps the dough rise a bit when baking and gives it a light texture.

How long do you need to soak corn husks for tamales? ›

How long do you soak corn husks when making tamales? Corn husks can't be used right out of the bag. They need to be soaked in hot water for at least 1 hour prior to tamale making so they don't crack when you fold them.

What is the best way to prepare corn husks for tamales? ›

To use dried corn husks, they need to be soaked for about 10 minutes in warm water to make them pliable, thus preventing tears or breaks and making them more flexible for folding around the masa. I usually start soaking them as I begin to make my tamales, and they are ready by the time I am ready to form my tamales.

Can I use parchment paper instead of corn husks for tamales? ›

A: Yes, you can steam tamales made with parchment paper instead of corn husks, but make sure to face the opening up and use a large piece of paper.

What is a common mistake when making tamales? ›

One of the biggest mistakes is not mixing the masa dough long enough; this causes the tamales to fall apart. Mix the masa dough, with an ELECTRIC MIXER, until a small amount (1 tsp) floats in a cup of water. (2.) Position your corn husks with wide end toward you.

What is the best fat for tamales? ›

For best results you want to make the masa right when you plan to make and cook your tamales so the dough doesn't dry out, though if necessary you can form them one day and cook them the next. Lard makes tastier and fluffier tamales than other fats do.

What cheese is best for tamales? ›

Homemade tamales are stuffed with spicy tomatillo sauce, poblano chiles, and cheese — delicious! In Mexico, Chihuahua or Oaxaca cheese is used, but those cheeses are hard to find here, so you can substitute with Monterey Jack.

How much lard for 4 lbs of masa? ›

TAMALES RECIPE INGREDIENTS: 4 lbs. masa blanca (white corn) 1 ½ lbs. shorting or lard for more flavor 1 ½ lbs.

What can you substitute for lard in tamales? ›

Vegetable shortening is a meat-free and dairy-free substitute for lard, allowing you to serve tamales to meat eaters and vegans alike. That said, there are other substitutes for lard that will work well in tamale recipes as well, like refined coconut oil, butter, and avocado oil.

What does baking powder do to masa? ›

Masa for tamales can be made with or without baking powder. It helps the dough rise and it gives tamales a lighter texture.

How many dozen tamales are in a pound of masa? ›

Ingredients and ratio:

Matilde uses 12 pounds of masa to make 8 dozen tamales, which means the base 5:1:5 ratio will make three dozen, give or take a few. Matilde Santa Cruz finishes making eight dozen traditional red tamales at her home in Tucson, Ariz. on Dec. 7, 2021.

Why did my tamales come out hard? ›

Tamales are usually steamed, and timing is everything. If you cook them for too long, the masa inside will be tough, and the filling will be dry. Keep the steamer over medium heat to give you more control over the cooking process, and make sure not to overcrowd the tray so that there's plenty of circulation.

What do you need to steam tamales? ›

4 Answers. Alton Brown recommends steaming them right in a normal tall pot with a steamer insert (your typical expanding/contracting one many people have on hand), directly in their husks. Basically, you put a couple inches of water in, and then a steamer insert, and the tamales (in the husks) go on top of the steamer.

Do you need corn husks for tamales? ›

Though fresh corn husks are normally used for fresh corn tamales, dried ones may be used also. Either type will impart a distinctive flavor to the tamales. The slight sweetness of the tamales in this recipe is balanced by a tart tomatillo salsa.

Do you need a steamer to make tamales? ›

That's right, you can steam tamales right inside a regular stock pot or medium pot. There are a couple of different methods you can use for this and it's a very reliable alternative for how to steam tamales without a steamer.

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