Introduction: Tamales ~ Holiday Tradition of the Southwest!

Picture of Tamales ~ Holiday Tradition of the Southwest!
If you live in the Southwest, then you have probably seen at least one Holiday meal, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or any other day of celebration, with tamales being served.  In fact, here in the Southwest, Tamales are a tradition during the holidtaditional holiday fare. But they are not the easiest, or quickest, meal to make. So  what better time to "tackle" Tamale making than when you have plenty of family around to help in the preparations!
Get the family gathered around and make you an "assembly line" and get to work! You won't regret the outcome!

This recipe makes about 6 dozen tamales.


This will actually look like 3 instructables, but they all add up to one great TAMALE!  So let's get cooking!

STEP 1 will be making the meat - this is made ahead of time, and I like to put it in the slow cooker to cook overnight.  This way the meat is tender and shreds apart easily.

STEP 2 will be making the masa (that dough like surrounding for the meat).

STEP 3 will be assembling the tamales - the part of tamale making where it helps to have lots of helpers to roll them up

STEP 4 will be cooking the tamales, and or course enjoying your reward! 

Step 1: Gather Up the Ingredients (but Don't Be in a Rush, Patience Makes the Best Tamales)

Picture of Gather Up the Ingredients (but Don't Be in a Rush, Patience Makes the Best Tamales)
The classic way of making tamales is to roast a pig head and scrape the meat off the skull.  Because I don't like the thought of opening my oven to see a big pig head staring back at me, I use an old recipe for carne asado (roasted meat in a chile sauce). 

You will need:

2 to 3 Tbs. lard or vegetable oil
3- to 3½-lb. boneless pork shoulder or Boston butt, cut into 3-inch chunks and trimmed
1 medium white onion, roughly chopped
6 medium cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
4 dried bay leaves, toasted 
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, or mild oregano, or 1 Tbs. dried Mexican oregano
about 20 dried red chile stemmed and seeded:  guajillo, New Mexico Big Jim and
Ancho all work well
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Black peppercorns

Soak the red chiles in hot water until they are soft.  Add these to a blender and blend until smooth.  Stir in the garlic, onion, thyme, marjoram, oregano, salt and pepper. 
In a large enough bowl so the meat can be covered, add the cubed pork and smother with the chile mix so that it can marinate for a minimum of 3 hours.

After marinating for a sufficient amount of time, add the meat and the chile mixture to your slow cooker and cook on low overnight. 

Step 2: Shred the Meat....Soak the Hojas and Mix Up the Masa -you Are Getting Closer!

Picture of Shred the Meat....Soak the Hojas and Mix Up the Masa -you Are Getting Closer!
Allow the meat to cool enough to be handled without burning yourself.  In a large bown, shred the meat so it will not be too "chunky" to be the tamale filling.

Soak the hojas: 

You will need a bag of corn husks (found in the ethnic aisle of most supermarkets)

Don't try to seperate the corn husks, they will come apart easily after they have soaked.  Place them in your clean sink, or a large pot with lukewarm water and submerged them completely. 
While you are waiting for the hojas to soak is a good time to put mix your masa up.

You will need: 

3-1/2 cups tamale-grind masa harina
12 oz. (1-1/2 cups) lard (you could also use unsalted butter, vegetable shortening, or a combination, softened)
Kosher salt
2 to 2-1/2 cups pork cooking broth (or other broth as you like)

In another large bowl mix the lard  and salt into the masa harina until it has the consistency of cornmeal.   You can use a pastry cutter, or your hands (well washed of course),
Once you have reached this stage, slowly add the broth until the masa mix holds together when you clinch it in your hand. You do not want it so dry it falls apart, but you do not want a “wet” masa either, as that will make it difficult to cook the tamales thoroughly.

Step 3: Finally It Is Time to Roll Up Some Tamales!

Picture of Finally It Is Time to Roll Up Some Tamales!

