Tamales 101

Disclaimer: To my knowledge, I do not have a drop of Hispanic blood in my body, and therefore I have absolutely no authority when it comes to making tamales. I have very little experience making tamales - I've only made them four times, and I just started making them this year. However, I've had plenty of experience eating tamales, and I've been called a "hot tamale" once or twice. I've recently come to the decision that I am meant to make tamales.

Warning: I tend to get wordy when I start talking about food, so settle in. I'll get to the recipe eventually.

I've wanted to make tamales for 15 years now. During my second semester of college, I took a speech class, and one of our required speeches was a how-to demonstration. I dressed in khaki pants, a denim shirt and an apron and showed the class how to make paper. I haven't really changed much in the past 15 years.

A fellow classmate put together an overhead presentation (obviously before PowerPoint became mainstream) to demonstrate how she and her family made tamales. Since that day I've wanted to make tamales. I really don't know why it took me so long to finally make them.

When my parents came up to visit New Years weekend so my dad could make his first batch of homebrew with George, I decided that my mom and I would make tamales. You know, it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I enjoyed the process so much that I made another batch the following day.

The first time, I followed these directions. They were delicious, but in typical fashion, I tweaked the recipe a bit for subsequent batches, and I liked the tamales even more.

Tamales are certainly not fast food. If you make meat tamales, it's best to slow cook the meat. For pork tamales, I put a pork roast and a can of fire roasted tomatoes in the crockpot and cooked it on low overnight. The corn husks need to be soaked for two hours (though the tamale recipe in my Chevy's cookbook said 20 minutes, so maybe this step can be expedited). Once the tamales are assembled, they steam for 2 hours (once again, the Chevy's cookbook said 20 minutes, but I think two hours is better). If you want tamales for dinner, I'd suggest getting started early in the day. Once the tamales are cooking, you'll be free to enjoy your afternoon knowing that dinner is taken care of.

Here's my recipe for vegetarian tamales:

2 dozen corn husks, soaked in water for two hours

Filling for tamales:

1 onion, diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
1 cup frozen (or fresh) corn
1 can diced green chilies
1/2 a jar of roasted red peppers, diced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt to taste

In a medium sized pot, heat a little oil over medium heat. Saute onions and garlic until onions just start to turn golden on the edges. Add the rest of the ingredients and just enough water to cover. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer until potatoes are soft. Drain and reserve cooking liquid for masa.

Masa ingredients:

2 pounds (about half a bag) Masa corn flour (Maseca is the brand I use)
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 cup vegetable oil
Cooking liquid from filling
Warm water as needed

(Confession: the original recipe I read called for cumin seed, but my brain read "coriander seed", which I happened to have. I saved the seeds when my cilantro bolted last summer, and I think the coriander seeds made a fine addition to the recipe. Feel free to use cumin seeds if you have them, or omit the seeds if you prefer. I just really enjoy taking a bite and getting the explosion of flavor concentrated in each seed).

coriander seed

Mix first six ingredients in a large bowl. Add the oil and the reserved liquid from the filling. Mix thoroughly, adding warm water as needed, until the mixture has the consistency of peanut butter. Don't be afraid to use your hands to mix the masa.

Now you're ready to assemble the tamales. Separate the soaked corn husks and inspect for bugs (yes, it happens and it's completely normal).

With the smaller tip of the corn husk pointing towards you, take about 1/4 cup of the masa and spread it on the corn husk, leaving about two inches clear on the bottom and on the right side of the husk. I prefer to prepare a stack of the husks, then fill and roll the tamales, but proceed as you like. Once again, feel free to use your hands to spread the masa.

corn husks with masa

Scoop a heaping tablespoon of the filling and spread it down the left side of the masa, about 1/2 inch from the edge. Fold the left edge of the corn husk over to the right edge of the masa, fold the bottom of the husk up, then the right side of the husk over to the left and around the tamale. (My mom and I watched this video several times to figure out how to fold the tamales.)

Place tamales in a large steaming pot, with enough water in the bottom to steam the tamales without getting them wet. I use my large stock pot with the pasta insert. If you don't have a steaming pot, my friend Maya suggests placing chopsticks across the bottom of a pot and placing tamales on top of the chopsticks to elevate them from the steaming water. Cover and steam for two hours.

i made tamales

Steamed tamales can be cooled and frozen, if you can resist eating them all at once. Buen provecho!


