Chicken Tamales Recipe photo by Taste of Home
Total Time
Prep: 2-1/2 hours + soaking Cook: 45 min.
Chicken tamales may feel like a major cooking project, but they deliver major returns. We use homemade chicken stock to infuse the tamale dough with savory flavor, and the chili-spiced chicken filling has the perfect level of spice.

Updated: May 23, 2024

Tamales are a time-honored food that anyone can learn to make. Though this recipe for chicken tamales takes some time to prep and assemble, the steps are fairly straightforward. It also promises a big payoff: Your freezer will be full of steamed corn bundles filled with chili-spiced chicken. They can be eaten on their own or paired with Mexican-inspired side dishes like rice and beans.

What are tamales?

Tamales are corn husk-wrapped bundles filled with corn dough (called masa) and a savory filling. The filling can be meaty or vegetarian, and usually includes a bold sauce made with red or green chile peppers. While we usually say “tamale” in English, the singular form of the dish’s name is actually tamal in Spanish—though they’re so delicious, you’ll probably never need to ask for just one!

Tamales are most commonly associated with Mexican cuisine, though you can find them all over Latin America. Some versions are wrapped in corn husks (like this chicken tamale recipe), while others use banana leaves. The fillings can vary, too. Beef, pork or chicken are typical for meaty tamales. Vegetarian tamales can be made with green chile, cheese, black beans, or fresh vegetables like corn or mushrooms.

How to Make Tamales

Tamales are time-consuming to make, but the steps are fairly straightforward. First, soak the corn husks in water to make them pliable. Then, prepare a flavorful filling with your favorite meat, vegetables and sauce. Finally, whip masa with lard and chicken stock to make the dough. You’ll know it’s ready to use when it floats in a cup of cold water (a tell-tale sign that the tamales will be light instead of dense).

Assembling the tamales is the most time-consuming part, so ask for help. In some cultures, it’s traditional for friends and family to come together for a tamalada party (tamale-making party). It’s easier to fill the tamales assembly line-style when more hands are involved!

Filling the tamales is done in four easy steps:

  • Spread: Spread the dough to within 1/2 inch of the corn husk’s edges.
  • Fill: Add the chicken mixture and olives to the center of the dough.
  • Fold: Fold the long sides of the husk over the filling, ensuring they overlap slightly. Then, fold the narrow end of the husk up to keep the filling in place.
  • Tie: Some people don’t tie tamales, but we like to secure them in place with a strip of husk.

How to Cook Tamales

Once assembled, it’s time to cook the tamales. You don’t need any special equipment or cooking tools; you can make a tamale steamer out of any large steamer basket and a stockpot with a lid. Just make sure the tamales stand upright in the steamer, leaning them against each other if needed. Otherwise, the dough can spill out before it sets. You’ll know the tamales are finished when the dough peels away from the husk.

Chicken Tamales Ingredients

  • Homemade chicken stock: The key to making the best tamales is all in the stock. It adds flavor and keeps the dough moist. We cook a whole chicken with onion and garlic to create a flavorful chicken stock for the dough.
  • Chicken filling: We turn shredded chicken into a thick, savory filling by cooking it with canola oil, flour, chili powder, salt, garlic and pepper.
  • Tamale dough: This savory corn dough is a combination of shortening, chicken stock and masa harina, a flour made from dried nixtamalized corn. Whipping the shortening makes the dough airy and light. If desired, you can substitute lard for shortening to give the tamales a meatier flavor.
  • Olives: There’s some debate about whether olives belong in tamales. Feel free to leave them out.
  • Dried corn husks: You should be able to find the husks (and the masa harina) in the international foods aisle at the grocery store.

Directions

Step 1: Soak the corn husks

Soak the corn husksTMB Studio

Cover the corn husks with cold water, and soak them until they’ve softened, at least two hours.

Editor’s Tip: Soaking the corn husks makes them pliable and easy to work with. There’s no shortcut for this step, so make sure you plan ahead.

Step 2: Cook the chicken

Place the chicken, onion, salt and garlic in a 6-quart stockpot. Pour in 3 quarts of water and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the chicken is tender, 45 to 60 minutes.

Step 3: Shred the chicken

Once cooked, remove the chicken from the broth. Once it’s cool enough to handle, remove the bones and skin and discard them. Shred the chicken.

Step 4: Strain the stock

Strain the cooking juices, and skim off the fat. Reserve 6 cups of stock for the dough and chicken filling.

Step 5: Make the dough

Make the doughTMB Studio

To make the dough, beat the shortening until it’s light and fluffy, about one minute. Beat in small amounts of masa harina alternately with small amounts of reserved stock, using no more than 2 cups of the stock.

Drop a small amount of the dough into a cup of cold water. The dough should float. If not, continue beating, rechecking every one to two minutes.

Step 6: Make the filling

To make the filling, heat the oil in a Dutch oven then stir in the flour until blended. Cook and stir this roux over medium heat until lightly browned, seven to nine minutes. Stir in the seasonings, chicken and remaining stock, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until the filling has thickened, about 45 minutes.

Step 7: Prepare the husk strips

Drain the corn husks and pat them dry. Tear four of the husks to make 20 strips for tying the tamales.

Test Kitchen Tip: To prevent the husks from drying out, cover them with a damp towel until you’re ready to use them.