The most time consuming part of tamale making is the rolling.  I have found the easiest way to get these little babies made is to set up an "assembly line". 
On a large table set out stations in a row:

The first step is to lay out a hoja flat.  If the hoja seems to small you can take two and overlap them.
The next step is to spread the masa onto the hoja, covering it up to about 1 inch on each side as in the photo.
Now you add a couple of tablespoons of the meat mixture.
Roll the entire tamale over while pressing it firmly together.  Don't roll it too tight, or all your fillings will come out the ends and you will have a mess that is almost impossible to fix.
When you have rolled the tamale all the way around, fold the bottom up towards the top to seal the bottom.  If you want you can pull small strips of corn husks off and tie it around the tamale.  I have never done this, as mine have seemed to stay together fine while cooking.

While you are rolling the tamales, go ahead and put on a large tamale pot of water to boil.  If you don't have a tamale pot (and I admit I don't), you can use any large pot and a steamer basket.  I use my pasta pot since it keeps the tamales out of the water, but is large enough to cook a couple dozen tamales at one time.  You want the tamales to steam, but not to get into the water.

Step 4: Cook Up Those Tamales!

Picture of Cook Up Those Tamales!

Place the tamales into the steamer basket with the open end facing out of the water.  Make sure you have room to cover the the pot so that the steam can cook the masa.  It takes about 30-45 minutes for the tamale masa to cook through. 
Check the tamales after about 30 minutes by unwrapping one so that you can poke a fork into the masa.  If it doesn't stick to the fork then the tamales are done.

Now all you have to do is reap your rewards!!! Bon Appetite!


Josehf Murchison (author)2016-04-07

I miss Tamales I would buy them every time I went to Texas.

Can't get Masa or Hojas where I live.

clopez28 (author)2012-12-17

like this recipe and the picture!!!

mrlunna13 (author)2011-08-19

Even tho I am late. I want to say: Gracias por poner the receipy para tamales.
Tengo mas de 10 years que no como tamales, since my mom passed away.
Muchas Gracias!
Mr. Lunna XIII

rosamariavela (author)2010-10-06

My mom's tamales are the best no one can beat her yet!!! Her tamales have a red tint to them when you open them and they aren't dry like the ones I have seen or that other people make!!! Let's just say for the holidays people call her so she can make them some!!! If she had the money or if I did I would so open her a restaurant!!! I'm 28 and I have traveled the around the world and ate at so many mexican places and no one comes close!!! I mean that ask anyone that knows her cooking!!!!

desertdog (author)2010-01-05

Yes, tamales and Christmas.  It doesn't get any better.  Just a note, I buy my tamales from an older woman who works at a local meat market and makes all of their burritos, beans and other things they sell frozen or fresh.  She uses paper for her tamales and she gave me a sample of corn husk and paper wrapped and I could not tell any difference in the taste.  She says using paper is much easier.  I live in New Mexico.

kill-a-watt (author)desertdog2010-06-20

really? I've had them from banana wrappers and corn husk wrappers and I can taste the difference. I much prefer the corn husk.

I have seen that done, using parchment paper in place of the hojas.  It looks like it would be easier and cleaner even.  I have wanted to try doing them that way for a while, but hubby is stuck in the "must be hojas" thing, so I haven't tried it yet.  I do want to make some chocolate tamales, and parchment paper would be much better for those than hojas (at least I think so since looking at a corn husks wrapped around chocolate doesn't sound nearly as good as parchment around chocolate)

Phoghat (author)2010-01-05

Pork Broth (made by Goja) can be found in mega marts in cube form, like bullion.

itwasalan (author)Phoghat2010-03-07

Goya rules.  I braise a pork shoulder on a bed of celery with their sázon (the coriander and achiote one) as a rub and shred it. 

Phoghat (author)itwasalan2010-03-07

It's all good

barefootbohemian (author)Phoghat2010-01-05

Using a bullion to make the broth would be a great idea for when you are making tamales from veggies or if you don't have broth from cooking the meat.  I will have to look for some of this since most of my family eat pork,  even though I don't. 
Wow, I haven't even thought about the band Foghat in years, I might have to go  pull some old albums now...
thanks for the comment! and the reminder of some good old heavy metal mania :)

Phoghat (author)barefootbohemian2010-01-05

Man, take a slow ride!

barefootbohemian (author)Phoghat2010-01-05

Oh yea, take it easy... :)

luvit (author)2010-01-04

i tamales son los mejores y son parte de un desayuno equilibrado !