  1. I love making tamales, but yes, they are time consuming. I made them in aluminium foil once to speed it up. Although it takes away from the authentic feeling, it worked and was quicker.

  2. Love it! We've been requested to make them for the family some weekend.

  3. Yum! Buen provecho to you too. I'm hispanic but dominican so the only tamale like item I know of is our pastel en hoja (plaintain mash instead of masa and cooked in a plantain leaf).

    Must try these.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Oh this brought back such a lovely childhood memory for me of making tamales with my neighbors from Mexico when I lived in Alaska! Definitely an all-day event but completely worth it!

  6. Is it the weather, or just the time of year? This isn't the first tamale tute I've read this week, but boy if it isn't the tastiest looking and meatless, to boot.


  7. I've never had a tamale...I'm not sure why but I'm going to be searching for all of the ingredients this week!

  8. Is it cheesy to say ... Olé!?

    I love eating tamales, but around here we order them from little hole in the wall joints, because I keep hearing how hard they are to make.

    You make it look not so bad -- now all you need is a Powerpoint presentation! :-)

    And now I'm hungry.

  9. My Father used to bring home tamales from a Mexican Deli near is job. They were the best. When I grew up and moved away I would get tamale cravings. I suffered in silence. 'Til one day, while paying the water bill, a woman walked in with a cooler on wheels, selling tamales to the staff. Everyone was so excited to see her, I figured she must be good. I bought one and it was. I put her number in my cell. Now having moved again, I have yet to find a new supplier. Maybe I can be my own supplier...

    Thanks for the recipe :)

  10. que rica! These sound delicious. We do have a standard to compare to, which is a tamales from a tiny place in San Diego on market day, but I'll give these a go and see how they stack up. after all, I was drooling by the end...

  11. Great tute! We made/ate them almost everyday that I was home in San Francisco! They are a holiday tradition. A mole sauce over them is sublime. Your veggie filling sounds wonderful and I can't wait to try it. We make them a little smaller to enclose them completely in the husk, but I don't know if it matters. You definitely have me wondering where I'll be able to source ingredients out here.

  12. If this was not torture I don't know what is!!
    Oh, how this made me long for Cali! We have had the hardest time even finding ingredients for Mexican food up here! Must try harder!
    These look so insanely good!
    Thanks for your wonderful photos to give me at least a visual taste!

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you for making and sharing the recipe for vegetarian tamales! I was thinking, "oh well, I won't be able to eat these," as I started reading and salivating at the thought of homemade tamales, which I really enjoyed back in the old, carniverous days...I was happily surprised and excited when I saw "Vegetarian
    Tamales" when the recipe appeared on the page =-) Yay! Now, I'm gonna make these!! I'm doing a little happy dance...and in my mind I'm wearing a beautifully colorful, flouncy, twirly skirt =-)


  14. Your fantastic post brought back some wonderful holiday memories of making tamales at my aunt's house with all of my other tias. We set up an assembly line so the whole process seemed to go really quickly! I got up the guts to make my own a few years ago and have only made them three times. The trick is really in making some high-quality fillings! And I was surprised at how long the take to steam. Like Maya, I usually roll mine a little tighter than the ones shown here and leave more room at the bottom of the hoja. I also steam them the other way so that the excess grease runs out (or so my mother tells me). This year my mom came to visit us for Christmas and brought several dozen tamales she had made with the help of my sister, niece, dad, and stepmom! They were wonderful! Maybe we can all get together one year for a tamale bee?

  15. holy moly! those look amazing.
    i will let matt be in charge of these : )

  16. i'm not sure how i just wandered onto your blog but i think i've just found another love! your blog is beautiful and inspiring. a lovely combination of gorgeous pics, food, hope and inspiration. thank you, i'll be back.

  17. I have always wanted to try making tamales. I LOVE THEM! Your brother never seems excited for them, so I haven't tried yet. But maybe I will.

  18. I am always wanting to cook new things. I will give this recipe a try soon.


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