These Mexican Tamales are delicious with fluffy masa dough filled with savory shredded pork in chili Colorado sauce and wrapped in corn husks.
Tamales is a traditional dish served during Christmas and New Year in Mexican gatherings.
This homemade Mexican Tamales recipe is tasty with more pork filling than masa dough.
You won’t be dissappointed, pretty much similar to authentic tamales.
I have been let down many times when ordering this dish. I get this big tamales with too much masa dough that is tasteless and with very little filling.
If I want only two pieces it was easier to buy or have it in a restaurant but after learning how to make tamales, I’ve made it many times than having it in a restaurant.
I have tweaked it to my liking with different fillings and I get more for my money. It freezes well and I can have it any time craving strikes.
The best Mexican tamales I’ve ever had was decades ago from a co-worker whose parents owned a corn field in Mexico. The corn was freshly grinded that I can smell the sweet aroma of the corn and the masa was light and fluffy. It was so delicious. Since then I became picky when having this dish.
In fact, she got me a 5 pound pre-made masa from a tortilleria and I wanted to stuff it with our pork menudo. Did I make it? Ah, no and it stayed in my freezer for a while. I was too busy at work and lazy to be cooking on the weekend. It took me decades before experimenting.
What are Tamales
Mexican Tamales is a traditional dish made with meat, beans, chilis or cheese enclosed in corn masa dough or masa harina and wrapped in corn husk. Banana leaves are also used to wrap tamales.
A big steamer, crock pot or instant pot is used to cook these delicious tamales.
Once it is cool, the corn husk is unwrapped and used as a plate or discarded.
Tamales is serve as an appetizer or a meal on its own. Have it with delicious sauce like pico de gallo, guacamole or green and red salsa verde.
It is traditionally served during Christmas and New Years. Due to its popularity, it is easy to find it at restaurants or groceries through out the year.
Cooking tips and step by step to make tamales
Making tamales in one day is quite tedious but spreading the process for 2 days is easier and manageable.
It is takes a while to make it but not complicated. Being organize and managing your time is key.
(1) Cooking Mexican Tamales involves 4 steps:
a. Making the pork filling or other filling
b. Making the Chili Colorado sauce
c. Soaking the corn husk (hoja or oja in Spanish)
d. Making the masa dough or masa harina
(2) Some people find it easier to cook tamales all day, in my case I prefer to spread it over 2 days.
I cook the pork filling, chili Colorado sauce a day ahead and soak the corn husks the night before.
The following day, I make the masa dough and tamales assembly.
(3) Pork Filling - I prefer to make the pork filling a day in advance. It takes about 1 ½ to 2 hours to tenderize pork butt on stove top. To cut down the cooking time, a pressure cooker or instant pot is nice to have.
Ways to cook the pork:
a. Stove top takes about 2 hours.
b. Crock pot about 8 hours or overnight.
c. Pressure cooker or instant pot about an hour.
Spices, herbs and enough water to cover pork are added to the pot if cooking on stove or crock pot but if using the instant pot 3 - 4 cups of water is enough, making sure you don’t go over the maximum level.
In fact, 1 cup of water is enough to tenderize the pork in an instant pot but I will need more than 2 cups of pork broth.
I love to add poblano peppers to this mixture for some kick. This is optional but it adds flavor plus I grow it in my garden.
You can trim the pork fat before or after cooking. It adds lots of flavor to the pork broth.
After cooking, pork should be fork tender and easy to pull apart like pulled pork. When cool, remove the pork and strain the broth. Reserve both solids (spice and herbs) and pork broth. Refrigerate.
On the next day, a layer of harden fat is formed on top of broth. Depending on your preference, you can remove it or leave it.
Warm and cool pork broth before using.
(4) Make Chili Colorado Sauce or Red Chili Sauce – I get this done on the same day I cook the pork filling.
It is simmered for about 10 minutes then left in the covered pot for 30 minutes. It is pureed with the reserved ingredients used in boiling the pork.
Some people discard these ingredients used in boiling the pork and uses a new batch of the same ingredients to make the Chili Colorado. Why not use it when it has all the good flavor from the pork.
