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Let’s make tamales: part 1

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.

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


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

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5 from 1 vote (1 rating without comment)

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  1. Duane & Patricia says:

    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

  2. Lisa Fain says:

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

  3. Katherine says:

    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

  4. Anonymous says:

    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.

  5. 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?)