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Authentic Mexican Tamale Recipe:
How to Make Perfect Tamales

The history behind the authentic Mexican tamale recipe makes this tasty dish very exciting. In order to make tamales, modern cooking techniques must take a backseat to traditional skills.
In the history of Mexican food, corn has long been staple... and nothing honors that history like flavorful corn tamales wrapped in corn husks and cooked to be eaten on the road. Tamales were actually some of the original "fast food," since their corn husk wrappers kept them warm and made them easy to carry.

All About Tamales

Homemade Mexican Tamales Authentic RecipeIn New Mexican and Mexican food, tamales are typically made with a corn masa dough and a filling of beans, meats, corn, or chiles and cooked over an open fire. Today, these little packages of perfection are simply steamed in their corn husk wrapper. The wrappings provide a portable device for the filling and add a little flavor. Tamales can be considered the Mexican version of a sandwich and are open to many interpretations.

What Makes Tamales Special? An authentic Mexican tamale recipe is unique because of its soft tamale corn masa, which is made by "nixtamalization," a interesting process of mixing field corn with wood ash or lime to soften the corn. This process causes the corn to be easier to grind, and also, amazingly, makes the tamales healthier: it increases the body's ability to absorb the corn's nutrition.

chiliesHint: When you talk about tamales, the plural of the word is, of course, "tamales." But a single one isn't a tamale, it's a tamal! If you want to show off a bit of your knowledge of Mexican culture, it's good to use the right --and rarely used-- word for a single tamal!

Making your Authentic Mexican Tamales Recipe: Get Help!

Tamales are easy to make, but wrapping all of those individual little bundles can take a lot of time. The solution for getting all of the tamales made without having to spend all day? Get some friends and family come over and help with the filling and wrapping. Make tamales a tradition! Sometimes these family gatherings form fond memories for childhood and become a symbol those less-rushed days spent together as a family.

Making Them Ahead of Time. To make things even easier, you may want to consider making some elements, like your filling, ahead of time. Assembling the filling for your authentic Mexican tamales recipe will not only save you time and effort on the day, it'll also allow your flavors to mix and combine and become richer as the tamales sit.

Homemade Mexican tamales also improve in texture when cooked a day or two ahead and allowed to sit. It's actually the best way to make them! Just steam them 15 to 20 minutes before serving. This makes it a lot easier to make tamales for an authentic Mexican dinner or party!

THE Classic Authentic Mexican Tamale Recipe

What makes tamales, New Mexican food, and Mexican food in general so fun to make is the sheer variety of flavors, fillings, and ingredients you can use. Want to make a chicken tamale recipe? You can do that. Prefer a beef or pork version, or want to make them vegetarian with roasted chiles and onions? You can do that, too.

But it all starts with a standard corn masa recipe for tamales. So the best way to go about making this authentic Mexican tamale recipe? Do your masa, and choose your fillings, whether it be one filling for a single type of tamale, or three fillings for a fun variety for your authentic Mexican dinner menu.

In a truly authentic Mexican tamale recipe, the masa will be made with a good quality pork lard. That's how I make them at home. But if the idea of lard bothers you, don't sweat it. Use vegetable shortening instead.

Makes 25-30 Tamales.

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25-30 dry corn husks, plus more for steaming
1 Recipe for Tamal Filling of Your Choice (see below)

Tamale Masa (Dough) Ingredients:

3 1/2 C. Masa Harina (find this in Mexican groceries or specialty shops)
2 1/4 C. Hot Water
1 to 1 1/2 C. chicken broth (as needed)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. salt
10 oz. pork lard (or vegetable shortening)

Instructions for Dough: 1. In a large bowl, combine the hot water and masa harina.

2. In a separate large bowl, beat together the lard/shortening, salt, and baking powder with an electric mixer on med-high. Beat one minute, or until fluffy.