Pork and the pureed Chili Colorado (red chili sauce) is simmered together until blended. Once it is cool, you can use it right away to make tamales. In my case, it is refrigerated and used the following day. It can stay in the fridge for up to 3 - 4 days.
(5) Corn Husks – Buy corn husks (oja or hoya in Spanish) that are bigger in size about 9 to 10 inches long and 7 to 9 inches wide. I find it easier to work with bigger husks then I trim the lower sides if it’s too wide.
They are sold in Mexican stores or in your local grocers.
Also, some corn husks has a distinct vinegary smell. Stay away from them.
Before soaking, you can wash it individually, if you like.
Soak the corn husks overnight in hot water or do it on the same day before making the tamales for about 1 ½ to 2 hours to make it pliable.
Make sure the corn husks is fully submerged in hot water and secured with something heavy.
Wipe it dry before using.
Note: Make sure to use the smooth side of corn husk when spreading the masa dough.
(5) Make the masa dough – If you know a Mexican store or tortilleria that sells freshly made masa you can use that and add some seasoning to it.
Otherwise, use Maseca Masa Harina which you can easily find in your local grocers.
I learned to make masa dough using my hands. It gave me the knowledge how the dough should feel, its texture and consistency.
Now, I make it in my stand mixer which is easier, but I think I had the advantage of learning it by hand first.
You start by mixing ½ of the pork broth, ½ of the melted lard and the rest of the ingredients and dough feels lumpy at this point.
Once blended, you will alternate adding a little bit of pork broth and lard until it has the consistency of peanut butter or hummus. It should be creamy and fluffy, not runny nor too thick.
Note: Also, I have noticed when I use a fattier meat I end up not using all the lard because the pork broth has some fat in it.
To test if masa dough is ready, get a cup of cold water and take ½ teaspoon of masa and drop it in the water.
If masa floats, then it is ready. If masa sinks at the bottom, add a little more lard to the masa dough and mix well. Repeat the water test until masa floats.
Authentic Mexican Tamales or Tamal uses lard, but you can also use shortening or oil. FYI, lard has no trans fat unlike shortening.
Some people use water instead of pork broth which is fine but I prefer pork broth as it is much tastier. I prefer the masa to have flavor than bland.
Also, if you like some color and more flavor in your dough add a little bit of chili Colorado sauce. This is optional but I suggest you do.
Season the masa dough otherwise it is bland.
(6) Assemble the Tamales – Here’s the fun part, grab some family members and friends to help you. If it’s only you, hopefully you are not making a lot.
Depending on the amount, it can be a lengthy process and extra hands will be a great help.
Tamalada or tamal-making party is a traditional Mexican event where a group of people gather to help assemble the tamales. Family and friends form an assembly line which can make it quicker.
Make sure to have some appetizers and drinks like Spicy Margarita for a fun tamalada party.
If this is your first time to make tamales, you have to learn how to spread the masa dough on the corn husk. Be patient and you will learn it after a few tries.
I struggled with this process when I was learning but eventually got the hang of it. Sometimes, I still do if I haven’t made it in a while.
It is easier to use a tamales masa spreader but any big spoon, spatula or cake scraper will do.
Also, it is easier to use an ice cream scoop to get the dough and add a bit more to fill a wider corn husk.
Spread the masa dough thin and evenly about 4 to 5 inches from the widest area. You can add more masa dough if you like it thicker.
Take about 2 ½ to 3 tablespoons or more of pork filling and spread it at the center.
Fold the left side of corn husk over the pork filling then fold the right. Make the final fold where the masa dough ends and secure the fold by pressing it a bit.
Tie the tamales in the middle with a strip of the corn husk or not.
(7) Steam the Tamales – Use a steamer or instant pot if you own one otherwise a big pot and safe proof bowl will work as well.
Place tamales standing up in the pot with opening on top then add a stack of corn husks over it before closing the lid. This will prevent water from penetrating the tamales.
If you don’t have enough tamales to fill the steamer or instant pot, add corn husks or foil at the center of steamer or pot.