barefootbohemian (author)luvit2010-01-04

Pienso lo mismo! Mi family le gustan tamales para desayono, para senar y cualqier tiempo! 
And my Spanish is really bad.... but hey, not too bad for a white girl eh? :)

brazell (author)2010-01-04

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!  I have searched several times for tamales on Instructables and you are the first to do one!  I love tamales, especially when they are fresh and the masa has not quite set up yet, yum!!  I was afraid to tackle on my own and now i look forward to giving your method a try!  Thanks so much for posting this!

barefootbohemian (author)brazell2010-01-04

You are most welcome.  I have had a blast reading some of the other ideas for tamales that have been posted on this instructable.  I am hoping to try some of those ideas as well, especially using a putty knife to spread out the masa. Where I am is supposed to be really cold the rest of the week so maybe it would be good timing to make up a big batch. They freeze great, so I can save them for another day, if I don't give in and eat them! :)

skarah (author)2010-01-03

Tamales are my favorite thing! My mom learned how to make them when we lived in Mexico about 30 years ago (we're just regular gringos) and I grew up with lovely tamales on special occasions. Our favorite filling is shredded turkey with chile sauce (like enchilada sauce) and raisins. I love it so much!  If I'm going to make tamales, I have to start 2 days in advance, since it will be only me, and I don't fancy making the meat, the sauce, and rolling them all in the same day. But spreading it out makes it much easier. I hope more people learn how to do this.

barefootbohemian (author)skarah2010-01-04

 I don't blame you for wanting to spread them out over a couple of days, I guess that is why I wait for "back-up" in the making them process.  I wonder if the turkey one you are talking about would be similar to a picadillo filling (just substituting the pork for turkey).  
I hate to see recipes go into the "memories" bin, with no one really knowing how to make them.  There are so many old recipes that have been lost over time, and it is nice when they are rediscovered as "new", but it would be better if they were never lost at all.
Thanks for the comment! 

mfcds (author)2010-01-03

barefootbohemian (author)mfcds2010-01-04

 That is so cute!! And gotta agree, I like "hot tamale, hot hot tamale" :)

inad (author)2010-01-03

This Mex-Amer was raised (1952-1976) on hand crank grinder minced meat tamales.  We mixed venison with pork (50/50) for a great tamale.   Try to slightly overspice them.   They will come out sooo good.    Add some broth of the cooked meat to the masa  (1/2 C to 1-1/2C; you'll need to experiment but don't make it too watery;  go for a mashed potato consistency).   Use a 4" putty knife to spread the masa on the husks.  Take some "all in one stroke" confident practice swipes to get the hang of it.    Lastly, write down your process so you can adjust next time.    I learned this last bit from my Anglo friends.   Buen Probecho!   P.S.  Oh yeah Chicken Mole'  makes a great tamale and so do refried pinto beans with the chile spices added.

barefootbohemian (author)inad2010-01-04

 I am going to have to try that one! I know that when I make the one's with "Picadillo" I have used a grinder so that the raisin and all that can get mixed up good.  My husband keeps telling me about a grinder his mother had to make them that way, and I wish I could find one of those.  I never even thought about using a putty knife to spread the masa, but that would be really helpful.  I bought a pack of plastic one's to do joint compound, and I bet that would work well since they have just a little flexibility and they are really cheap (I like things that are either free or cheap).  Mole would be good in a  tamale, even if it wasn't chicken.  Have you even tried a green mole in one? That could be different and really good. 
Thanks for the comment, I think I have some great new ideas now! 

CrLz (author)2009-12-30

Yummy!  Thank you for the Instructable.  I grew up in Colorado and a family friend would make tamales each year for a special get together.  What a nice time that was.

Unfortunately, I never learned how to make Tamales.  Thanks again for sharing!

barefootbohemian (author)CrLz2009-12-31

You are so very welcome! Growing up I didn't learn how to make tamales until I got married and my husbands family made them every holiday and showed  me how to make them, actually I was recruited into the assembly line.  I have really good memories of those times, it is something I really miss now that my mother-in-law has passed on and we don't all get together like we once did.  I am trying to rekindle those kinds of Christmas's here, and get away from the monetary kinds that really keeps people apart instead of together.

jlms (author)2009-12-30

There is no classical way of making tamales, unless your tradition is very recent and narrow. Most people don't have access to a pig's head, and naturally this is a most eccentric ingredient.