3. Add the masa/water mix in three additions, beating between each addition.

4. Reduce mixer to med-low, and beat in one cup of chicken broth. Beat for about one minute.

5. Beat in the remaining chicken broth, up to 1/2 C., until your dough resembles a soft but not runny muffin batter. Refrigerate until ready to use with the filling of your choice. If you refrigerate an hour or more, you can mix in a little more broth if the dough stiffens too much.

Remember, an authentic Mexican tamale recipe can have a ton of different fillings. At the bottom of this page, you'll find a few recipes for tamale fillings. Next? Assembling Mexican tamales!

Instructions for Assembling and Cooking Mexican Tamales

Got your authentic Mexican tamale recipe for your favorite filling(s) (you'll find three recipes below!) and your corn masa dough ready? It's time to assemble your tamales!

Instructions for Assembling Mexican Tamales:

1. Place your corn husks in a wide bowl and cover them with warm water. You should weight the husks down with a bowl. Soak husks a few hours, until pliable and then store in a plastic bag. Husks have a narrow end, a wide end and two straight edges.

2. Cut a few smaller pieces into long and narrow strips to act as ties for the tamales. Store these in a bag. If you don't feel like doing this, you can also use sting to make your life easier. It won't make this any less of an authentic Mexican tamale recipe.

3. Work on a flat surface to construct the tamale. Lay a husk out flat with the tapered end facing you.

Assembling homemade tamales looks more or less like this:

How to make homemade tamales, applying masa dough

4. Place about 1/4 cup of masa dough in the middle of the husk. Spread the dough into about a 4" square. Leave at least 1 1/2 to 2 inches (or much more) of dough-less border on the side of the husk facing you, and about 3/4 inch (or more) all around the other sides.

Adding filling to your homemade chicken tamale recipe

5. Evenly distribute 1-2 tbsp of the tamal filling of your choice in the middle of the dough.

Rolling the ends of your homemade mexican tamale recipe together

6. Pick up the two long sides of the husk and gently bring them together. The edges of the dough should meet. Tuck one of these ends (the smaller end if one is smaller) under the other and wrap the other end around as far as it goes.

Folding in the bottom of your authentic mexican tamale recipe

7. Fold the end facing you (the tapered end with the big border) up against the tamal. Tie it in place with husk or string, wrapping the string around the tamal/folded end and tying securely.

8. Place tamales on their bottoms (the tops are left open) in a steamer (do this as you make them).

Instructions for Steaming Mexican Tamales:

STeaming homemade tamales in a steamer
1. Pack tamales tightly in a steamer and cover top with corn husks. Cover tightly and steam the tamales in a large steamer at about a medium heat for 90 minutes (can take longer for larger tamales). Do not let the tamales touch the water or the dough will get soggy.

2. If the water boils away, add more by pouring boiling water into the bottom of the pan.

3. This authentic Mexican tamale recipe is done when the husk pulls away easily from the masa.

Cooking and Reheating. Your tamales can be eaten immediately, if you like. But to make them even better, eat them leftover: let them cool completely, then re-steam for about 15 to 20 minutes before serving. This gives you the best texture.

Is all this a lot of work? Yes! But an authentic Mexican tamale recipe is worth the time to do right!

Now read on for ideas for Mexican tamale fillings.

3 Authentic Tamale Filling Recipes

Your fillings for an authentic Mexican tamale recipe are going to be a mixture of very tender meats with spices and other ingredients. This filling is then incorporated into the tamal with the masa mixture. The three recipes below are for a pork, beef, or chicken tamale recipe. But you can use any filling you like! Some more ideas for Mexican tamale fillings are:

  • Strips of Roasted Pepper with Garlic and Onions
  • Sweet Corn
  • Sweet Potato Puree with Pecans (for a Mexican dessert)
  • Black Beans, Onions, Cilantro, Garlic, Peppers
  • Beans, Onions, Cilantro, and Monterrey Jack Cheese
  • Shrimp, Crab, and/or Lobster with Cream Cheese, Garlic, and Cilantro

Or use on or more of the great authentic Mexican tamale recipes for fillings below. Or if you already have your filling, check above to learn how to assemble your tamales!