Make sure water doesn’t touch the bottom of tamales, if it does add a stack of corn husk.
For stove top cooking, steam for 1 ½ hours then leave it in the pot for 30 minutes.
If using an instant pot, steam for 25 minutes then wait for natural pressure release.
Remove from pot and let it cool. If you unwrap while hot, the masa dough can fall apart.
When cool, you can easily unwrap the tamales with masa pulling away from the corn husks. You can discard the corn husk or use it as your plate.
Frequently Asked Questions
What flour to use to make tamales?
I use Maseca Instant Corn Masa Flour and it is available in your local grocer. I got this at Walmart. Bob’s Red Mill has organic masa harina too.
Some Mexican stores sell pre-made masa dough which you can use as well.
What is the texture of pork filling for tamales?
Pork should be fork tender. By using to 2 forks, you should easily pull pork apart like pulled pork. If not, you need to simmer pork longer.
What is the consistency of tamales masa dough?
The tamales dough should be creamy, light and fluffy like peanut butter or hummus, not runny nor too thick.
How do i know when tamales dough is ready to use?
Use the water test. Take ½ teaspoon of tamales masa dough and drop it in a cup of cold water.
If it floats, it is ready to use. If it sinks at the bottom, add a little more lard then repeat the test again until it floats.
Why is tamales masa dough dry?
It needs more pork broth or water and lard. Add a little bit at a time.
Why is tamales masa dough runny?
You added too much pork broth or water and lard. To get the consistency similar to peanut butter, add a small amount of masa harina then mix. Repeat the process until desired consistency is reached.
Can I freeze tamales?
Yes, put it in an air tight container or food saver and freeze up to 3 months.
How long can I keep tamales in the refrigerator?
You can store tamales in the fridge up to 5 days in an air tight container.
What sauce to serve with tamales?
Pico de Gallo, Guacamole, Red and Green Salsa Verde.
How to reheat tamales?
Steam for 10 minutes. Some people will tell you not to microwave because it will ruin the dough. I’ve had success putting it in the microwave.
Wet a paper towel (not damp but wet) and wrap the tamales. Depending on the thickness of tamales, start at 15 to 20 seconds then continue in increments of 5 to 10 seconds until warm.
Don’t abruptly warm for 1 minute especially if you have a high powered microwave. Do it in increments.
Try other delicious Mexican Food
How to Make Mexican Tamales
- 3 ½ pounds pork shoulder or butt shredded
- 1 large red onion chopped
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 ¼ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ cup fresh oregano leaves or 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 3 big poblano pepper optional (Note: seeded if you don’t like it hot)
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups water
Chili Colorado Sauce (Red Chili Sauce)
- 8 pieces dried New Mexico Hot Peppers or Ancho chili
- 1 ½ to 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 4 cups Maseca Masa Harina for tamales
- 3 ½ - 4 cups pork broth
- 1 ½ cups lard melted
- ½ cup chili Colorado sauce
- ½ -1 teaspoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 16 Corn Husks
- Soak corn husks overnight in hot water or do it on the same day before making the tamales for about 1 ½ to 2 hours to make it pliable. Wipe and dry with a paper towel before using.
- If lower sides of corn husk is too wide, trim both lower sides. I usually trim the curling part.
Make Pork Filling
- Trim some of the pork fat. Leave some as it add flavor and trim it later.
- Place pork in instant pot with 4 cups of water, red onion, garlic, bay leaves, chili powder, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, salt and ground black pepper. You can also add poblano pepper to add some kick. Remove seeds if you don't like it hot.
- Cover instant pot with lid and turn knob to “SEALING”.
- Set PRESSURE COOK to HIGH for 65 minutes.
- When done, wait of natural pressure release (NPR).
- Turn knob to “VENTING”.
- Let it cool then remove pork. Pork should be fork tender. Use 2 forks and pull apart or shred like pulled pork. Set aside.
- Strain pork broth from other ingredients. Reserved ingredients will be used with pureed Chili Colorado. Set aside.
Make Chili Colorado Sauce (red chili sauce)
- Cut dried hot peppers in half, remove seeds and veins and cut into smaller pieces (2 in X 2 in).
