Tamales are special. While not the easiest thing to make, I can share a few methods to make it easier by revising the step where you rehydrate, deseed and roast the dried peppers, replacing this process with a homemade powdered spice blend.
These Mexican pork tamales have excellent flavor and texture, while offering an easier process for making this popular Mexican recipe.
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5 Secrets to Great Tamales:
- Use leaf lard as your fat. I bought rendered leaf lard from a pork producer at the farmers’ market. It makes a huge difference in flavor and texture of the masa dough.
- Spread your dough out on the corn husk as thin as possible, about 1/4 inch (see photo below). You want to be able to taste the filling with just a light blanket of tamale dough. You do not want a big doughy rectangular blob that overpowers the filling, even though thicker dough may make it easier to wrap. Check out the pictures at the end of this post for a visual.
- Steam them for a long time and use a tall steamer (like a tamale or crab boil steamer). Recipes varied in steaming times from 15 minutes to 2 hours. I went with longer steaming times, allowing them to rest outside of the steamer for 10-15 minutes.
- The Chile Sauce is key. There are many variations on good chile sauces. Follow these steps if you want to roast and rehydrate chiles. In the recipe below I used a homemade enchilada spice blend. If the blend is fresh it can be a good time-saving alternative to roasting and rehydrating chile peppers.
- Folding tamales can be the time-consuming part (see the step-by-step below). Get some helpers here, put on some music and enjoy the process. Also…it goes faster the more you do!
When are Tamales Traditionally Served?
In Mexico, tamales are traditionally served at holidays, particularly the Winter holidays. Tamales are often served on Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the days around Christmas.
Did you know? On January 6th (Dia de los Reyes- Kings’ Day), many Mexican families serve a cake with a figurine of the baby Jesus baked into it. Whoever finds the figurine in their slice of cake is in charge of making tamales for the Día de la Candelaria celebration on February 2nd.
Popular Fillings for Tamales
One of the nicest things about making tamales is that they are so versatile. If you don’t like pork, the recipe below would work with chicken as well.
Once you get the basic tamale assembly down, you can substitute the meat and sauce easily. Here are some of my favorite filling options:
- Roasted green chile (poblanos) and cheese
- Beef birria stew meat
- Corn and black beans
- Chicken with red or green sauce
- Cochinita Pibil (use banana leaves instead of corn husks for the traditional style)
What to Serve as a Side?
My daughter lives in Colorado and always serves her tamales with a pork green chile sauce. Because she was sworn to secrecy before receiving that recipe, she will not share it with me (or you).
However, here are a few other side dishes that pair wonderfully with tamales:
- Refried black beans
- Nopales (cactus paddle) salad
- Salsa fresca and chips
And…don’t forget the cocktails! A margarita is classic, or try sipping this awesome tequila flight!
The process of wrapping and steaming the tamales was an effort of trial and error, with a little help from my husband. I’ve included some pictures below of the process that works for me, but it does take a little bit of practice to get it “perfect”.
However, these tamales are so flavorful that even if it doesn’t turn out exactly how you want, you will still enjoy it!
If you enjoy all types of Mexican food, check out this category of ALL Mexican recipes, where you will find over 40 Mexican recipes, from casual, to low carb, to fancy.
Mexican Pork Tamales
- 36 Corn husks
Ingredients for the shredded pork
- 4.5 pounds pork butt or pork shoulder
- 1 onion quartered
- 6-8 cloves garlic
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 4 dried bay leaves
- 2-3 sprigs thyme if available
- water to cover about 3 1/2 to 4 cups
Ingredients for the red chile sauce
- 2 tablespoons leaf lard
- 1 onion chopped (about 2 cups)
- 5 cloves garlic minced
- 3-4 tablespoons enchilada spice blend see notes below for homemade spice blend recipe, or for how to use dried & rehydrated chiles
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups pork broth reserved broth from cooking pork (alternatively use beef broth or just water)
- 1 tablespoon masa harina (optional – for thickening)
- kosher salt to taste
Ingredients for the masa (dough)
- 4 cups masa harina Maseca is the most common brand
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 ⅔ cups pork broth reserved from pork filling; if there is not enough broth, add water to get it to 2 2/3 cups
- 1 ⅓ cups lard leaf lard or store bought lard (or butter)
Prep the corn husks:
- Place tamale husks in a large bowl. Pour hot or boiling water over the husks. Let sit in the hot water until you are ready to use them (can leave them overnight).36 Corn husks
Directions to make the shredded pork:
- In a dutch oven (or large pot), cover pork with water and add all remaining ingredients for the pork (onion & spices & water). Cook for 4-8 hours over low heat, 4 hours minimum. **Alternatively, add all pork ingredients to an instantpot and cook for 2 hours.4.5 pounds pork butt, 1 onion, 6-8 cloves garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, 4 dried bay leaves, 2-3 sprigs thyme, water to cover
- After meat is cooked (long enough that it falls apart and shreds easily), remove from pot, set aside to cool . When cooled, shred meat finely with two forks or bear claws. This can be covered and stored in the refrigerator until ready to assemble the tamales.
