Let’s make tamales: part 1

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Back in September, the delightful Wednesday Chef cooked a Regina Schrambling recipe for tamales. She was not impressed. No disrespect to Ms. Schrambling, but the recipe was a mess from the get go. It was supposed to make tamale-making simple by substituting grits for masa, but there is no easy way to the culinary bliss that is a tamale.

Ever since I read that post, the blogging side of my brain has been begging to write something on the subject. And now that December is upon us, there’s no better way to present a post (or two or three) on tamales than to wrap it up in holiday garb.

Why do I write about tamales now? Easy answer—tamales are a traditional holiday food in Texas and the Southwest. And while you can buy them just about anywhere in that part of the country, they are traditionally made at home. And one of the best hallmarks of the season is having a tamalada or tamale party.

Why would you devote a whole party to making tamales? Simple: they’re very labor intensive. They’re not difficult to make, but much time is needed and the more hands on deck the merrier.

Preparation is everything with a tamale party. First, fill your guest list with people who like to work with their hands, cook and eat. It’ll be no fun if you invite a group who’d rather be playing Scrabble. Second, you’ll need to do a lot of cooking and shopping before the big day, otherwise you’ll never get to the main event itself—rolling and steaming the tamales. Dishes to prepare before the party would be your tamale masa, fillings and sauces. You should also have bought plenty of dried corn husks (sure, it could be considered cheating but corn is out of season and it’s easier to work with dried husks than fresh ones).

Masa is the base of your tamale. Traditionally, masa was made with lard, but you can also use vegetable shortening. As for your fillings—anything goes. Think of the slab of masa as a blank slate, receptive to anything you wish to inscribe upon it. Traditionally, chicken, pork, cheese with rajas and dried fruit (for sweet tamales) are used. But you can also fill your tamale with beef, beans, grilled vegetables or chocolate. Whatever your heart (and belly) desires!

Finally, if you don’t own a tamalera (a pot designed for steaming tamales), make sure you have a large pot that can be fitted with a large steam basket. I use a pot that’s about two feet tall but your standard Dutch oven should suffice.

And that’s all you need to prepare. Now plug in your chile-pepper fairy lights, clear off your table, pull up some chairs and get ready to pat, stuff and roll. If you’ve never tried making tamales, this is a food rooted in fellowship; doing it alone is not only counter-productive but sorely lacking in fun. Rally your friends and family and get ready for not only a memorable meal but a whole lot of communal joy.

Next time, I’ll tell you how to assemble the tamales. But first, I’ll leave you with a recipe for your masa.

tamale DSC2924
5 from 1 vote

Tamale masa

Servings 60 tamales
Author Lisa Fain


  • 2 cups lard or vegetable shortening
  • 2 1/2 or 5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 5 pounds fresh masa or 6 cups masa harina
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt


  1. Place the fat in a mixing bowl and beat until fluffy.

  2. If using fresh masa, use 2 1/2 cups broth. If using masa harina, use 5 cups broth. Add broth and masa or masa harina to the mixer, and beat until completely mixed—about 5 to 7 minutes or until the dough is thick yet malleable. Add the salt.

  3. You can test for doneness by throwing a small dollop into cold water. If it floats it’s ready, but if not, keep beating. Will keep in the fridge for several days.

  1. Both of my grandmothers made tamales during the holiday season, and at the time I was too young to really pay attention to the process, although I knew we were in for someting special when all my aunts came over and the house filled with the unmistakeable aroma of all that masa!

    Now that I’m older my granmothers have both passed and my own mother just doesn’t want to go through the effort of making dozens upon dozens of tamales. Sad but true.

    This Christmas I finagled an invite to a friend’s mother’s house for a tutorial in Guatemalan-style tamales. They’re similar only in masa and spirit, but I’m not slighting them – they are a delicious alternative to tamales from Texas!

  2. Lisa Fain

    Matt–What a wonderful memory! I’ve never had Guatemalan tamales–how are they different?

  3. When I was growing up, it was a big treat for us when my mother, who’s from Los Angeles, made tamales. She used beef brisket and frightening amounts of lard, as I recall . . .