When tamales are filled with pork it can be any pork part that can be shredded or suitably cut in pieces.

JackieOsGlasses (author)jlms2009-12-30

I have seen my mom use pig heads, and it is gross.  Who wants to eat something that has been looking at you! 
Most of her tamales are more vegetarian, but her shrimp ones are really good. 

JackieOsGlasses (author)2009-12-30

I love this recipe! I love the picadillo one you make too (why didn't you put that on here, that is Santa Fe Christmas).
I hope you can win this, I know how much you need a new food processor.  WIsh I could buy you one for CHristmas, but this would be even better.  Too bad there are people on here that cheat, but cheaters never win! 

bwalton (author)2009-12-28

This looks great! My wife and i enjoy tamales very much. I do have a question for you though. For the bread like filling you say you need  tamale-grind masa harina. What is this? We are living in Korea so we will probably need to substitute this ingredient with something equivalent.

barefootbohemian (author)bwalton2009-12-30

I had replied to your comment the other day, but I notice that it isn't showing up on here today so i am not sure you even recieved it. 
I had mentioned that it is impossible to get the same results if you try to substitute the maseca.  Other than trying to make your own by boiling maize in an alkalinized solution (water and lime is the usual), removing the hulls and grinding it, I don't know of any way to do it.
There are several places online where Maseca can be purchased and shipped to you.  I don't think I would order a large amount, since Maseca will spoil after a certain amount of time. 

You can make tamales with crushed or ground beans and rice mixed with water and spices, but I don't think you will get the same "tamale" taste from these.  Or you can leave out the masa entirely, and just wrap the meat, but again, to me this just isn't a tamale.
I hope you can find a way to get some maseca/tamale mix to make you some.  i can't imagine how it must be for you all to be living on the other side of the world where the foods you are accustomed to eating are not available. But then you probably have access to a lot of foods that are wonderfully delicious, but not available here stateside.
Thanks for the comment, and giving me the chance to so some more research on the amazing little tamale.  Hope your Holiday was a wonderful one!

barefootbohemian (author)2009-12-29

I have actually tried to substitute a corn tortilla type mixture for the bread, but I have never gotten it to firm up like it should.  It seems like it would, in theory at least.  There are a number of web sites that can ship maseca or other tamale/harina mix.  I know one of my friends bought some through  I looked just to make sure, and had a few places to get Maseca (which is a very good, and popular one to use).  
I know my husbands grandmother makes her own masa, but that involves a great deal of work and other ingredients that might be hard to get ahold of in Korea, including fresh unhusked hominy and lime.   I have never tried her way of doing it, it makes me tired just watching her. She actually uses an old metate made of stone, and since I don't have one of those, it is another reason to skip out on the hard way. :)
I hope you can find some sort of substitute, and if I find one I will let you know.  But for now, I am sorry, but I don't know of any.

jlms (author)barefootbohemian2009-12-30

You must use suitable corn flour for this purpose. No other flour will do.

Maseca is not just corn flour, it is  processed through a process known as "nixtamalization" which gives the flour stickiness and pliability it would not have otherwise.

You can use any mortar instead of the metate, tough the metate was only bettered by mechanical processing of the corn.

barefootbohemian (author)jlms2009-12-30

If you are using the masa, (and I still call this the traditinal way, since it is the way most tamales are made in many parts of Mexico, New Mexico and Texas)  then yes you would have to use the Maseca that has been processed with an alkaline solution and the husks removed from the maize or hominy (posole).  There was another post asking about a substitue for the maseca, and I don't think my reply had posted after I wrote it,  but i did do a good bit of research after reading the comment from bwalton, and found that the use of crushed beans rice in place of the maseca.  In fact, since the hoja (corn husk) is just a vehicle for steaming the tamale, much like a banana leaf or even parchment paper for some dishes, the masa can be left out entirely.  Although since the word tamale comes from the word nixtamal or the nixtamalization process, I am not sure a tamale without the masa would be called a tamale at all.