- Place in a small pot with 2 cups water. Simmer for 10 minutes to hydrate peppers.
- Turn off heat with lid on for about 30 minutes.
- Place hot peppers and 1 cup liquid from hot peppers and reserved ingredients from boiling pork. Puree. Consistency is like tomato sauce. Note: Don't discard the remaining liquid from the hot peppers, you might need more than 1 cup.
- Strain to remove solids and skin from hot peppers.
- Note: Reserve ½ cup of sauce to use in the masa dough.
Combine Chili Colorado Sauce and Pulled Pork
- In a hot skillet with oil over medium heat, pour Chili Colorado sauce (red chili sauce) about 1 ½ cups and bring to a simmer. Add pulled pork until well combined.
- Lower heat to medium-low until sauce is reduced.
- Turn off heat. Set aside to cool.
Make Masa Dough or Masa Harina
- Melt lard in a small pot over medium heat. Do this ½ an hour to an hour before making the masa dough and let it cool.
- In a stand mixer, add the Maseca masa harina (flour).
- Add cumin, baking powder and salt. Beat at low (#1 Kitchen Aid) to combine ingredients.
- Pour ½ of pork broth, ½ of lard and Chili Colorado sauce.
- Beat at low (#2 Kitchen Aid) until well combined. At this point masa dough is lumpy.
- Alternately add a little bit of the remaining pork broth and lard. Beat at low (#3 Kitchen Aid). If dough is still dry, add more pork broth. Note: If you use a fattier meat, pork broth will be fattier too and you might not need all the lard.
- Masa dough should have the consistency of creamy peanut butter or hummus, not runny nor too thick.
- To test if dough is ready, take a cup of cold water and ½ teaspoon of masa dough. If it floats to the top, dough is ready. If it sinks to the bottom, add more lard. Repeat this process until dough floats to the top.
- Place masa dough in the fridge for ½ hour to an hour to thicken. It is easier to work with thicken dough.
- Note: In case, you need more pork broth, water will work.
- Take corn husk with smooth side on top and widest part facing you. You can do it sideways too whichever is easier for you.
- Use an ice cream scoop and take a scoop full of masa dough. Spread it with a masa spreader or a big spoon, thinly and evenly. You might need more masa to cover about 4 to 5 inches height and however wide is the corn husk.
- Apply 2 ½ to 3 tablespoons pork filling. Flip the left corn husk over the pork filling then the right.
- Fold the bottom part of corn husk where the masa dough ends. Lightly press the fold with your fingers.
- If you like, you can tie it with a strip of corn husk but not necessary.
Steam the Tamales
- Place tamales next to each other standing up in the steamer or instant pot. Cover top with a stack of corn husks.
- If you don’t have enough tamales to fill the steamer or instant pot, add corn husks or foil at the center of steamer or pot to easily prop them up.
- Make sure water doesn’t touch the bottom of tamales, if it does, add a stack of corn husk in the bottom.
- Stove Top – Add the water to the lower part of steamer and bring to a boil then lower heat to simmer. Steam for 1 ½ hours then leave it in the pot for 30 minutes.
- Instant Pot – Set PRESSURE COOK on HIGH and SET TIME for 25 minutes. Wait for Natural Pressure Release then remove tamales.
- Set it aside at room temperature and when cool to touch unwrap tamales, corn husks should easily pull away from the masa dough. Discard or use the corn husk as your plate.
- Serve it with Pico de Gallo, Guacamole, Red and Green Salsa Verde. Enjoy!
- See my cooking tips and frequently ask questions in the blog.
- Store in an airtight container and refrigerate up to 5 days and freeze up to 3 months.
- If you don't have a steamer or an instant pot, you need a pot big enough for all the tamales. Place a heat resistant big bowl upside down at the center of pot and insert crumpled foil on the sides of pot so you can stand all your tamales in the pot.
- When using an instant pot, if the inner pot is not fully pack the pressure can move the tamales. You can insert a stack of corn husks or crumpled foil to secure the tamales standing up.