  4. popeyemoon

    I only been to two as a kid .I did not like the way they cooked a whole hog head it grossed me out. But I sure did love the tamales. I would like to make my own but I will use a different cut of meat. I am living in east Texas now,Houston when I was young.

  5. popeyemoon

    And for a fix on chicken fried steak look up dallasfood.org bye.

  6. Fantastic idea! I’m so glad you posted something about tamales. After all the responses to my unhappy post, I figured I’d have to give tamales a fair shake the next time around.

  7. Lisa Fain

    Sarah–Lard may be (a bit) frigtening, but it makes anything taste good.

    Popeyemoon–We don’t have the space to cook a whole hog, but what a memory! Very authentic!

    Luisa–Thanks! As I said, I felt so bad for you. Here you were, just discovering the joy of Mexican food, only to be thwarted by a terrible recipe. And tamales are soooooo amazing.

  8. Mary Sue

    Grits instead of masa!? Oy gevalt!

    I keep getting this urge to roll tamales, but 1) not that insane [yet] and 2) just got a thing in the email from the best local taqueria [they tend to suck here in Oregon, along with Indian restaurants, because we got a lot of people who don’t like ‘spicy food’] with the order form for tamales.

  9. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a tamale…

    PS I like Scrabble just as much as eating… 😉 No wait… I like doing both at the same time…. hahahaha.

  10. Chicken Fried Gourmet

    Oh this looks interesting, I have made tamales before and they are definitely labor intensive but so worth it. For Christmas this year I am thinking of making a recipe of Tim Love’s that is Duck Confit Tamales with a blackberry mole sauce.

  11. Danielle

    So, when’s the party? I’m ready to come over and make tamales with you!

    (Yvo, I really like Scrabble, too!)

  12. Besides making me crave tamales, I had to laugh when you referred to the blog side of your brain writing a post. I do that all the time!

  13. Stephanie

    Let me know if you’re holding one of these parties. I would LOVE to come learn from you and join in the fun.

    What a terrific idea and insight into more of your Texan roots.

  14. Lisa Fain

    Mary Sue–Oregon may not have good spicy food, but it has many other culinary delights.

    Yvo–How sad! You must try one, immediately!

    Chicken Fried G.–Blackberry mole? How intriguing. Sounds delish.

    Danielle–I’ll let you know, probably in January.

    Ivonne–Whew…glad I’m not alone!

    Stephanie–I’ll let you know!

  15. melissa mcgee

    when i still lived in dallas, a couple of my friends that worked with me at the police department would have tamale parties, and i was invited a couple of times, usually right about this time of year. i didn’t help with the actual preparation of the masa or the meats, but with the rolling. there were bubbling pots of mysterious yet intoxicatingly scented liquids (don’t know what that was) and the soundtrack to all of our rolling was blaring tejano music. FUN! i remember spreading masa on the husks until i had blisters on my hands, but we had a blast, and the pay off for attending the tamale party? DOZENS of delicious tamales that were ALL MINE!

  16. Lisa Fain

    Melissa–Yes! That’s the best thing about a tamale party–taking home dozens of tamales!

  17. christine (myplateoryours)

    I have heard about tamale parties but have never finagled an invitation to one. There is nothing like that steamy, spicy, corny aroma that wafts out of a freshy steamed tamale. I’ve burned more fingers that way.

  18. Stephanie J. Rosenbaum

    Don’t be afraid of the lard! In NYC, you can get fantastic fresh lard from natural pasture-raised pigs from Flying Pigs Farm–they sell their lard at the Union Square and Grand Army Plaza (Bklyn) greenmarkets. I used it for my thanksgiving apple pie and it was awesome. Better for you than nasty Crisco, too. One question: when you say fresh masa harina, do you mean the ground hominy that packaged like flour in big bags? I remember that a bunch of the Mexican and Central American grocery stores (like La Palma Mexicatessen) used to sell fresh masa dough for tamales at this time of year…

  19. I have never been to a tamale party and since I know no one who makes their own tamales I see no chance of getting invited to one. Obviously I need to have my own one of these days.

  20. Lisa Fain

    Christine–Sounds like you need to throw your own tamale party.