As for the metate vs. any other mortar and pestle, you are right. Metate's were formed largely by the grinding action of stone against stone, and some were carved or chipped out of the stone to have legs, raising them up so that the person processing the ingredients woudn't have to bend quite so far over. I do not own a metate, but I do have a molcajete (I added a photo of mine below).  Since the molcajete was designed to grind chile, seeds and other smaller items, it would not be very useful for grinding large amounts of maize and such for tamale making. 
Thanks for sharing your knowledge with me, I enjoy finding out more about the foods that I make, and learning more abotu where they originated and came from.  Perhaps i should have been a food archeologist, but then I am just a cook, not even a chef. :)

zascecs (author)2009-12-28

 Tamales are great, but because most of my family is vegetarian, whenever we eat tamales, they are without the meat; instead, we make a chipotle/ bean filling. This looks like a great recipe though, so I'll have to make some for myself!

...I agree with not using the pig head; kinda freaky sight....

jlms (author)zascecs2009-12-30

You can put whatever you want on tamales, it is not like there is a Mexican curse or something if you don't put meat :-)

In Mexico popular fillings include chilli with cheese (normally "poblano" or "cuaresmeño" chilli varieties combined with easy melting cheese like Oaxaca type), chicken, beef or pork with either green or red sauce, bean tamales, pineapple tamales, and sweet tamales in which the dough is mixed with a bit of honey or sugar and colouring to indicate the tamal is sweet, the filling being raisins.

In the most bizarre end of the spectrum you can get tamales filled with small boiled fish or even grasshoppers.

barefootbohemian (author)jlms2009-12-30

i agree there, I have never heard of any "curse" about putting something other than meat into the tamale! In fact I iove chocolate tamales (but then I do love chocolate).

The tamales (as far as I know) originated in Central and Meso America with the Mayan indians.  It was the perfect meal for the warrior on the go.  They put grasshoppers and other "proteins" that we don't generally eat today.  They made their tamales far different than what most people make them today too, they may or may not have had the masa, they might have included such things as nuts and berries, beans and rice.  That is one of the fascinating things about  tamales, you can make them however you want to (for the most part at least). 

barefootbohemian (author)zascecs2009-12-29

I am a "reformed" vegan, or should I say my hubby is a carnivore and I really still don't like meat. I have made tamales in the veggie variety, and your chipotle bean filing sounds great.  I have even used a mixture of left overs from the fridge.  You can saute them in a pan and add a little chile or jalapeno to spice them up.  You can try some black beans mixed with greens (spinach, collard, etc.) or some squash and zuchinni with onion and garlic sauteed up with garlic.  I have even used some of the above mixed with some extra firm tofu (course I didn't tell hubby about that one!)
I am going to have to try your chipotle version, that sounds really good!

kcli (author)2009-12-29

My grandmother made tamales every Christmas and it's been 40+ years since I last had them (that's when she passed and we moved outside of Texas).  A few years ago I tried to get my mother to show me how to make them, but she said they were too much work and there were very few resources that outlined the process.

I look forward to using your Instructible next Christmas.  Thanks for taking the time to document and good luck in the contest! 

barefootbohemian (author)kcli2009-12-30

That makes me even happier that I used this recipe for the instructable.  I know that many of the recipes my mother's family made over the years were lost when my grandmother passed away.  The same for my husband's family members taking their recipes and knowledge with them when they passed on. 
I hope you have a great batch of tamales when you make them, but why wait until next Christmas? I know my husband and I have made them at other times during the year (and he is a great tamale roller).  His grandmother, all 4 ft 2 in and 93 years old, makes them everytime she knows someone is coming to visit her and his grandpa.  Wish I had that kind of energy to do it that often.
But whenever you make them, I hope you have a good time doing it and they come out fabulous!

Yerboogieman (author)2009-12-28

Whatever you do, never buy the tamales from Safeway near the meat/seafood section. You will regret it and put miles on your toilet.

I really like cheese tamales though. Homemade only.

I will have to try this recipe. Thanks!

I have never had store bought, but living out in the southwestern part of Texas you can usually find someone selling tamales on the street corner if you don't want to go through the work of doing your own.  I have never tried to make cheese ones, but I have added some cheese to other ingredients.  I love cheese though, and that sounds like a good idea.
Let me know how yours come out!

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