Directions for the red chile sauce:
- Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons lard in large saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and saute until beginning to brown; add minced garlic for the last minute and saute.2 tablespoons leaf lard, 1 onion, 5 cloves garlic
- Add 3 tablespoons enchilada blend and tomato paste to the onion mixture in the skillet and stir together until combined. Add pork broth and then lower heat to medium low. Simmer over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes or until reduced to your desired thickness, stirring occasionally. (Add the optional masa if you want more thickness).3-4 tablespoons enchilada spice blend, 3 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 cups pork broth, 1 tablespoon masa harina, kosher salt
- Cool the sauce a little and puree in the blender. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate if not ready to assemble tamales. The sauce may be made up to 2 days ahead; keep refrigerated until ready to assemble tamales.
Directions to make the masa (dough):
- In a deep bowl, combine the masa, baking powder, and salt. Pour the broth into the masa a little at a time, working it all in with your fingers.4 cups masa harina, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 2/3 cups pork broth
- In a mixer or small bowl (I used a stand mixer with the paddle attachment), whip the leaf lard 1 to 2 minutes on medium-high speed until fluffy.1 1/3 cups lard
- Add the fluffy, beaten lard to the masa and combine together until the dough has a spongy texture (it will be light and fairly wet – you would not be able to roll it out like pastry dough). I used my hands to mix the lard and masa together.
- If you want to get technical, you can test the masa by taking a small piece and dropping it into a cup of cold water. It should float. If it does not float, whip the masa for a few more minutes and test again. Sometimes adding a bit more broth during this second mixing will help.
- I added a little sauce (about 1/2 cup) to the tamale dough to flavor the dough and add color. Now remove the sauce and the shredded pork from the refrigerator and combine the two together. You may want to heat the mixture up a bit to make it easier to combine. This mixture is your tamale filling.
Directions to assemble the tamales:
- On clean surface, lay out soaked and drained corn husks, the bowl of masa mixture, the bowl of pork filling, a spoon or spatula (I used the spatula that comes with a rice cooker – just the right size). You can also purchase a tamale press like this one, but it's not necessary.
- Place husk smooth side up on work surface. Put about 2-3 tablespoons masa in center of husk and use spatula to spread it over 2/3 of the husk, leaving a 1/2 inch border at each edge.
- Put about 2 tablespoons of pork filling down the center of the masa, to about 1/2 inch from wide end.
- Fold pointed end of husk over about an inch in over the filling. Bring sides of husks toward center until masa edges meet. Seal masa at center seam, and bring husks back down flat.
- Fold pointed end of husk in to cover top of masa. Fold sides of husks in, overlapping each other and flip the tamale seam side down onto the counter or a plate. Repeat with rest of tamales.
- Twist open end of tamales and close with a tie if desired (either use pieces of husk torn lengthwise or use raffia), and tie tamale loosely to seal. It does not need to be perfectly folded to get excellent tamales, and it gets faster with practice. Enjoy the process!
- Watch the youtube video tutorial for detailed folding process. Sometimes it’s easier to watch someone do it rather than read about it.
Instructions for steaming tamales:
- Add water to bottom of a steamer pot so that it will fill just below the steamer insert. Place a penny in the bottom of the pot and bring to a boil. While steaming, if the penny stops jingling, add more water.
- Arrange tamales in the steamer basket so all tamales are standing mostly upright. Place lid on top of basket. Lower heat so that the penny continues to jingle- water will be a soft boil or simmer.
- Place steamer basket insert into pot. Allow to steam for 60 to 90 minutes.
- To test if the tamales are done, remove a tamale and replace the lid on the pot. Put the tamale on counter for a few minutes and then unwrap it. If it is ready, the masa will be set and will pull away from the corn husk easily.
- Let tamales rest for 5-10 minutes out of the pot, covered with a cloth before serving to allow masa to firm up.
- Serve tamales in their wrappers with extra sauce passed around the table.
Watch the Step by Step Video for More Details
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon smoked chile peppers
- 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground annatto powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 6 dried ancho peppers
- 3-5 dried chipotle peppers