    Stephanie–Thanks for the tips on where to buy fresh lard in the city, I’ve been wondering where to get the good lard short of rendering it myself. And yes, I do mean the masa harina that comes that comes in 5 lb. bags like flour.

    Julie–You should definitely host one! I’ll be posting another post on techniques soon.

  21. I’m from San Antonio…born and raised TEXAN. I love tamales so much I’ve created over 40 new delicious flavors. I am a tamale party planner and enjoy hosting/teaching tamale cooking every year. I’ve been to New Mexico twice this year…the chilies are awesome but the tamales are not as good as mine. I would love to visit New York City and show them how simple homemade can be. There is no comparison between store bought and homemade anywhere in the world.

  22. Thanks for the post! I threw my own El Paso-ex pat tamalada in Canada. I love & crave tamales and knew better than to try and buy them up here.

  23. MagicWoman

    I love this post! I'm a Texas transplant (also an Air Force Brat) here in Minnesota. Believe me, finding Tex-Mex has been difficult – if not impossible. But this post does remind me of when I discovered that Hormel tamales weren't what authentic tamales really tasted like. My roommate introduced me to the tamale party making process. I came away (13-16 hours later) with a great appreciation for "authentic" tamales. The party was fun…the tamales out of this world!


  24. Thomas Morris

    Liked your post. I decided to get brave this year and try some myself.

  25. Anne Fuller

    I don't know if anyone ever answered they question as to the difference between Tex-Mex or Mexican tamales and Guatamalan ones.

    Guatamalan tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, The masa mixture is also cooked like grits to the consitency of mashed potatoes. The assembly is different also. The filling usually includes the meat, spanish olives, capers and gound pumpkin seeds. Instead of rolling to create a wrapping of masa around the filling. Guatamalan tamales are done with a spoon of masa in the middle of the wrapper with a bit of the filling and then the banana leave is folded instead of rolled.

    Steaming and eating is about the same. However, I prefer the more traditional corn husk tamale.

  26. Duane & Patricia

    I know this was written a long time ago but I just had to write since we all read the comments. I was a little surprised that you said to through out the pork broth in part 2!!!! Use it to mix the masa instead of chicken stock. And that broth has a lot of life in it. Freeze it to use in soups or for gravy if you don't use it for the masa. It makes the whole thing real. I still use your recipe for tortillas. Best I have found. Thanks

  27. Lisa Fain

    Duane–Great idea! I'd never write that now–as you noted, this was done many years ago. Thanks!

  28. Katherine

    Hi, I absolutely love your site. I've lived in NYC too and sought out the green sauce from ninfa's to no avail. Living in ireland and just recently visited Houston & Austin, I completely stuffed myself full of texmex. However, wanted to share w/you my first experience of a tamale when I moved from ireland to houston at tender age of 25 i proceeded to try eat the husk of the tamale LOL and thought they were horrible. But being invited christmas eve to a tamale party completely changed my mind about these fab morsels. I regularly tuck into 1 or 2 @ JFK when my children kindly bring them from texas. Needless to say mortified or not, it began a love affair with texan food, like the people wonderful, diverse & incredible!! Katherine

  29. Anonymous

    I make tamales for my family a lot here. I have a little trick I use to give them a little flavor. I marinade the meat over night in a chipotle rub then I fire up the grill in the morning and sear them using smokey mesquite wood. I usually let the meat smoke for about 30 min. Then I toss it all in the crock-pot till it falls apart. When I make the masa I use Maseca and vegetable shortening. I toss a tablespoon or 2 of Cajun seasoning in and beef broth. Occasionally I replace the broth with a can of pureed Rotel instead.

  30. I'm a little confused about the Masa ingredient. If I am using masa harina, and mixing with liquid as you said, would I just mix enough in equal parts until it reached a weight of 5 lbs? Or should I use 12 cups masa harina and 12 cups liquid in place of the 5 lb masa? (and this is all in addition to the 2 1/2 cups stock, right?)

  31. Lisa Fain

    Anina–If you're using masa harina, I suggest you follow the directions on the bag for the amount of masa that you want to make. 12 cups would make a lot of tamales, and you might not want to make that many!

  32. Anonymous

    Rice cooker can be used to steam the tamales as well.

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