Red Chile Pork Tamale Filling Recipe/Enchilada Sauce

Pork TamaleThese is an authentic Mexican tamale recipe at its most authentic! This red chile pork filling is what tamales are all about... it's rich, it's flavorful, it's tender, it's spicy... it's heaven.

When you're looking for real homemade Mexican tamales, this is the recipe you're looking for. For the dried chilies for the red sauce, you'll want to use Anaheim, New Mexico, or Pasilla chilies. This recipe gives instructions for making your own pork, but you can also use leftover shredded pork if you like, or cook the meat in the slow cooker for a crock pot tamale filling.

Note: This wonderful red sauce can also be used as an enchilada sauce! So make extra if you want to-- it's worth it! Any enchiladas made with this sauce are to die for!

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Ingredients for Pork Filling:

3 1/2 lbs. pork butt or shoulder, trimmed and cubed
10 C. cold water
1 lg. onion, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 1/2 tsp. salt

15 large dried red chilies, stems and seeds removed
5 large cloves garlic
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. flour
2 tsp. olive oil
Hot water, as needed

Instructions: 1. In a large stock pot or dutch oven, combine pork, water, onion, and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer, tightly covered, about 2 1/2 hours. Meat should be very tender. (You can also do this all day in the slow cooker, if you like.)

2. Drain meat (reserve the broth for use in your masa harina dough, if you like), allow meat to cool slightly, and shred.

3. While meat is cooking, prepare the sauce. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roast dried chilies about 3-5 minutes, til fragrant. Don't let them burn!

4. Place your chilies in a bowl and add enough hot water to cover them. Let them sit for about 30 minutes.

5. Place your chilies and about 2 1/2 cups of your soaking liquid into a blender or food processor. Add the garlic, cumin, and salt. Process until smooth.

6. In a saucepan, heat the oil. Add the flour and stir until mixture is browned. Whisk in your chile mixture and simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes, or until thickened slightly.

7. Stir in your shredded pork. Refrigerate this authentic Mexican tamale recipe until ready to use.

Hot Green Chile Chicken Tamale Recipe

While pork is probably the most famous and authentic Mexican tamale recipe filling, this chicken recipe may just be the most popular. It's tender, it's fresh, and it's full of flavor. As a bonus, you can simply buy and use the meat from a rotisserie chicken, if you like. It'll make your life a little easier.

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Pork or Chicken Filling Ingredients:
1 lb. green tomatillos, husked and cleaned
4 jalapeños, seeded and stemmed (add less or more, your preference)
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 C. chicken broth
4 C. cooked, shredded chicken or cooked, shredded pork
2/3 C. chopped fresh cilantro
2 tsp. salt, or to taste

Instructions: 1. Husk and rinse the tomatillos. In a baking pan, roast them under a broiler until softened and blackened in spots, flipping once. Dump them into a food processor, along with any juices that leaked out during roasting.

2. Add garlic and jalapeños and process mixture until smooth.

3. Heat oil in a saucepan to med-high heat. Dump in the puree and cook about 5 minutes, until thickened and darkened. Stir in broth and cook over medium-high until thickened, at least 10 minutes. Mixture should be thick enough to coat a spoon thickly.

4. Add salt to taste. Stir in chicken and cilantro. Cool this authentic Mexican tamale recipe filling completely before using.

Beef Tamale Filling Recipe

While beef isn't the most common filling used in an authentic Mexican tamale recipe, it's a good option if your family doesn't like or doesn't eat pork. This recipe is easy to put together, and has a good combination of meat and vegetables.

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Beef Filling Ingredients:
3 C. slow cooked and shredded beef
7 large roasted chilies, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 white onion, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped (optional)
3 potatoes, cubed and boiled

Instructions: 1. Combine ingredients in a large mixing bowl and refrigerate until ready to use. Easy as that! The hard part will be assembling your authentic Mexican tamale recipe.

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