How to Make Tamales
This traditional Mexican dish may take time to prepare, but tamales are actually easy enough for most cooks. Our Test Kitchen teaches you how to make tamales, with step-by-step images to guide you.
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Maybe you’ve spotted them at your local Mexican grocery store or maybe Abuela invites you over for a tamalada each year around the holidays—regardless of your connection, tamales are a time-honored (and tasty!) dish that everyone should try.
Thinking about making homemade tamales? They’re a major cooking project that promises a big payoff. Though they take a bit of time to prep and assemble, the steps are straightforward enough. You’ve got this!
What Are Tamales?
Tamales are corn husk-wrapped bundles filled with a corn-based dough called masa and a tasty filling. They’re most commonly associated with Mexican cuisine, though you can find tamales all over Latin America. Fillings vary from place to place, but the most common include pork, chicken, beef and vegetables—all swimming in chile, a sauce that’s made using garlic, cumin and dried chili peppers.
It’s traditional for friends and family to come together for a tamalada (tamale-making party), to help assemble.
Did you know? The singular version of tamales is called a tamal—though, they’re so delicious, you’ll probably never need to ask for just one.
Why Are Tamales So Popular at Christmas?
While tamales aren’t strictly a Christmas food, they’re often prepared around the holidays. They require a lot of work (hence the tamale-making parties to help the prep go quickly and joyously), so many families reserve them for special occasions.
Think of tamales sort of like turkey or Christmas cookies: Sure, you could have them any day, but making these time-intensive treats just a few times a year makes them all the more special.
How Do You Eat Tamales?
Don’t eat the husk! This is a common mistake for tamal newbies. Simply unwrap, scoop out with a fork and enjoy. A spoonful of salsa on top is optional.
Tamales can be filled so many ways—vegetables, pork, beef. One of our Test Kitchen’s favorite recipes, though, is for tender chicken tamales. Here’s what you need to make them:
- 24 dried corn husks
- 1 broiler/fryer chicken (3 to 4 pounds), cut up
- 3 quarts water
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 cup shortening
- 3 cups masa harina
- 6 tablespoons canola oil
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 cans (2-1/4 ounces each) sliced ripe olives, drained
Step 1: Soak the corn husks
Rinse the corn husks to remove any debris, then place into a large bowl and cover them with cold water. Let them soak for at least two hours.
Test Kitchen Tip: There’s no shortcut for this step, so make sure you start here.
Step 2: Cook the chicken
Start this step about an hour after you’ve set out the husks to soak.
In a large stockpot (at least 6 quarts), combine chicken, water, onion, salt and garlic. Bring to a boil, and then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook at a low simmer, covered, until the chicken is tender, 45-60 minutes.
Test Kitchen Tip: Check the chicken for doneness by piercing the meat; when the meat is cooked, its juices will run clear.
Step 3: Prep the chicken and broth
Remove the chicken from the broth. Let it rest on a plate or cutting board until it’s cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, pour the broth into a bowl through a strainer to remove the vegetables. Skim the fat from the top of the broth with a big spoon.
When the chicken is cool, remove the meat from the bone and shred it with two forks.
Step 4: Make the dough
In a large bowl, beat the shortening until it’s light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Measure out two cups of the broth, and have the masa harina ready. Gradually beat in the masa, adding small amounts at a time and alternating with the broth. Beat well until the dough is uniform and light.
Test Kitchen Tip: For a foolproof dough, do the float test. Drop a small amount of dough into a cup of cold water. The dough should float to the top. If it doesn’t, continue beating until it’s light enough to float.
Step 5: Cook a tasty filling
Back to the stovetop! In a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Stir in the flour until blended. Cook and stir until the flour is lightly browned, seven to nine minutes. (This will remove the raw flour taste.) Stir in the seasonings, shredded chicken and four cups of the reserved broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Simmering allows the mixture to thicken; this should take about 45 minutes.
Step 6: Assemble the tamales
Drain the corn husks and pat dry, then fill them assembly line-style:
- On the wide end of the husk, spread 3 tablespoons dough to within 1/2 inch of the edges
- Top each with 2 tablespoons chicken mixture and 2 teaspoons olives
- Fold the long sides of the husk over the filling. Make sure they overlap slightly for a secure closure
- Fold the narrow end of husk over
- Tie with a strip of husk to secure
- Repeat until all of the husks are filled and secured
Test Kitchen Tip: Uncooked tamales can be frozen for later, just be sure to pack them tightly in freezer bags before freezing. To serve, thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and then steam for about 45 minutes (see instructions below).
Step 7: Steam
Place a large steamer basket in a 6-quart stockpot over 1 inch of water. Place the tamales upright in the steamer. Bring the water to a boil. Let them steam, covered, until the dough peels away from the husk, about 45 minutes.
Test Kitchen Tip: This is a long steam, and the water level will drop as the water boils off. Be sure to check on the level frequently, and add more water as needed. You don’t want the pot to boil dry; this can damage the pot and makes for sad tamales.
Steps 8 and 9: Brag about your tamales; devour your tamales
Dig in and enjoy your hard work! Serve this dish along with these Mexican desserts.
Cooked tamales can be frozen, too. Let them cool, then freeze them in their husks. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and steam for about 15 minutes to heat them back up before eating.