How to Make Tamales

Homemade tamales take time to prepare, but they're actually easy enough for most cooks. Our Test Kitchen teaches you how it's done, with step-by-step images to guide you.

By Kelsey Mueller, Senior Digital Editor and Peggy Woodward, Food Editor

Tamales stacked on top one another on a a blue plate

Some days you feel like diving into a major cooking project, especially when it promises a big payoff. Homemade tamales, we promise, are totally worth the effort. Though they take a bit of time to prep and assemble, the steps are straightforward enough. You've got this!

How to Make Tamales

You'll need:

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

Put the corn husks 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.

Corn husks submerged in a glass bowl filled with water

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.

Pinched off section of dough floating in a cup of water

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, 7-9 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 in. 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.

Filling placed in dough inside corn husk and topped with black olives The two ends of the dough being carefully brought together to seal in the filling

The ends of the tamale being folded over and tucked underneath Folded over ends being secured by tying a length of husk over it

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 in. 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 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.

Tamales sitting upright in a stockpot ready to be steamed

Steps 8 and 9: Brag about your tamales; devour your tamales

See the recipe (to save or print).

Tamales stacked on top one another on a a blue plate

Do you have leftover tamales?

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.

Customize 'em

While we adore our classic chicken filling, we also love the flexibility of tamales. Use leftover shredded meat, like beef or pork, for shortcut tamales. Or get creative and use sweet fruit fillings for dessert tamales.

Crave Mexican flavors with a bit more ease? Check out some dinners you can make in 30 minutes or less.