Step 8: Assemble the tamales

How to make tamales

On the wide end of each remaining husk, spread 3 tablespoons of the dough to within 1/2 inch of the side edges. Top each with 2 tablespoons of chicken filling and 2 teaspoons of olives.

Fold the long sides of the husk over the filling, overlapping slightly. Fold over the narrow end of the husk. Tie the folded husk with one of the prepared husk strips to secure it.

Step 9: Cook the tamales

Cook the tamales in a steamerTMB Studio

Place a large steamer basket in a stockpot over water, and place the tamales upright in the steamer. Bring the water to a boil and steam the tamales, covered, adding hot water as needed, until the dough peels away from husk, about 45 minutes.

Test Kitchen Tip: This is a long steam, and the water level will drop as the water boils. Be sure to check the level frequently, and don’t let the pot boil dry.

Chicken Tamales served on a green platterTMB Studio

Recipe Variations

  • Use another type of chicken: You can use any bone-in chicken pieces to make the stock. Or, use store-bought chicken broth and the shredded chicken from chicken breasts or thighs.
  • Make beef, pork or vegetarian tamales: Use this recipe as the template for any type of tamale. Fill the husks with green chiles and cheese for vegetarian tamales. For beef-filled tamales, try using the brisket from this brisket and bean burritos recipe. Or use green chile shredded pork to make pork tamales.
  • Skip the husks: For tamale flavor without the work, try a chicken tamale bake or slow-cooker tamale pie.

Can you make tamales ahead of time?

Tamales are time-consuming, so we often prepare them one day and steam them the next. Prepare and fill the tamales as directed. Store them standing up in a container, covered with a lid or storage wrap to keep them from drying out. Refrigerate them overnight, and steam them as directed the next day.

How to Store Tamales

Store leftover tamales in their husks to keep the filling moist. Keep them in the refrigerator for up to four days. Here’s everything you need to know about how to reheat tamales in a steamer, oven, Instant Pot or microwave.

Can you freeze chicken tamales?

You can freeze tamales before or after cooking them. Either way, keep the tamales in their husks. Freeze them in a freezer-safe bag for up to three months. Don’t pack them too tightly, and avoid squeezing uncooked tamales (which can make the filling ooze out).

When you’re ready to enjoy them, thaw frozen tamales in the refrigerator overnight. Reheat cooked tamales or steam uncooked tamales as directed above.

Chicken Tamales Tips

Chicken Tamales served on a platterTMB Studio

Why are tamales 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 make the prep more enjoyable). So, many families reserve them for special occasions. Think of tamales like Christmas cookies: You could make them any day, but reserving these time-intensive treats for the holidays makes them all the more special. Plus, you get to unwrap them like presents before digging in.

How do you eat tamales?

For starters, don’t eat the husk! This is a common mistake for tamale newbies. Instead, unwrap the husk and transfer the steamed corn to a plate. Eat it with a fork or as a handheld treat! If desired, top the tamales with homemade salsa, cotija cheese and pickled onions.

Watch how to Make Chicken Tamales

Chicken Tamales

Prep Time 45 min
Yield 20 tamales

Ingredients

  • 24 dried corn husks
  • 1 broiler/fryer chicken (3 to 4 pounds), cut up
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 3 quarts water
  • DOUGH:
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 3 cups masa harina
  • FILLING:
  • 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
  • Hot water

Directions

  1. Cover corn husks with cold water; soak until softened, at least 2 hours.
  2. Place chicken, onion, salt and garlic in a 6-qt. stockpot. Pour in 3 qt. water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, until chicken is tender, 45-60 minutes. Remove chicken from broth. When cool enough to handle, remove bones and skin; discard. Shred chicken. Strain cooking juices; skim off fat. Reserve 6 cups stock.
  3. For dough, beat shortening until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in small amounts of masa harina alternately with small amounts of reserved stock, using no more than 2 cups stock. Drop a small amount of dough into a cup of cold water; dough should float. If not, continue beating, rechecking every 1-2 minutes.
  4. For filling, heat oil in a Dutch oven; stir in flour until blended. Cook and stir over medium heat until lightly browned, 7-9 minutes. Stir in seasonings, chicken and remaining stock; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 45 minutes.
  5. Drain corn husks and pat dry; tear 4 husks to make 20 strips for tying tamales. (To prevent husks from drying out, cover with a damp towel until ready to use.) On wide end of each remaining husk, spread 3 tablespoons dough to within 1/2 in. of side edges; top each with 2 tablespoons chicken filling and 2 teaspoons olives. Fold long sides of husk over filling, overlapping slightly. Fold over narrow end of husk; tie with a strip of husk to secure.
  6. Place a large steamer basket in the stockpot over water; place tamales upright in steamer. Bring to a boil; steam, covered, adding hot water as needed, until dough peels away from husk, about 45 minutes.

Nutrition Facts

2 tamales: 564 calories, 35g fat (7g saturated fat), 44mg cholesterol, 835mg sodium, 43g carbohydrate (2g sugars, 7g fiber), 20g protein.

I love making these homemade tamales. They take a little time to make but are so worth the effort. I usually make them for Christmas, but my family wants them more often, so I freeze a big batch. —Cindy Pruitt, Grove, Oklahoma
Recipe Creator