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Traditional Mexican Tamales

Course Main Course
Cuisine Mexican
Prep Time 4 hours
Cook Time 3 hours
Total Time 7 hours
Servings 10
Author Adriana Cantu


For chicken tamales filling:

  • 12-15 boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 8 oz (1 cup) of chicken broth
  • 4-5 cans Herdez salsa verde

For beans and cheese tamales filling:

  • 2-3 cans refried beans
  • 0.5-1 lb queso fresco or cotija cheese

For tamale masa:

  • 5 lb Maseca corn flour for tamales
  • 4-6 cups lard (or olive or coconut oil for vegetarian option. See notes)
  • 56 oz chicken broth (vegetable broth if you want to make it vegetarian)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 2 tbsp Mexican seasoning (I used Frontier Organic)
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 6-8 tsp baking powder
  • 6-8 tsp salt
  • 6-8 ancho chili peppers
  • 4-6 guajillo chili peppers

For wrapping:

  • 7 dozen corn husks


Preparation on the night before:

  1. Soak corn husks in warm water overnight. Take them out of water in the morning and set aside.

  2. Place chicken thighs in a crock pot, add a cup of chicken broth and set on low for 8 hours. Note: if you are using a 32 oz carton of chicken broth, you will need to add a quarter of it to the crock pot.

Making the chicken filling:

  1. Pull out the chicken thighs from the crock pot and if you have a kitchen aid mixer – do yourself a favor and toss them in there with the paddle and turn it on at level 3 for about a minute and voila! You’ve got shredded chicken in under one minute. Set the broth from the crock pot aside.

Making the masa:

  1. This is for a batch at a time. The batch is whatever I found able to fit in my kitchen aid mixer so you’ll have to remake this batch 3 to 4 different times depending on how full you fill the tamales.

    Strain the broth from the crock pot to get all those bits of leftover chicken fat and little chunks out of the broth. Pour it into a large pot, add another 24 oz (3 cups) of broth and set over medium heat. Note: if you are using a 32 oz carton of chicken broth, add the remaining ¾ of the carton (you used ¼ for chicken thighs the night before).

  2. Cut the chili peppers open and take out all the seeds. It should be easy since they are dried. Toss them into your broth on low/medium heat for 20 minutes or until simmering and low boil. Once it’s simmering turn off the heat and pull the peppers out. Add them to a blender with about a cup of the broth. Add the Mexican spices, paprika, a quartered onion, and an entire bulb of garlic. Blend until smooth but thick. Add 1 more cup of broth and blend again. Set aside. Note: this amount of chili sauce is enough for all 3-4 batches of masa.

  3. Add 1 ¼ cup of lard to your kitchen aid mixer and whip for a couple of minutes. (If you are making vegetarian/vegan tamales - use coconut oil or olive oil that has been kept in the freezer for a few days). Make sure you clear whatever sticks to the paddle and whip it. You can use any other mixer if you’d like but I’ve only ever used a kitchen aid.

  4. In a bowl mix 4 cups of corn flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder and 2 teaspoons of salt. Set aside.

  5. Add 1 cup of broth and ½ cup of the chili mixture to your whipped lard and stir in (do not turn on mixer) about one or two stirs, just to incorporate. Add corn flour mixture and stir a couple more times. Then start the mixer at level 3. Once masa looks mixed and has nice light orange color, take a pinch and drop it into a cup of water. If it floats, it’s ready!

  6. Scoop the masa out of the bowl and onto a cutting board to easily spread onto the corn husk.

  7. Before starting make sure that you repeat this 2 to 3 more times so you have all your masa ready to go. 

Assembling tamales and cooking tamales:

  1. Try to set up a station right away. Set your corn husks on a cutting board or large bowl in the center of a table. Put the chicken filling in a bowl and set on the table as well. Go ahead and set a bowl with salsa verde on the table too (at least 4 cans worth).

  2. You can get friends and family to help and set stations for different types of jobs (spreading masa, adding fillings, rolling) or everyone can work on making one tamal at a time.

  3. First you’ll grab a corn husk and feel the texture. The side that has the least ridges or that is smoother will be the side that you place the filling on. Using a spoon, your hands (wearing plastic gloves), or a tamale paddle (found at Fiesta grocery store) spread masa to your liking onto the leaf at the widest point. Make sure you leave the narrow part clear as this will be your tail and you’ll be folding it in. Once it is spread, use your hands or a spoon to grab some chicken, again as much or as little as you’d like. Add a spoonful of salsa verde and then roll it together: similar to swaddling a baby or a burrito. The tail should then be folded up and back. If you want tamales to look pretty, tear a long string off of a corn husk and use it to tie a bow around your tamal. It will help to hold the tail. Plus it looks fancy. Set aside and repeat until you have a nice giant pile of tamales.

  4. For vegetarian option, repeat all the steps described above, but fill tamales with refried beans and a slice of queso fresco instead of chicken and salsa verde.

  5. You’ll need a tamalera to put the tamales in but if you are making a smaller batch just use a pot shallow enough to hold a steaming basket and tamales standing upright. If you’re using a tamalera place an empty small bowl or cup in the center and start adding your tamales clockwise with open end up. The bowl or cup will act as the centerpiece and will help tamales to stand upright. Work your way around until they are tight and together. Keep growing your pyramid so that they stack upwards.

  6. Let tamales steam for 3 to 4 hours and make sure your water doesn’t run out. You can tell if you don’t see steam rising up. If this happens add about 6 to 8 cups of water. Let them steam on medium heat and add a cup or two of water after about 2 hours.

  7. You know they’re done when the masa doesn’t stick to the cornhusk. Eat immediately or freeze for up to 6 months!

  8. To prepare tamales after they’ve been frozen you can use either of three options: heat them in the microwave oven, bake them in the oven or fry them on a pan.

Recipe Notes

Purchasing the items for tamales is difficult and depends on availability. Living in Texas makes shopping for these ingredients a little easier but even then I had to go to Fiesta, a grocery store in Austin known for carrying food items typically found and sold in Mexico or border towns. This recipe will make 5 to 7 dozen tamales.